Knight's Reminiscences of Tennyson

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Alfred Tennyson

ALFRED TENNYSON
From a photograph from life

William Knight, a celebrated Scotch professor and the great expounder of the life and poetry of Wordsworth, in 1890 spent two days with Tennyson at Farringford. In an English magazine he has published his reminiscence of that visit. After relating the feelings of respect and the reverential sentiment with which he approached the place he says: "In the avenue leading to the house, the spreading trees just opening into leaf, with spring flowers around and beneath—yellow cowslips and blue forget-me-nots—and the song of birds in the branches overhead, seemed a fitting prelude to all that followed. Shortly after I was seated in the ante-room, the poet's son appeared, and, as his father was engaged, he said, 'Come and see my mother.' We went into the drawing-room, where the old lady was reclining on a couch. Immediately the lines beginning 'Such age, how beautiful' came into mind. No one could ever forget his first sight of Lady Tennyson, her graciousness, and the radiant though fragile beauty of old age. Both her eye and her voice had an inexpressible charm. She inquired with much interest for the widow of one of my colleagues at the University, who used formerly to live in the island, close to Farringford, and whose family were friends as well as near neighbors. Soon afterwards Tennyson entered, and almost at once proposed that we should go out of doors. After a short stroll on the lawn under the cedars, we went into the 'careless ordered garden,' walked round it, and then sat down in the small summer-house. It is a quaint rectangular garden, sloping to the west, where nature and art blend happily,—orchard trees, and old-fashioned flower-beds, with stately pines around, giving to it a sense of perfect rest. This garden is truly a 'haunt of ancient peace.' Left there alone with the bard for some time, I felt that I sat in the presence of one of the Kings of Men. His aged look impressed me. There was the keen eagle eye, and, although the glow of youth was gone, the strength of age was in its place. The lines in his face were like the furrows in the stem of a wrinkled oak-tree, but his whole bearing disclosed a latent strength and nobility, a reserve of power, combined with a most courteous grace of manner. I was also struck by the negligé air of the man, so different from that of Browning or Arnold or Lowell....

"We talked much of the sonnet. He thought the best in the language were Milton's, Shakspere's, and Wordsworth's; after these three those by his own brother Charles. He said, 'I at least like my brother's next to those by the "three immortals."' ...

"He had no great liking, he said, for arranging the poets in a hierarchy. He found so much that surpassed him in different ways in all the great ones; but he thought that Homer, Æschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakspere, and Goethe,—these seven,—were the greatest of the great, up to the year 1800. They are not all equal in rank, and even in the work of that heptarchy of genius, there were trivial things to be found....

"Just at this stage of our talk Mrs. Hallam Tennyson, Mrs. Douglas Freshfield, and her daughter came up the garden-walk to the summer-house. Miss Freshfield wore a hat on which was an artificial flower, a lilac-branch. It at once caught Tennyson's eye. There was a lilac-tree in bloom close at hand, and he said, 'What is that you are wearing? It's a flowery lie, it's a speaking mendacity.' He asked how she could wear such a thing in the month of May! We rose from the bower, and all went down the garden-walk to see the fig-tree at the foot of it, and sundry other things at the western entrance-door, where Miss Kate Greenaway was painting. We returned along a twisting alley under the rich green foliage of elms and ilexes....

"Listening to the wind in the trees and the sound of running water—although it was the very tiniest of rillets—led us away from philosophy, and he talked of Sir Walter Scott, characterizing him as the greatest novelist of all time. He said, 'What a gift it was that Scotland gave to the world in him. And your Burns! He is supreme amongst your poets.' He praised Lockhart's Life of Scott, as one of the finest of biographies; and my happening to mention an anecdote of Scott from that book led to our spending the greater part of the rest of our walk in the telling of stories. Tennyson was an admirable storyteller. He asked me for some good Scotch anecdotes, and I gave him some, but he was able to cap each of them with a better one of his own—all of which he told with arch humor and simplicity.

"He then told some anecdotes of a visit to Scotland. After he had left an inn in the island of Skye, the landlord was asked, 'Did he know who had been staying in his house? It was the poet Tennyson.' He replied, 'Lor', to think o' that! and sure I thoucht he was a shentleman!' Near Stirling the same remark was made to the keeper of the hotel where he had stayed. 'Do you ken who you had wi' you t' other night?' 'Naa, but he was a pleesant shentleman.' 'It was Tennyson, the poet.' 'An' what may he be?' 'Oh, he is the writer o' verses such as you see i' the papers.' 'Noo, to think o' that, jest a pooblic writer, an' I gied him ma best bedroom!' Of Mrs. Tennyson, however, the landlord remarked, 'Oh, but she was an angel!'

"I have said that the conversational power of Tennyson struck me quite as much as his poetry had done for forty years. To explain this I must compare it with that of some of his contemporaries. It was not like the meteoric flashes and fireworks of Carlyle's talk, which sometimes dazzled as much as it instructed, and it had not that torrent-rush in which Carlyle so often indulged. It was far more restrained. It had neither the continuousness nor the range of Browning's many-sided conversation, nor did it possess the charm of the ethereal visionariness of Newman's. It lacked the fullness and consummate sweep of Mr. Buskin's talk, and it had neither the historic range and brilliance of Dean Stanley's, nor the fascinating subtlety—the elevation and the depth combined—of that of the late F.D. Maurice. But it was clear as crystal, and calm as well as clear. It was terse and exact, precise and luminous. Not a word was wasted and every phrase was suggestive. Tennyson did not monopolize conversation. He wished to know what other people thought, and therefore to hear them state it, that he might understand their position and ideas. But in all his talk on great problems, he at once got to their essence, sounding their depths with ease, or, to change the illustration, he seized the kernel, and let the shell and fragments alone. There was a wonderful simplicity allied to his clear vision and his strength. He was more child-like than the majority of his contemporaries, and along with this there was—what I have already mentioned—a great reserve of power. His appreciation of other workers belonging to his time was remarkable. Neither he nor Browning disparaged their contemporaries, as Carlyle so often did, when he spotted their weaknesses, and put them in the pillory. From first to last, Tennyson seemed to look sympathetically on all good works, and he had a special veneration for the strong silent thinkers and workers.

"Tennyson appreciated the work of Darwin and Spencer far more than Carlyle did, and many of the ideas and conclusions of modern science are to be found in his poetry. Nevertheless he knew the limitation of science, and he held that it was the noble office of poetry, philosophy, and religion combined to supplement and finally to transcend it."