Growing Up With Tennyson: How The Text Takes Us Higher
When I was twelve, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the legendary bookshops of the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. For £5, I purchased an ancient copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poetry, published in 1883, nine years before his death.
What a world of wonder it opened up to me! It may have even changed my life.
On one of the front pages, spotted with yellow patches of age, I found an inscription identifying the book's first owner: "To Lilian Henderson from the Parents of the Infant School of S. Mark's South Teddington in token of their love and appreciation of her kindness to their children. Jan 31. 1884." How this excited me! Well over a century before, this woman had held my book in her own hands and loved it when it was new and the golden gilt edges still shone. In my imagination, I created Lilian Henderson. She had dark hair and spoke with a soft voice and wore plain white dresses edged with lace.
Inside her book, I found little slips of verse and a penciled list of titles with their corresponding page numbers. Lilian, I was sure, had written these. I read them over and over, and I carefully worked through her list of what I assumed were recommended titles, prepared to like each one right from the start, reading them like a prospector hunting for gold.
The other slips of paper, those with the excerpts of poetry, planted themselves in my mind and, thirteen years later, I still think of them sometimes. One piece had two neat little maxims penned with great care. I was fascinated by the appearance of the writing. The effect of the inked dip pen on the page was startling and glorious to me, and looking back now, I think my first love for old-fashioned ink lettering was kindled in me that very day.
On the back of this sheet, Lilian (so I like to think) had written out a quatrain from "Lady Clara Vere de Vere." I didn't have ready internet access at the time, so I didn't know the origin of the verse until I discovered it myself in the poem. What fun that was! What a thrill of discovery! The text reads:
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.
At the time, I had yet no notion of the tempting lures of classism and snobbery that would come to afflict me later. But I hid these lines away in my heart and they came back to me just this week to shed light and wisdom on a present struggle.
And this, after all, is why I do what I do. It's why I love to create art out of words that have the power of truth behind them. Because when these words are duly ingested and have truly saturated our hearts, I do believe they are weapons in the good fight of everyday life. It's as Charlotte Mason wrote in Towards A Philosophy of Education: "I heard the other day of a man whose whole life had been elevated by a single inspiring (poetic) sentence which he heard as a schoolboy."
That's real. The text can take us higher. I believe it because it happens to me.
For the rest of my stay in Great Britain, I devoured Tennyson voraciously from this historic volume. I had always enjoyed reading, and had read some of Tennyson already, but the experience of stumbling through pages of blank verse that I knew to be intended for adults was a new kind of challenge. It made me feel grown up and I was eager to rise to the occasion and demonstrate that I could enjoy this book as it was meant to be enjoyed and as thousands of other Victorian Britons (including Lilian) had, I presumed, enjoyed it.
I read the easy ones, like "The Lady of Shallot," "The Brook," "Alymer's Field," "Marianna in the South," "Break break break," and Lady Clare," (not the same as Lady Clara Vere de Vere. I know, so confusing.) I tried to read "The Princess," although I understood it not a whit. I even struggled through pages and pages of "In Memoriam." On the plane back to the Middle East, where my family was living at the time, I tried to hide my tears over "Rizpah" and "In The Children's Hospital." And in a cold drizzle in the Welsh countryside, sheltering the book with my jacket, I read a poem that would affect me so much I would write about the experience later in my own first poetry collection.
To contemporary readers, "Enoch Arden" might seem to be trying too hard. The story of a sailor who is lost at sea and returns home after many years to find that his devoted wife has finally given him up for dead and remarried his childhood rival may not sound to us like a fresh plot or a new idea. But reading the story at twelve, still inexperienced both in life and in fiction, I was captivated by the pathos and tragedy of the characters. I was desperate for a resolution, for a happy ending, and genuinely disappointed when I realized that the loss in the story was going to be permanent, that there was not going to be any way out. However, I was able to grasp some little part of what Enoch's character champions at the end of the story when he chooses not to reveal himself to his wife and her new husband but dies alone, blessing them with his last words and taking comfort that he will soon join their child whose death in infancy had been a great blow.
It doesn't sound original, perhaps, but this woeful story in blank verse moved my heart so deeply and stirred me to value and adore silent, self-denying heroism, an attribute all too easily forgotten in this era of fanfare and self-promotion. "Enoch Arden" talked to me and it made me better. It talked to me because I had no smartphone to fill up my spare minutes, no little red notifications to distract me from the book in my hands and the great outdoors around me. Because of that, I made connections with words that would stick with me always, and with a woman who lived over a hundred years ago and was kind to the children of the Infant School at St. Mark's, South Teddington.
I have yet to mention the Tennyson poem that has been with me the longest. Even before I bought Lilian Henderson's book in the little Welsh shop, I had memorized one of Tennyson's most famous pieces in school and copied it out in my best hand-writing on lined paper. I had been given the option to pick a poem to memorize, and the one I chose was "Crossing The Bar." Yes, I chose it in part because it was shorter than many of the other options. (Although, to be fair, it's certainly longer than "Flower In The Crannied Wall." So there's that.) But also, it held a strange fascination for me. I had only a vague idea of what was being conveyed, and was certainly thrown off by phrases like, "from out our bourne of Time and Place," and "such a tide as moving seems asleep," but I just disregarded these odd lines and stuck to what I understood.
I knew that in this poem, Tennyson compares death to a sandbar that separates a ship from the ocean, and hints at his hope of encountering God (the "Pilot") on the other side of death. This seemed sublime to me, and while I wanted Tennyson to take a bit of a lighter tone and be a little bit more reassuring and less darkly mysterious, I was, on the whole, well satisfied with my choice. Lilian too, it seems, was a fan. "Crossing The Bar" was only poem she wrote out in its entirety and stowed away between the pages of her copy of Tennyson.
It has been something like seventeen years since then. I now know why Tennyson said, "Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark!" I know why he said he "hoped," to see the Pilot, not that he "would" see Him. Like most of the great thinkers and writers in the Victorian age, Tennyson grappled with faith all throughout his life and at times seems to have been overwhelmed by doubt. But the words he wrote in honor of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam in "In Memoriam," are perhaps equally applicable to their author:
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
Later in his life, Tennyson wrote, "The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him…[He is] that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us." Before his death, he told his son Hallam that he wanted "Crossing The Bar" to appear at the end of all future editions of his poetry.
At last he beat his music out.
[NOTE: I've tried to find records of Lilian Henderson, but haven't been successful so far. If anyone out there knows anything about her, her family, life, or connections, I'd love to hear from you!]