Lord Tennyson never wrote a poem more beautiful than that of his life; it was an unbroken song, set to music by his wife. The story of their courtship and marriage reads like a romance. Here is the first scene of it.
The Lady of the Fairy Wood
A young poet, twenty-one years old, is walking with his dreams in a wood near his home. Even the wood is not like an ordinary one. It is called the Fairy Wood. At a turn in the path he stops suddenly. His eyes are fixed on a vision which so resembles one of his dreams that he can hardly believe it is a reality. A young girl is coming towards him. She is tall and slender, dressed in a soft grey gown, her fair hair smooth and shining above?a pale face, her blue eyes steadfast and gentle, her features as delicate, fine, and spiritual as if carved out of some translucent gem. If she were alone, the poet would almost take her for a moonbeam lost in daylight; but with her is the friend who has filled his life so far. Evidently, then, she is real; but still he is doubtful. His first words to her are, "Are you a Dryad or an Oread wandering here?"
After this unconventional beginning, there is a long pause. He seldom sees her, being occupied with his poetry. Then his beloved friend dies, and for a while his own life goes into darkness. Such friendships are themselves rare in a prosaic world. Only a man of noble soul could be, or have, such a friend.
The poet tries to find solace in work, but his sorrow cries out even there. "In Memoriam" is so full of grief, its writer himself remains so despondent, that three years after Hallam's death Tennyson's friends are beginning to despair of his ever being happy again. Not that he mopes, or makes of himself an egoist in whom the whole world, in his estimation, centres. He is quite ready to join in the concerns of his family, and even to be groomsman at his brother's wedding.
The chief bridesmaid is the bride's sister. Of course the chief groomsman leads her into church. And, lo, she is the lady of the Fairy Wood, six years older, six years more beautiful. The poet looks at her, looks again, and yet again, and when he goes home he writes a little poem: "O happy bridesmaid, make a happy bride." And after that there could but be one ending.
Poets are proverbially poor, and Tennyson was no exception. The lady of the Fairy Wood was the daughter of a solicitor, and solicitors are proverbially common-sensible. Nor was Mr. Sellwood an exception to that rule. You may have a daughter who is taken by dreamy poets for a Dryad, but still, that daughter must be clothed and fed.
After four years of happy courtship, the engagement was broken off. Mr. Sellwood insisted reluctantly, but firmly, that the correspondence must cease until Tennyson had enough money on which to marry. The poet's mother longed to help; she offered to divide her jointure with her son. Both he and Miss Sellwood refused to hear of it.
For ten years they only heard of each other through Tennyson's sister and brother. For ten years they remained unswervingly constant. Tennyson worked hard, urged by the most powerful of incentives; but he would not forsake poetry for any more commercial occupation, nor consent to shame his vocation by working at another occupation, leaving his poems to spare hours and fatigued energies.
It was a long waiting time, but it had its reward. In 1850, Moxon, the publisher, promised Tennyson a yearly royalty on "In Memoriam," and advanced 300. Both Miss Sellwood and Tennyson had a small private income. Mr. Sellwood promised to furnish their house for them. In fine, they both went to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Rawnsley at Shiplake.
One can imagine the hopes and fears with which they met, after ten years of silence and separation; the dread that invaded each heart of finding the other changed, or having changed oneself.
But the poem was to continue. They were married in Shiplake church in June, 1850. It was a very quiet ceremony; even the cake and the wedding dresses arrived too late. Tennyson said it was "the nicest wedding he had ever been at." Everybody was very happy, and, driving away with his wife afterwards, the poet wrote his thanks to the clergyman who had married them:
" Sweetly, smoothly flow your life, Never tithe unpaid perplex you,
Parish feud or party strife,
All things please you, nothing vex you,
You have given me such a wife! '
It was in Arthur Hallam's company that she had first stepped into the poet's life in the Fairy Wood; she was the salvation of him when his sorrow for his friend's death had cast him into the depths; and 'in Memoriam," his monument to that friend's memory, was published in the very month they were married. So it was fitting that on their honeymoon they went first to Hallam's grave. "It seemed a kind of consecration to go there."
"Such a Wife!"
So began the forty years they spent together in closest companionship and perfect unity of spirit. "Such a wife!" he called her an hour or two after they were married. "This is the noblest woman I have ever known," he said of her on the honeymoon. "I am proud of her intellect," was another tribute.
When the present Lord Tennyson was born, the poet wrote on the same day to two different friends: "I have seen beautiful things in my life, but I never saw anything more beautiful than the mother's face as she lay by the young child an hour or two after "; and " I never saw any face so radiant with all high and sweet expression as hers when I saw her some time after."
Later still, he wrote of this exquisite woman: "The peace of God came into my life before the altar when I wedded her."
Her influence is in all his poems, because she was his chosen critic. He not only showed her his work as soon as it was finished, and took her opinion, and only hers, before its publication, but talked over his conceptions with her, and revealed to her the progress of his poems. In the dedication to her of one of his volumes, he calls her " dear, near, and true." Her son wrote of her after her death that she had always been to his father "a ready, cheerful, courageous, wise, and sympathetic counsellor."
A Life of Poetry
For the last forty years of her life she was very delicate, and seldom left her couch. She habitually dressed very simply in grey, with fine lace over her hair, and one visitor said there was something almost mediaeval in her appearance. She had an invalid chair, in which she was frequently taken out, until her health became too delicate, and in the Isle of Wight it was a usual thing to see her, frail and beautiful, her two exquisite boys, one very fair, the other very dark, harnessed to her chair, and the poet pushing it, with his flowing cloak and broad-brimmed hat, his long hair blowing in the wind, as often as not reciting some poem in his deep, melodious voice.
He had his moods, like all poets. She always divined them. When he was depressed, she cheered him; when he was in sorrow, she comforted him. She had a deep faith, and her religion was the fountain of good for all about her. For the affairs of everyday she had a delightful sense of humour, which made worries lighter and pleasant things more delicious.
She stood, delicate as she was, between her husband and everything that could wound him. His enormous correspondence she took over and dealt with. She was an ideal hostess to his friends, and made hospitality a fine art; but she was also as fond of solitude as he was.
Before her health gave way, she worked in the garden with him. When her boys were born, she suffered much from sleeplessness, but Tennyson mesmerised her, and beneath his touch she fell into saving sleep.
In fact, she and he lived a poem which no poet could write. She met his needs at all points, and used her own exceptional powers entirely in his service. Dr. Butler, Master of Trinity, said that her sofa seemed to him a kind of sanctuary, from which issued words of patriotism and fearlessness and faith.
In spite of her ill-health, she survived her husband four years, and those she occupied in helping her son to write the Life of his father. One of her last sayings was that she was glad she had lived long enough to see the proofs through the press.
The Death of Tennyson
At Tennyson's funeral, the music of "The Silent Voices" was the work of Lady Tennyson. That is typical of her. She was the music to all that was best in him. His last words were a blessing on her. She was to him an elixir of youth. Was there ever another man of eighty-one who could write such a dedication as that of "Aenone"? It is, perhaps, the highest tribute he ever paid her, for it showed how bright and clear she had kept the fire within him.
"There on the top of the down,
The wild heather round me and over me June's high blue, When I looked at the bracken so bright and the heather so brown, I thought to myself I would offer this book to you, This, and my love together,
To you that are seventy-seven, With a faith as clear as the heights of the June-blue heaven, And a fancy as summer-new As the green of the bracken amid the gloom of the heather."