Mrs. Tennyson, The Poet's Mother
By Louise Lederer
The Mother of a Great Man also Must be Great - The Home of Tennyson's Childhood - The Poet's
Love and Reverence for His Mother - What he Owed to Her
It is a fact not sufficiently taken note of that a great man's mother must of necessity have been a very remarkable woman. This inevitably escapes notice until the great man has made his mark. His genius, by developing in a particular and decided way, marks him as one of the elect; while the mother, possessing a leavening of a great many qualities which in his case have taken so remarkable a turn, invites our attention only by reflected glory.
A Remarkable and Saintly Woman
It is acknowledged by all the biographers of the Poet Laureate who were fortunate enough to know him well that his mother's influence was deep and abiding. In " The Life and Work of Tennyson," by his son, Hallam, Lord Tennyson tells us that in the poem " Isabel " Alfred Tennyson Ascribes his mother, who was a remarkable and saintly woman.
Edward Fitzgerald calls her "the most innocent and tender-hearted lady he ever saw, who devotes herself entirely to her husband and children." When reading the poem "Isabel," we can readily understand the deep veneration the poet had for his mother.
The world hath not another
(Though all her fairest forms are types of thee,
And thou of God in thy great charity)
Of such a finished chastened purity.
Hallam, Lord Tennyson tells an amusing anecdote of her which is worth quoting here. "She had been among the beauties of the county. When she was almost eighty, a daughter, under cover of her deafness, ventured to mention the number of offers of marriage which had been made to her mother, naming twenty-four. Suddenly, to the amusement of all present, the old lady said emphatically and quite simply, as for truth's sake, ' No, my dear, twenty-five.' She had a great sense of humour, which made her room a paradise for the children. From her they inherited her love of animals and her pity for all wounded things." .
Mrs. Tennyson, whose maiden name was Elisabeth Fytche - the Fytches are a county family of old descent - was the daughter of the vicar of the neighbouring town of Louth. She married the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson, who was then rector of the parish of Somersby, a village in Lincolnshire containing at that time less than one hundred inhabitants.
Mrs. Anne Thackeray Ritchie gives a rather interesting description of both husband and wife which makes it possible for us to picture to ourselves the two people whose influence was paramount on Alfred Tennyson's early life. The Rev. George Tennyson was, she writes, "a man of energetic character, remarkable for his great strength and stature, and of various talents - something of a painter, poet, architect, and musician, and also a considerable linguist and mathematician."
A Beautiful Invalid
Mrs. Tennyson she describes as "a sweet and gentle and most imaginative woman, so kind-hearted that it had passed into a proverb, and the wicked inhabitants of a neighbouring village used to bring their dogs to her window to beat them in order to be bribed to leave off by the gentle lady, or to make advantageous bargains by selling her the worthless curs. Mrs. Tennyson was intensely, fervently religious, as a poet's mother should be."
Alfred Tennyson was born, the fourth of eight brothers - he also had four sisters-on August 6, 1809, at Somersby. All the children were hand-some and talented, and were educated by their clever father. But it was the mother who was the best teacher, after all. She was a little woman who had beautiful dark eyes and hair. When her large family grew up her health failed, and she used to go about the lanes;and roads of Somersby in a chair usually drawn by a big dog. She was always surrounded by her family, the boys and girls adoring their mother, who was often reading to them, and discussing with them what she had read.
Charles Tennyson Turner, one of the poet's brothers - who took the name of Turner on coming into an inheritance - told Canon Drummond Rawnsley, when showing him a portrait of their* mother, "we always as boys turned to her for encouragement. We had the greatest reverence for my father's learning, and he used to tell us to mind our books, but said that we could never get bread by such stuff as our poetry. But my mother delighted in our work; would, when we were out for our walk with her, read her favourite poems-beattie's 'calendar,' I remember, was one of them - to us. I think I can see her now, waiting with us on the road for the carrier from Louth to come over Tetford Hill, bringing the proofs of our first book of poems for correction."
From the portrait at Aldworth, painted by G. F. IValts, R.a. Reproduced by kind permissioti of Lord Tennyson
This is indeed a delightful word-picture. It shows us the kindly lady, who devoutly believed in the cleverness of her children, and waited as anxiously as they for these wonderful first proofs, than which there is no joy greater for the budding writer. And such absolute belief is necessary for a sensitive soul like Alfred Tennyson's. To him environment meant more than to anyone else. He responded to his mother's delicate yet strong influence with an appreciation which belongs to a poetic mind. This responsiveness is the mission of the poet, who is a prophet beholding affairs of men with superior insight. He reflects the thoughts and passions of his day as future generations will see them. As Mrs. Browning says, the poet is the only truth-teller left to God. His soul must be much more tenderly and delicately nurtured than his body. And his mother must be the strong support on which he can lean when doubts and perplexities assail him.
Throughout his long and glorious life the "eternal feminine" found one of her sweetest singers in him. Emancipation of women made little progress in Tennyson's day. He never contributed much to this end, but his ideas were certainly in advance of prevailing opinion. There is one respect, however, in which his view on womankind can never be excelled - that is, his reverential regard for her, and the ennobling and glorifying enthusiasm with which he treats the love of man and woman. That this is only what we should expect from Alfred Tennyson the foregoing sketch has shown us.
Cherchez la Mere
To the fortunate circumstance that his mother not only gave him life, but was allowed to mould his mind and character as well, we owe the greatest poet of our day; for it is the mother who moulds her child in the way he should go. The wife accepts a practically finished model. She cannot alter its essential shape. In the case of her children, however, the circumstances are very different. When seeking, therefore, to form a true estimate of a great man's character, one may well vary the old French saying, and remark, "Cherchez la mere."