Fireflies in July

While reading through Tennyson’s letters last week I came  across a letter about a beetle the poet

While reading through Tennyson’s letters last week I came across a letter about a beetle the poet Coventry Patmore had sent him for his inspection. Dated 10 Jul, 1856, the letter is quite short:

My dear Patmore

Many thanks for your lanthorn-bug as the Yankees call him. We saw his sidelights but his under-one seems extinct. I am in great fright about him lest he should exhale before he gets back to you. It was very kind of you to send him. Thanks also for the microscope. I have one, but I will keep this as a relic of you. I like what I have read of your espousals as well as I think is as the first part, though it does not seem so fresh to me from having read the first part. Mine and my wife’s kind remembrances to Mrs. Patmore.

Ever yours

A. Tennyson

Let us know whether the beetle arrives safely, poor fellow I am very sorry for him.

According to National Geographic, fireflies will live for up to two months in the wild, but having seen some of these creatures up close, it does seem incredible that one survived being shipped to Tennyson. The editors of the Harvard edition of Tennyson’s letters identify the beetle Tennyson received as a Pyrophorus Noctilucus, or West Indian Firefly. Like this sub-species, all fireflies typically live in warm, damp climates and they are beautiful to watch. They generally live in tall grasses or woodland areas. When they light up just after dusk they make the whole landscape seem magical.

Since he had only one, captive example to examine, Tennyson would not have experienced this magic. However, seeing the firefly light up, even if only partially, would have seemed magical. Though he clearly enjoys seeing the beetle for himself, Tennyson seems worried about its safety.

In the body of the letter it seems that he is only worried that the beetle will die, or ‘exhale’, before he is returned to Patmore for further examination. The post-script, on the other hand, shows that Tennyson is worried about the firefly for his own sake. It is unclear, however, whether Tennyson is ‘sorry for him’ because he is struggling to live in captivity or because he is unlikely to survive Patmore’s examination.

New Technology

That Tennyson already owned a microscope shows that like many Victorians he took an interest in new technology and in science generally. I wonder if you’ll be as amused as I was to see that he says he will consider the microscope sent by Patmore as a ‘relic’, or memento, of him. It just isn’t the sort of thing I would expect one poet to consider as a memento from another.

Coventry Patmore

Patmore is probably best remembered today for writing The Angel in the House. This is the poem Tennyson comments on in this letter. The first part of the poem was published in 1854, but Patmore did not finish adding to it until 1862. Tennyson’s rather gentle criticism of the second part of this poem seems to be typical of how he responds to such works. He was sensitive to the highly critical responses he received on his own work—particularly regarding the negative reactions to Maud—and he seems to be intent on not inflicting the same kind of pain on others.

Dr Jennifer Jones

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