First Impressions of a ‘great and simple man’

In I preached Tennyson to them , my last blog

In my last blog, I mentioned that Coventry Patmore sent Allingham’s lyrics to Tennyson; they were apparently well received because a few months later Allingham ‘ventured to send [his] first volume of verse (1850) to Tennyson from Ballyshannon’ (Allingham, Diary, p. 60). Later he ‘heard indirectly’ that Tennyson ‘thought well’ of the book (p. 60).


From 1850 to 1853 Allingham’s Diary is mostly ‘in the form of memoranda’ (p. 66); either his post at the Ballyshannon Custom House kept him too busy to write at length or did not provide him with material he felt it worthwhile to record. According to the editors of his Diary, Helen Allingham and D. Radford, the only events he recorded in detail are his two visits to Tennyson at Twickenham (p. 66).

In June of 1851 Patmore told Allingham he ‘might call on the great Poet’ and the date was set for 28 June (p. 60). When he arrived at the house the Tennysons lived in shortly after their marriage at Twickenham, Allingham was shown into an upstairs sitting room; Allingham’s descriptions of those he encounters are famously detailed and revealing, so I’ll quote this one in full:

… soon came in a tall, broad-shouldered swarthy man, slightly stooping, with loose dark hair and beard. He wore spectacles, and was obviously near-sighted. Hollow cheeks and the dark pallor of his skin gave him an unhealthy appearance. He was a strange and almost spectral figure. The Great Man peered close at me, and then shook hands cordially, yet with a profound quietude of manner. He was then about forty-one, but looked much older, from his bulk, his short-sight, stooping shoulders, and loose careless dress. He looked tired, and said he had been asleep and was suffering from hay-fever. (pp. 60-61)

Clearly, being in awe of ‘the Great Man’ does not colour Allingham’s assessment of Tennyson’s appearance—he is hardly drawing a flattering portrait of the poet in his focus on his ‘bulk’, poor eyesight, and evident poor health. However, some of Alligham’s sense of wonder at being in Tennyson’s presence does come through in this description. The focus on the poet’s bulk, while not especially flattering is indicative of the sense of his presence in the room. This is not a man who could enter unnoticed, in spite of his ‘profound quietude’.

Tennyson Reveals his Generous Spirit

Shortly after Allingham’s arrival Tennyson took him up to his study to discuss Allingham’s poetry. He first points out that his copy of Allingham’s verse ‘is a good deal dirtier than most of the books’ (p. 61). We can only imagine how Allingham might have puffed with pride at hearing that the Great Poet had clearly thumbed the pages of his modest book more than those of most of the other books in his study. Tennyson then set to turning through the pages of the book and making remarks about the poems; Allingham reports that most of these were ‘laudatory’, though Tennyson does sometimes object to points of style, as when ‘He objected to “rose” and “clothes” in “The Touchstone” (since corrected)’ (p. 61). You’ll find the original version (that criticised by Tennyson) and a revised version; which version do you prefer?

Tennyson then asked Allingham whether he could read some of the poems to him. Of course, Allingham was only too happy to hear his own work in the voice of the Great Man and writes that ‘The rich, slow, solemn chant of his voice glorified the little poems’ (p. 61). Tennyson’s generosity of spirit and willingness to take seriously the early works of a less experienced poet were doubtless among his most endearing qualities. Allingham was much encouraged by their discussion of his work.

The Visit Continues

Emily, Tennyson, and Allingham then had dinner and discussed other poets, past and present. Following dinner Allingham was pleasantly surprised to hear his friend Patmore announced. After tea, the three poets went upstairs to discuss poetry (Allingham introduced Tennyson to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’) and to talk about things in general.

At the end of the evening Allingham reported ‘feeling that a longing of my life had been fulfilled, and as if I had been familiar for years with this great and simple man’ (p. 63). The two men would meet many more times over the following years. I’ve dwelt on this meeting because I think it’s important to understand Allingham’s first impressions. In my next blog, I’ll look at how their friendship develops.

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