The role of supporting a poet or famous author is often an arduous task, and one which, more often than not falls to the female members of the author’s family, their mothers, wives and sisters.
Amongst these women the figure of Emily Tennyson looms large, she has often been described as the ideal companion to Tennyson’s literary career, working up to five hours a day simply answering his fan-mail, and each evening listening to him read aloud from his works in progress. In this way Emily Tennyson’s position is reminiscent of another woman who ceaselessly worked to support a great writer, Dorothy Wordsworth, whose own observations and experiences were even taken as the basis for some of Wordsworth’s poetry. An appropriate comparison perhaps, since Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate in 1850.
The links between Tennyson and the Romantic poets, however, do not end there, after all one of the top most Google searched questions about Tennyson is ‘Was Tennyson a Romantic Poet?’
The Romantic Poets
The development of the cult of celebrity around poets began to emerge during the Romantic period, perhaps the most famous of them all being Byron, who inspired numerous fashions, from ways of tying neckerchiefs to ways of styling hair. Like Byron, Tennyson himself made distinctive fashion choices, particularly the famous ‘wideawake’ hat now on display at Farringford. Indeed, there are many reports that when the poet did not wear his hat in public, those who saw him were disappointed.
Endless sets of strange stories grew up around the Romantics, perhaps the most notable amongst them being the tale of the death of Shelley, who was drowned sailing his boat the 'Don Juan' which sunk. It is reported that when the body was recovered it was found to have an open copy of Keats in the pocket. The body was then burnt, with both Byron and Trelawney present, at which point the story then goes that, having a uniquely powerful heart, this organ would not burn up in the flames, prompting Trelawney to reach into the fire and remove the burning heart, later giving it to Mary Shelley who kept it in a jar until her death. We need not fear however, since recent academia suggests that it most likely was not Shelley’s heart, but instead was his liver, as that organ of the body takes far longer to burn than the rest of us.
The aura around poets grew and grew, with Tennyson’s fame emerging as equally great, perhaps bolstered by the photograph as a newly developing medium, which allowed the cult of the celebrity to grow even more as they became capturable in endless positions, in their domestic environment and elsewhere, there is a whole book, still published today, that shows the Tennyson family at home on the Isle of Wight.
One thing isn’t possible to deny, that the cult of Tennyson would perhaps not have been possible without the Romantics, who paved the way both for Tennyson’s fame and for his poetry, which frequently draws upon his predecessor’s in style, tone and its preoccupation with its natural environment which drives much of his poetic description. An appropriate note to end on then, is perhaps these lines from the poem ‘Locksley Hall’ where the speaker looks back on his own past, a past where he was surrounded by the beauties of nature.
‘Many a morning on the moorland did we hear the copses ring,
And her whisper throng'd my pulses with the fulness of the Spring.
Many an evening by the waters did we watch the stately ships,
And our spirits rush'd together at the touching of the lips.’ – Locksley Hall