The following blog post is by Michelle Poland, a PhD Student at the University of Lincoln.
What shall sever me
From the love of home?
Shall the weary sea,
Leagues of sounding foam?
Shall extreme distress,
Shall unknown disgrace,
Make my love the less
For my sweet birth-place?
Tho’ my brains grow dry,
Fancy mew her wings,
And my memory
Forget all other things –
Tho’ I could not tell
My left hand from my right –
I should know thee well,
Home of my delight!
– Alfred Tennyson (c. 1827)
In the quietest of the Lincolnshire Wolds lies Somersby, a curious little hamlet designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Rectory, now a private home called Somersby House, was home to the Tennyson family from 1808 to 1837. Reading, writing, rambling, wandering, battling, and play-acting, the Tennyson brothers and sisters made the life of the place their own. One of their favourite pastimes was the writing of stories in letters. Alfred, of course, was regarded as chief storyteller, with one of his serials called The Old Horse supposedly lasting several weeks. Under the careful instruction and guidance of his father, the Revd Dr Tennyson, Alfred continued to write with “undiminished energy” and by 1826 he had already published Poems by Two Brothers.
Much of Tennyson’s poetry is indebted to this small stretch of country, palpable in single lines throughout “Idylls” and in passages of In Memoriam. Though Tennyson denied any biographical parallels in his work, his intimate knowledge of the Lincolnshire countryside greatly influenced his poetic output. First published in 1830, “Ode to Memory” offers, or at least hints at, a rather evocative illustration of Somersby as it would have been (and still very much remains to this day):
…the woods that belt the gray hill-side,
The seven elms, the poplars four
That stand between my father’s door,
And chiefly from the brook that loves
To purl o’er matted cress, and ribbéd sand,
Or dimple in the dark of rushy coves
Drawing into his narrow earthern urn
And this from the same poem:
Pour round mine ears the livelong bleat
Of the thickfleecéd sheep from wattled folds,
Upon the rigéd wolds
We hear of the “woods that belt the gray hill-side”; of the poplar and elm trees that neighbour the parsonage; of the dearly loved brook that runs beneath the village, “narrow” enough for a boy to jump in; and of the sounds of sheep that were so familiar to that Lincolnshire countryside.
Tennyson wrote to a Lincolnshire friend in 1845, “I have a love for old Lincolnshire faces and things which will stick by me as long as I live.” This lifelong affection for his home perhaps explains why he endeavoured to write the group of dialect poems so long after his departure from Somersby. He had taken great care to remember the dialect correctly, undoubtedly helped by the fact that he had retained his “Linkishire” accent throughout his life. It is also evident from various conversations that he was proud of these poems and enjoyed including them in famous recitals of his works to his friends and admirers. From the verses of “Northern Farmer, Old Style” (1861) to “The Church-Warden and the Curate” (1890) we hear more specifically of Lincolnshire localities: “As fer as fro’ Thursby thurn hup to Harmsby and Hutterby Hall”: Of “Gigglesby Greeän” and “Gigglesby Hinn”, and “Owlby an’ Scratby”: and the wolds too return as “the Wowd”.
Though Tennyson was never to immortalise Lincolnshire in the same way that Wordsworth did for the Lake District, or Hardy did for Dorchester, its landscape, “depicted with all the truth and accuracy of a photograph”, will nevertheless live forever in his pages.
AT Lincoln Legacies
The Tennyson Research Centre
Newly housed in the Lincolnshire Archives is the Tennyson Research Centre (TRC). The TRC is the most significant collection on Alfred Tennyson in the world, attracting hundreds of visitors every year, from local schoolchildren to international scholars, poetry lovers to history enthusiasts. The collection boasts a truly remarkable range of primary material related to Tennyson, including Tennyson’s library, manuscripts, proofs, letters, photographs, and various personal belongings.
The Tennyson Society
Founded in 1960, The Tennyson Society works closely with the TRC. It exists to promote the study and understanding of the life and work of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and has a worldwide membership. Their annual events include a lecture, weekend conference, and memorial service, and members are regularly updated via email on Tennyson related news and events. Since 1967, the Tennyson Research Bulletin (TRB) has been issued annually, containing academic articles on the latest Tennyson research and reviews, as well as more informal features. This year the society celebrates the 50th anniversary of the TRB. Other publications, such as monographs and occasional papers, are published intermittently.
Lincoln Cathedral’s Tennyson Memorial Statue
Tennyson can be found in the grounds of Lincoln Cathedral, which was recently voted the nation’s second favourite cathedral (unfortunately it was unable to topple real-life Hogwarts, Durham Cathedral). A memorial statue to him by George Frederic Watts is situated on the East Green bearing the words of his poem Flower in the Crannied Wall.
Philip Collins, Tennyson, Poet of Lincolnshire: An Address to the Tennyson Society (1983), Tennyson Research Centre, Lincoln.
H.D. Rawnsley, Memories of the Tennysons (Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons, 1900).
Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949).
Extracts taken from previous work, see http://www.tennysonsbirthplace.co.uk/. Somersby church is the first to be granted HLF funding to carry out essential restoration work and the installation of a Tennyson display. Visit the website to find out more about the project and his formative years in Lincolnshire