Thursday, May 07, 2009

Margot Tennant meets Alfred Tennyson

The entry in Emerson's Journals on meeting Tennyson reminds me of this description from Margot Asquith's autobiography:
Tennyson was a magnificent creature to look at. He had everything: height, figure, carriage, features and expression. Added to this he had what George Meredith said of him to me, "the feminine hint to perfection." He greeted me by saying:

"Well, are you as clever and spurty as your sister Laura?"

I had never heard the word "spurty" before, nor indeed have I since. To answer this kind of frontal attack one has to be either saucy or servile; so I said nothing memorable. We sat down to tea and he asked me if I wanted him to dress for dinner, adding: "Your sister said of me, you know, that I was both untidy and dirty."

To which I replied: "Did you mind this?"

Tennyson : "I wondered if it was true. Do you think I'm dirty?"

Margot: "You are very handsome."

Tennyson : "I can see by that remark that you think I am. Very well then, I will dress for dinner. Have you read Jane Welsh Carlyle's letters?"

Margot: "Yes, I have, and I think them excellent. It seems a pity," I added, with the commonplace that is apt to overcome one in a first conversation with a man of eminence, "that they were ever married; with any one but each other, they might have been perfectly happy."

Tennyson: "I totally disagree with you. By any other arrangement four people would have been unhappy instead of two."

After this I went up to my room. The hours kept at Aldworth were peculiar; we dined early and after dinner the poet went to bed. At ten o'clock he came downstairs and, if asked, would read his poetry to the company till past midnight.

I dressed for dinner with great care that first night and, placing myself next to him when he came down, I asked him to read out loud to me.

Tennyson: "What do you want me to read?"

Margot: "Maud."

Tennyson: "That was the poem I was cursed for writing! When it came out no word was bad enough for me! I was a blackguard, a ruffian and an atheist! You will live to have as great a contempt for literary critics and the public as I have, my child!"

While he was speaking, I found on the floor, among piles of books, a small copy of Maud, a shilling volume, bound in blue paper. I put it into his hands and, pulling the lamp nearer him, he began to read.

There is only one man — a poet also — who reads as my host did; and that is my beloved friend, Professor Gilbert Murray. When I first heard him at Oxford, I closed my eyes and felt as if the old poet were with me again.

Tennyson's reading had the lilt, the tenderness and the rhythm that makes music in the soul. It was neither singing, nor chanting, nor speaking, but a subtle mixture of the three; and the effect upon me was one of haunting harmonies that left me profoundly moved.

He began, "Birds in the high Hall-garden," and, skipping the next four sections, went on to, "I have led her home, my love, my only friend," and ended with:
There has fallen a splendid tear
         From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear.
         She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, "She is near, she is near;"
         And the white rose weeps, "She is late;"
The larkspur hstens, "I hear, I hear;"
         And the lily whispers, "I wait."

She is coming, my own, my sweet ;
         Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
         Were it earth in an earthly bed;
My dust would hear her and beat.
         Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet.
         And blossom in purple and red.

When he had finished, he pulled me on to his knee and said: "Many may have written as well as that, but nothing that ever sounded so well!"

I could not speak.

He then told us that he had had an unfortunate experience with a young lady to whom he was reading Maud. "She was sitting on my knee," he said, "as you are doing now, and after reading,
Birds in the high Hall-garden
When twilight was falling,
Maud, Maud, Maud, Maud,
They were crying and calling.
I asked her what bird she thought I meant. She said, "A nightingale." This made me so angry that I nearly flung her to the ground: 'No, fool! . . . Rook!' said I."

I got up, feeling rather sorry for the young lady, but was so afraid he was going to stop reading that I quickly opened The Princess and put it into his hands, and he went on.

I still possess the little Maud, bound in its blue paper cover, out of which he read to us, with my name written in it by Tennyson.

The morning after my arrival I was invited by our host to go for a walk with him, which flattered me very much; but after walking at a great pace over rough ground for two hours I regretted my vanity. Except my brother Glenconner I never met such an easy mover. The most characteristic feature left on my mind of that walk was Tennyson's appreciation of other poets.

Some sources:
An autobiography by Margot Asquith (Doran & Co. 1920)

Maud, by Alfred Tennyson (E. Moxon & co., 1859)

The Princess by Alfred Tennyson (E. Moxon & co., 1859)

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