A Lincolnshire Poet

Many years perhaps, or shall I say many ages, after we all have been laid in dust, young lovers of the beautiful and the true may seek in faithful pilgrimage the spot where Alfred’s mind was moulded in silent sympathy with the everlasting forms of nature.

– Arthur Hallam to Tennyson’s sister, Emily, 1831

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Mablethorpe: Tennyson’s House

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Photographic postcard of Sea Bank Road, Mablethorpe, leading to Tennyson’s lodgings.

Although the landscape of his native country created a lasting impression on Tennyson, he was never to commemorate Lincolnshire in the way that, for instance, Wordsworth did for the Lake District, or Hardy did for Dorchester. Aside from the dialect poetry, there are very few poems that are explicitly concerned with Lincolnshire and rarely (if at all) does he refer to specific placenames. There is one poem that appears in Hallam’s Memoirs which his son entitled “Mablethorpe”, written around 1833 and published in 1850, describing Tennyson’s disillusionment from the youthfully romantic vision of the Lincolnshire coast:

Here often when a child I lay reclined:
I took delight in this fair strand & free:
Here stood the infant Ilion of my mind,
And here the Grecian ships did seem to be
And here again I come & only find
The drain-cut levels of the marshy lea,
Gray sandbanks & pale sunsets, dreary wind,
Dim shores, dense rains & heavy-clouded sea

It was not until 1974 that the manuscript two-stanza version was published , but it is in this second stanza that we learn how deeply the Poet cherished his childhood memories of the coast that was to be so potent in his imaginative life:

Yet tho perchance no tract of earth have more
Unlikeness to the fair Ionian plain
I love the place that I have loved before

Despite this “gray” and “dim” landscape, poles apart from the beaches of Greece and Turkey, he nonetheless loves the place that he had loved before. “[H]owever appearances are against me”, 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”.

There are a number of descriptive fragments scattered throughout his poetry that allude to Lincolnshire scenes. The “high Hall-garden” in his poem “Maud” can be identified with the terrace garden at Harrington Hall. It could also be possible to persuade oneself the “sun and moon upon the shore” in “The Lotos-Eaters” were first seen by the Poet on the low dunes of the Lincolnshire coast, “where at one time”, H. D. Rawnsley tells us “the red sun may be seen setting over the wide marsh, and the full moon rising out of the eastern sea.” First published in 1830, “Ode to Memory, written very early in life,” vividly resonates with some of those Somerbsy “faces and things”:

…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.

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Harrington Hall

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Postcard of the Brook and Bridge, Somersby

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The Bridge today.

Interestingly though, it was not Tennyson but his beloved friend Arthur Hallam who was to provide us with a definite glimpse of the village as it was during the time of the Tennyson family’s residence. The poem appears in a small notebook owned by Emily Tennyson, Alfred’s sister and Hallam’s betrothed, and was probably written in the early spring of 1831 during one of his visits to the Rectory. It gives a rather evocative illustration of the church and surrounding area and runs thus:

Dear village home of her who is to me
As the life current of my eddying thought,
Calm to all toil, sunset of every doubt,
Yet source of many an anxious agony:
Elms full with voice of stately winged rooks
Slim cherry trees wall propped for lack of power,
And you, ye blackthorns with your jubilant flower
Silvering for her the green of quiet nooks—
Old Church where I have knelt beside my love,
And watched her face of prayer; old curious cross,
That from the porch no ill hand dares remove,
Tho’ time hath spoiled its beauty – I your loss
Parting deplore, but ye joy on, and ever
Feed with still influxes her beings river.

Tennyson always denied any biographical parallels in his work, but it is clear that his intimate knowledge of the country, much of which he would have acquired from his time in Lincolnshire, greatly influenced his poetic output. While he may not have immortalised his birthplace with the same force as Wordsworth or Hardy, its landscape, “depicted with all the truth and accuracy of a photograph” , will nevertheless live forever in his pages.