Tennyson and his Father
What can one make of the Rev Dr George Clayton Tennyson, and the impact he had on his future Poet Laureate son, Alfred Lord Tennyson? Was Dr Tennyson merely a drunken brute who neglected his wife and children, or perhaps a misunderstood intellectual who didn’t always make the best decisions, possibly due to what he perceived as his hard lot in life? And how did Alfred respond to such an imposing figure?
I will examine the emotional, educational, and poetic influence George had on his fourth-born son, and further consider the ways in which both of their upbringings contributed to their relationship. I will firstly look at the relationship Dr Tennyson had with his father, also called George, before exploring the relationship Alfred had with his father, and how that impacted his life.
The Two Georges
In order to have some idea of Dr Tennyson’s character, one must consider first how his father treated him. Little George was already seen as a troublesome child by age seven, as noted by his great-grandson Sir Charles Tennyson in The Tennysons: Background to Genius (1974: 32), and George’s mother declared of her son in a letter, “I think I never saw a child so rude and ungovernable” (Tennyson, 1974: 32). George Senior gave much of his affection to his younger son, Charles, born six years after George. Charles was generally considered to be amiable and obedient – a stark contrast to his unruly brother. In an 1807 letter to his younger son, George Senior admits that he loves Charles and his daughter, Elizabeth, more than Dr Tennyson or his other daughter, Mary: “You and our dear Eliza have been ever kind and dutiful to us, and were they so likewise we could love them equally” (20 June 1807). George Senior seems to be implicating his wife in this lesser love for their son as well.
Dr Tennyson always resented his father for choosing the younger son Charles to attend Eton, prepare for a career in Parliament and act every inch the heir. Instead, the eldest Tennyson son was to be given a career as a clergyman, which he had no desire to be, and was given the parishes of Somersby and Bag Enderby to attend to. Throughout their lives as father and son there were to be accusations flung back and forth of rudeness and disrespect, and any civility between them seemed fleeting.
Sir Charles Tennyson includes in The Tennysons: Background to Genius a letter from 1820 that Dr Tennyson wrote to his father, which is a poignant and emblematic example of the outwardly lifelong animosity between them both. Dr Tennyson writes, “You have long injured me by your suspicions. I cannot avoid them, for the fault is not mine. God judge between you and me. You make and have always made a false estimate of me in every respect. You look and have always looked upon me with a jaundiced eye” (Tennyson, 1974: 40). George Senior even had a man investigate whether his son was really doing well at Cambridge, even after his tutor had said he was a good scholar (Tennyson, 1974: 36). Thus, Dr Tennyson had good reason to believe his father doubted him, and this cannot have engendered kind, familial feelings between them.
As Sir Charles rightly notes, it must be said that Dr Tennyson surely cannot have been without fault in his life, but the words in his letter reveal something very simple and poignant: a man who, throughout his life, yearned for the love and acceptance of his father.
Dr Tennyson and Alfred’s Education in Life and Poetry
Notable Tennyson scholar, Christopher Ricks, believes that Dr Tennyson “would have been proud” of Alfred (1972: 1). Indeed, the Poet Laureate once declared, “My father who was a sort of Poet himself thought so highly of my first essay that he prophesied I should be the greatest Poet of the Time” (Ricks, 1972: 1). These are extremely confident, boastful words from a man who evidently saw the worth in his child from an early age, and it likely boosted Alfred’s self-confidence to keep writing.
However, as Lynne Truss asserts, “What Tennyson took from his childhood, it seems, was mainly fear.” (1999: 15). It has been widely reported by Tennyson biographers that when Alfred’s father flew into one of his drunken rages, little Alfred would race outside to the St Margaret’s church graveyard and fling himself onto the gravestones, praying for death. It is an alarming image, which sticks in one’s mind, and it is remarkable to think that his father could impose such terror on him. Yet, for all his fears of having inherited the Tennyson “black blood”, Alfred doesn’t seem to have shown many, if any, instances of George’s volatile temper, though he continued to be concerned that his sons Hallam and Lionel might inherit these dark tendencies.
After Alfred spent four miserable years at a Louth grammar school from aged seven to eleven, George educated Alfred and his brothers with Virgil and Horace, much to the displeasure of Alfred who loathed Horace, as J. B. Steane notes (1966: 12). In his old schoolbooks housed at the Tennyson Research Centre, Alfred wrote notes in the margins, and drew sketches of himself and family members. Yet while Alfred remembered only brutality and coldness from his schooldays at Louth, at home he was given full access to his father’s library and undoubtedly received an excellent education from the contents therein. Throughout his life Alfred was widely read and interested in literature, science, religion, philosophy, and history. Like his father, however, he never took to mathematics.
Sir Charles Tennyson notes that Dr Tennyson strongly encouraged Alfred to submit a poem to the competition for the Chancellor’s gold medal for English verse while Alfred was at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1829 (1949: 76). When “Timbuctoo” won, Alfred was surprised, as he’d only sent forth an old blank verse poem, originally called “Armageddon”, which he’d barely bothered to clean up before submitting.
Notably, after his father died in 1831 following a lifelong battle with alcoholism and possible epilepsy, Alfred decided he wished to see his father’s ghost, and so he slept in his father’s bedroom. There is no mention of Alfred having been successful in his goal, but his father was still on his mind. In his lines to James Spedding after Spedding’s brother Edward’s death, Alfred reveals how his father’s death affected him: “In grief I am not all unlearn’d; / Once thro’ mine own doors Death did pass; / One went, who never hath return’d. / He will not smile—not speak to me / Once more. Two years his chair is seen / Empty before us. That was he / Without whose life I had not been.” (Tennyson, 1949: 135). In these lines Tennyson acknowledges the literal debt he owes his father, and perhaps with some sentimentality, envisions conversations and friendly smiles between father and son.
Dr Tennyson noted in an 1824 letter to his brother Charles, “I have known some satisfaction in thinking that my boys will turn out to be clever men. Phoenix-like, I trust […] they will spring from my ashes in consequence of the exertions I have bestowed upon them” (Martin, 1983: 40). We have seen that in the Somersby Rectory, with the official and unofficial education which Alfred received from his father, the son learned many positive and negative things. While his father was an amateur poet, Alfred came to epitomise the Victorian age through his poetry. One could argue that Alfred Tennyson was able to achieve what his father never could, and thus in his death, George Clayton Tennyson can rest easy in the knowledge that his fourth-born son succeeded in the literary world. Dr Tennyson need not have worried about his Somersby family’s legacy being forgotten, and the melodic voice Alfred is said to have inherited from his father continues to be heard today.
Martin, R.B. (1983) Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ricks, C. (1972) Tennyson. New York: Macmillan.
Steane, J.B. (1966) Tennyson. London: Evans Brothers Limited.
Tennyson, C. (1949) Alfred Tennyson. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Tennyson, C., and Dyson, H. (1974) The Tennysons: Background to Genius. London: Macmillan.
Tennyson, G. Letter to Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt. 20 June 1807. MS.
Truss, L. (1999) Tennyson and His Circle. London: NPG.