A Childhood in Somersby

(c) The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Portrait of Alfred’s father, Rev Dr George Clayton Tennyson (1778 – 1831)

Home

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)

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Portrait of Elizabeth Fytche (1780-1865) as a young girl, later Tennyson, mother of the poet.

Doodlings by a young Alfred Tennyson found in one of his study books on Virgil.

Doodlings by a young Alfred Tennyson found in one of his study books on Virgil.

In the quietest of the Lincolnshire wold villages the Tennyson brothers and sisters made the life of the place their own.  The curious sights of the little hamlet were a source of daily delight for the children; from the wanderings by “the brook that loves // To purl o’er matted cress, and ribbéd sand,” to sounds of the “the livelong bleat of the thick-fleeced sheep from wattled folds,” these enchanting scenes greatly enriched their already imaginative natures.   Much of Tennyson’s poetry is indebted to this small stretch of country, not only felt in poems such as “Ode to Memory”, but also in single lines throughout “Idylls” and in passages of In Memoriam.

The children’s upbringing in the Somersby Rectory was an undeniably unconventional one.  Their parents, who were greatly immersed in the obligations of a large family and a scattered parish, had little time to instil into them conventional habits or manners and so the children were often left to their own devices.  Battles were fought in the different fields apportioned out to each brother as his country; they fished in the brook and fenced with foils and masks on the Rectory lawn; but, of all their pursuits, reading, writing, rambling, play-acting and storytelling were their favourites.  One such renowned pastime was the writing of stories in letters to which each child contributed in turn.  These they put under the vegetable dishes to be read aloud after dinner.  Alfred was regarded as the chief storyteller, with one of his serials called The Old Horse supposedly lasting several weeks.

The Tennyson brood also inherited their mother’s love of animals.  Alfred, who had a remarkable gift for imitating the birds and animals, once responded to an owl with such effect that the young bird flew down into the attic – the room Alfred used to compose his poetry – and lived in the house thereafter.  It would sometimes feed from the poet’s hand, rubbing its beak affectionately against his cheek and would often go about the house perched on his mother’s head. Amusingly, or so Emily later tells her sons, this “made her pet monkey very jealous.”

Dr. Tennyson took a very large part in the education of his children.  Before he would pronounce Alfred fit for the Grammar School at Louth at the end of 1815, his father would make him repeat by heart on successive mornings the four books of the Odes of Horace, a remarkable feat for a child of seven years.  Alfred hated the Louth School, where brutal canings were commonplace.  In after years he would refuse to go down the street in which it was situated.  In 1820 he and Charles left Louth and from that time till their entry at Cambridge his education was undertaken almost entirely by his father.  In February 1824 Dr. Tennyson writes to his brother: “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.”  The Doctor had an exceptional library and a real enthusiasm for literature, and it is clear that the boys early acquired a good knowledge of standard Greek, Latin and English Classics.  Alfred continued to write “with undiminished energy” and by 1826 he had already published Poems by Two Brothers; a volume of poetry he had collaborated with Frederick and Charles.

However, Alfred’s childhood was not always serene.  The Somersby Rectory was frequently clouded with the ‘black blood’ of the Tennysons, a legacy which, particularly throughout Alfred’s teenage years, caused much sorrow.  Plagued with the worry and exhaustion of supporting a large family on a low income, coupled with the resentment of being “put into the Church for whose duties he felt no call”, Dr. Tennyson buckled under the mounting pressure and his health, both in body and mind, was seriously affected.  He suffered with alcoholism and epilepsy, and the whole Rectory was frequently burdened with his long and lethargic days of morbid introspection.  A similar influence, although perhaps incidents that Alfred took less seriously, came from the mental breakdown of their Aunt Mary.  For a boy such as Alfred being exposed to such disastrous influences exaggerated in him the family tendency toward melancholy and depression which was to afflict him all through life.

From the various biographical accounts on Tennyson’s early years, it is clear that there were occasions for merriment, as well as times of sadness.  The poet’s grandson, Charles, encompasses the life of the peculiarly wonderful family most fittingly:  “Herded in the small and remote Rectory, they lived in a little world of their own, and if life was rough and the atmosphere often stormy, they had compensation and protection in each other.”

Author: Michelle Poland

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Pen and ink drawing of Mary Tennyson, Alfred’s sister.  Further details unknown.