Tennyson in Love

“She [Emily] saw herself…not as a rival of the dead beloved, but as a successor, who could benefit from that marvellous well of tenderness and love Alfred had shown himself capable of feeling, and in ways that had not been open to those long-ago friends.”

  • Ann Thwaite, Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (1996)

Emily watercolour


In matters of the heart, Tennyson’s story begins a little over a year after his arrival at Cambridge.  It was here that he met Arthur Hallam, the man he was to immortalise in In Memoriam A.H.H..  Lines from this poem suggest that Tennyson dated the beginning of their close friendship from the spring of 1829.  They shared a passion for poetry; they belonged to the elite group of Apostles and were soon famed for their “magnificent conversations”.  For Tennyson, who was prone to melancholy, Hallam’s idealism, affection and intellectual energy was of immeasurable value; for Hallam, Tennyson was someone with a promising future, whom he felt he could invest in both emotionally and spiritually.  In the autumn of 1829, Hallam wrote of the value of Tennyson’s friendship:

A man whom we’re beforehand with the time
In loving and revering; but whose fame
Is couching now with panther eyes intent.

The bonds that tied their friendship were to fix unshakeably when, in December that same year, Hallam fell in love with Tennyson’s sister, Emily.  After years of misfortune and disappointment, their union brought much joy to the inhabitants of the Somersby Rectory and there seemed a good prospect that their hopes would at last be crowned with marriage.   Their optimism, sadly, was short lived.  On October 1st, 1833, the news of Hallam’s sudden death reached the household.  To Alfred the tragic loss of his most beloved friend was an overwhelming and agonising blow, for theirs was a love “passing the love of women.”  It was perhaps the most decisive event in Tennyson’s life.

The extent of his dealings with the beautiful Rosa Baring has aroused endless speculation.  Without Rosa, it is widely accepted that poems such as “Locksley Hall”, “The Gardener’s Daughter”, or “Maud” could not have been possible and poems written to her privately were often playfully flirtatious.  In 1835, he wrote:

Thy rosy lips are soft and sweet,
Thy fairy form is so complete,
Thy motions are so airy free
Love lays his arrows at thy feet
And yields his bow to thee;
Take any dart from out his quiver
And pierce what heart thou wilt for ever.

While we can only ever guess the extent of their intimacy, Rosa does confess that she “treasured…any word of admiration he let fall”.  Her Birthday Book, a gift she received in 1882, which contains both copies and original manuscripts by the young Alfred Tennyson, reveals the extent to which these words were indeed treasured.  However intimate the two were, Rosa was certainly sentimental enough about the lesser known Tennyson of the 1830s to preserve the poems he sent her for decades after.

Another member of Tennyson’s youthful Lincolnshire circle captivated the young poet’s heart.  We have it on Alfred’s sister Emily’s authority for that the fact that he was fascinated by Sophy Rawnsley: “She is a nice, amiable girl so cheerful and happy, that it brings sunshine into one’s heart, though it were gloomy before, to look at her.  Alfred is delighted with her.  I sometimes fancy she is the prototype of his “Airy Fairy Lilian.”  Their friendship, undoubtedly enriched by their family connection, continued well into old age.

TRC903 sml

Of course, it was Emily Sellwood who was “his best loved”.  Their first encounter was in autumn of 1822 when Emily, aged nine, was looking out of the window at her home in Horncastle and spotted a boy of “about thirteen” talking to her father; a young Alfred Tennyson.  She remembered clearly his features “full of strength and spirituality and tenderness.”  Though the families were acquainted, the pair saw little of each other until the marriage of Tennyson’s brother Charles, in May 1836, to Emily’s sister, Louisa.  The poet was most powerfully drawn to Emily:

O Bridesmaid, ere the happy knot was tied,
Thine eyes so wept that they could hardly see;
Thy sister smiled and said, “No tears or me!
A happy bridesmaid makes a happy bride.”
And then, the couple standing side by side,
Love lighted down between them full of glee,
And over his left shoulder laugh’d at thee,
“O happy bridesmaid, make a happy bride.”
And while the tender service made thee weep,
I loved thee for the tear thou couldst hide,
And prest thy hand, and knew the press return’d,
And thought, “My life is sick of single sleep;
O happy bridesmaid, make a happy bride!”

For over ten rather difficult years the couple were kept apart, but with the wedding itself in the summer of 1850, any uncertainty regarding their union was dissolved; as Tennyson said in after years, “The peace of God came into my life before the altar when I wedded her.”  There are numerous testimonies to the great effect their marriage had on Tennyson:   “He is far happier than I ever saw him before,” wrote Aubrey de Vere; his “’wrath against the world’ is proportionately mitigated.  He has an unbounded respect for his wife, as well as a strong affection, which has been growing stronger ever since his marriage.”  Of Emily, he later relates that she would “make any imaginable sacrifice of her happiness to promote the real and interior good of her husband.”  Through her sweet natured selflessness, mixed with her keen confident intelligence, Emily became the prop round which Tennyson’s own emotional and intellectual growth could twine itself; a dynamic preserved throughout their marriage.

Author: Michelle Poland