The Tennyson Research Centre

By Timmins, Grace | NATE Classroom, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Tennyson Research Centre


Timmins, Grace, NATE Classroom


In the dome of Lincoln Central Library lies the Tennyson Research Centre, a treasure trove of all things Tennysonian. Tennyson's library lines the room alongside the libraries of his father, son and brother. Thousands of letters, proofs, manuscripts and photographs are carefully packed in boxes stacked on shelves. His furniture is dotted around the room; artefacts that graced Tennyson's home are on window ledges and in cabinets. It smells of the 19th century: the books reek of coal fires and Tennyson's indefatigable smoking. This is not Tennyson's home but it has the contents: all the bits and pieces of his everyday life, his tobacco, pipes, quills, ink bottles, chair, desk, cloak, comb, locks of hair. It also has thousands of his and his family's letters, boxes of proofs and manuscripts of poems, poems that every self-respecting, literate family in the 19th century knew and most of them loved.

Alfred Tennyson, the voice of the 19th century, was born 20 miles east of Lincoln, deep in the wolds of Lincolnshire in Somersby, 1809. His early poetry is informed by the landscape of the rolling countryside but, unlike Wordsworth and Clare, his poetry was very rarely located to a specific place. Tennyson sternly resisted the topographical associations of poetry and place that were all the rage during the 19th century; nevertheless, many books and essays, then and now, have speculated on the real identities of brooks, mills and gardens in his verse. The lovely walks around Somersby, Bag Enderby, Harrington and Stockwith Mill invite you to share Tennyson's visual landscape: breathtaking views, prehistoric tracks and cosy, tiny villages. The breadth of the archive in Lincoln and the glory of the Lincolnshire countryside provide a range of unique experiences for students studying poetry and the context of poetry.

Year 6 students came to the research centre for their preparation for work on Tennyson and his life and times. The story of the archive is the story of Tennyson's childhood and family; the objects tell the story of life in the early 19th century. An audit of the variety of influences on 11-year-olds in this media-rich age compared starkly with the confines of 11-year-old Alfred Tennyson's isolation in 1820.

The students moved on to look at Tennyson's workings and the drafts and redrafts of 'The Lady of Shalott' which gave them a unique insight into Tennyson's creative process from start to some kind of finish. Tennyson's tower-like childhood was discussed. Back at school they set off round their village with cameras to record their own Lady of Shalott images. They put together a new version using the images they had gathered on their walk and tableaux they worked on in drama. Two things would have been added in an ideal world: an introductory yomp through the wolds, absorbing and recording, on paper or digitally, the sensual onslaught of that peculiarly Lincolnshire rural beauty. Secondly towards the end of the project, a selection of the huge variety of images inspired by Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott' both during the 19th century and now to see in the enduring appeal of the Arthurians (look at The Lady of Shalott on YouTube).

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