The Pre-Eminent Victorian: A Study of Tennyson

By Joanna Richardson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE
THE PRE-EMINENT VICTORIAN

TENNYSON had indeed been entwined with his age; from the moment of In Memoriam, all reading men had been Tennysonians. When Walter Besant went to Cambridge, in 1855, Tennyson was in everybody's hands; when Boyd Carpenter went up in 1860, the younger dons were 'under the spell of the poet, and believed in Tennyson's message to his own age'. Leslie Stephen, as an undergraduate, only followed his companions when he 'tacitly assumed that "poet" was a phrase equivalent to "Tennyson".' Five thousand copies of Maud were sold on the day of publication; and 'heaven!' cried Besant, 'how the lines at the end of Maud rang in my brain!' Mark Rutherford, then a publisher's assistant, read Maud as he walked to his office at six o'clock in the morning. Swinburne admired the poet 'into whose church I and all my generation were baptised'; and when, as an undergraduate, he heard a debating society vote 'that Maud detracts from the poet's reputation', he rushed from the room, crying, 'You're a lot of philistines!' The Charge of the Light Brigade had heartened the soldiers in the Crimea; an old Boer farmer, in Africa, died murmuring the Laureate Farewell; and a traveller sailing in the Malay Archipelago recalled in The Times how, one night, he

came on deck to find the ship in charge of the mate, a taciturn mariner of unpromising visage. A chance remark, however, about the beauty of the night brought a line from a well-known stanza of In Memoriam as reply. I completed the verse with undisguised pleasure, and for the rest of that watch the mate paced up and down the deck reciting to me the greater part of the Idylls and the first half of Maud ...

All through the 1850s Tennyson's popularity was spreading; and after 1860 he commanded the widest public that a living poet had addressed. The students in FitzGerald Euphranor quoted

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