Melvyn's newsletter - Tennyson's In Memoriam - 30/06/2011

Episode image for Tennyson's In Memoriam


After the programme, of course there was the chorus of 'there is so much more to say'. But I thought they said a great deal. However, perhaps they were a little sparing about the predicament in which Tennyson found himself.

Dinah Birch pointed out that he had been writing melancholy poems long before he met Hallam. He had been writing poems of the deepest melancholy since his teens. At seventeen he was writing as if he was seventy. No wonder, she went on: his father was not only an alcoholic and a bad-tempered, disappointed brute, but also an epileptic and Tennyson feared that he would go mad. It did run in what he called the 'black blood' of the family. His brother Edward wept all the time and was sent away to an asylum for sixty years, in which time no-one from the family ever visited him. Another brother, Septimus, declared "I am the most morbid of the Tennysons". Hallam must have come like a sun to this moon-begotten mob. No wonder that Hallam's father did not want him to marry into the Tennyson family.

Another point that was not made was that Tennyson was a heavy drinker. He is recorded as drinking two pints of port a day, although Seamus Perry cautioned that port might have been weaker in those days. When he was offered the position of the Poet Laureate he wrote two letters, one accepting it and one declining it, and then went into dinner, drank a pint of port, came back and posted the one that mattered. Our man from Balliol (Seamus) also made the point that the BMA, in its strictures on drinking, doesn't enter into the mainstream of European history. You need a man from Balliol to encourage you in that particular way. Tennyson was also, Dinah added, a heroic smoker. He lived to the age of eighty-three. Not bad for the 19th century. Not bad for now.

He was unable to read 'In Memoriam' in public because he said that it would break him. People used to read the poem throughout the century in order to find consolation and they still do. There's a certain sense which I myself did when I was writing my last novel and used certain passages in it for the novel itself.

Out into the sunny streets of London, supposedly to be seized by the public service strikers, but the gentle posses I met were calmly handing out well-printed leaflets and occasionally finding someone with whom they could discuss their point of view over pensions. When I got to Westminster there were only four people from the strike standing outside Parliament. Perhaps the numbers will grow through the day. The thing that dominates a walk through London at the moment are the sales. In Regent Street we now have 70% off. Flags are flying outside some shops to announce their sales. It's a strange thing. I'm sure I've said this before, but as a Northerner it bears re-saying. That is, I can't see why anyone -

I must finish this now. I promised Ingrid that one tape would be enough. And this is the end of one tape.

In the Lords people liked the programme. The ducks are still swimming in St James's Park.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: The Lords' straw poll on In Our Time was particularly strong. 'In Memoriam' appeals to them.

PPS: No point in mentioning my car-crash yesterday in Central London, or the horrible build-up of hornet helicopters spoiling a beautiful afternoon in London ...

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