Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Even Tennyson can be tentative

Not much time tonight--I made the mistake of deciding to make rice pudding, which (I had forgotten) involves standing at the stove for an inordinately long time, toil-and-troubling as the concoction bubbles. So I'll simply share a passage I came across while hopping around in Tennyson's letters earlier this week. Like a lot of nineteenth-century volumes of letters, it was a "Life and," which tends to be annoying: letters get presented out of context, partially quoted and partially summarized, and it's frequently hard to be sure of their dates and addressees.

In the case of the Tennyson volume, however, the grab-bag approach was fruitful: the editors threw in some Tennyson-related passages from the diaries and letters of those who knew him, which yielded the following account from Aubrey de Vere's diary:
Alfred Tennyson came in and smoked his pipe. He told us with pleasure of his dinner with Wordsworth—was pleased as well as amused by Wordsworth saying to him, "Come, brother bard, to dinner," and taking his arm; said that he was ashamed of paying Mr. Wordsworth compliments, but that he had at last, in the dark, said something about the pleasure he had had from Mr. Wordsworth’s writings, and that the old poet had taken his hand, and replied with some expressions equally kind and complimentary.
I enjoy the idea of Wordsworth--the conservative, older Wordsworth--calling Tennyson "brother bard." And isn't it easy to imagine Tennyson, briefly the picture of English reticence, quietly muttering some words of praise and gratitude?

All of which reminds me that I've got another bit of Tennysoniana (is that the word?) for you as well! This one is a bit of a joke from a letter Rupert Brooke sent to James Strachey on August 20, 1905:
You demanded a return catechism. Here it is. As yours ‘embraced all the Important in Life’; so mine, I hope, embraces all the Unimportant in Life—a much more essential thing.

1. What are the two greatest tragedies in Life?

2. Shew the comic side of both.

3. What is the most beautiful adjective in English?

4. When did you give up reading Tennyson?

5. What is the World coming to?

The only one which I'd expect you, fair reader, to answer, is number 3. My answer? Hmm. I do have a soft spot for "numinous," though the need for it is rare. "Sere" is also good, though even less useful. Perhaps "inordinate" (see above) or "wanton" would do?

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