Hymning Tennyson: Signs of a National Hagiography

Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, “The Death of the Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson.” This copy is a transcription made of the original manuscript by Frederick Tennyson for one Mary Williams in 1893. (Victorian Letters Collection ID: V892100601)

Rare Item Analysis: Hymning Tennyson: Signs of a National Hagiography

By J. Caleb Little

Click here to visit an interactive timeline and map related to this post on Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE).

Many tributes were written for Alfred Lord Tennyson upon his death. In this post, I look at one particular tribute, titled “The Death of the Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson.” There is a physical manuscript of the item in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian Collection, as well as scans of the item in the digital Victorian Collection. The manuscript is an assortment of items associated with the death and funeral of Tennyson (1892) collected by Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, a conservationist and a clergyman associated with the Broad Church movement, a liberal subgroup within the Church of England (Murphy). The manuscript contains a brief description of Tennyson’s final days (taken from a letter from Hallam Tennyson), five sonnets eulogizing Tennyson, (written by Rawnsley himself), a hymn (written by Rawnsley’s wife, Edith Rawnsley), a description of the funeral itself, and a photo of the funeral pall. The manuscript in the possession of the Armstrong Browning Library is a transcription, by hand, of the original manuscript made by Frederick Tennyson, which was sent in 1893 to Mary Williams (about whom more information could not be found).

While previous authors on this site have focused on the sonnets contained in this manuscript (see Clayton Reynolds, “Elegiac Memorializing of Tennyson as Prophet”), I focus on the hymn contained in the manuscript. I suggest that comparing the hymn with poems from In Memoriam provides important insight into the “hagiographical” process that transformed Tennyson into a national sage and spiritual guide, especially for admirers, like the Rawnsleys, who had connections to the Broad Church movement. I suggest three points of comparison are particularly significant: (a) the use of hymnic and religious language in the poem and in In Memoriam; (b) Tennyson’s depiction of himself and the funeral hymn’s depiction of Tennyson; and (c) Tennyson’s depiction of Hallam and the hymn’s depiction of Tennyson. When we attend carefully to the parallels and differences between these two sets of depictions, we will see that the hymn eulogizes Tennyson in a way that smooths out religious difficulties in Tennyson’s work. I conclude by briefly considering the possible motivations for this sort of redaction.

The hymn, while clearly written in honor of Tennyson’s death, does not appear to have been played at the funeral itself. But it clearly matches with much of the high praise of Tennyson as a wise writer and spiritual guide that was then current in Victorian society.

Scan of hymn

I here provide a transcription of the text for greater ease of comparison:

Father in Heaven! Whose beauty gives,

All music on this earth to be

A means whereby man’s spirit lives

We give Thy Singer back to Thee

 

The fountain’s fall, the thunder’s roll,

The winds that whisper thro’ the land;

These are but echoes of Thy soul

To tune the harp in mortal’s hand.

 

And this, Thy servant, heard the chime;

He smote a chord of wisdom deep;

So serving Thee, he served his time,

And singing, entered into sleep.

 

We tread the solemn Abbey nave

To add our treasure to the store

Of jewels in the silent grave;

But, in the hush, we feel him more;

 

For all his thought, and all his song,

In this dim world, was pure and right.

God, give him grace and power among

The Angel-singers of the light!

Amen.

In this hymn, we see a memorializing of Tennyson as a national treasure and a wise spiritual guide.

In Memoriam provides a valid point of comparison with this hymn for a couple of reasons. First, In Memoriam, along with Idylls of the King, was considered one of Tennyson’s greatest masterpieces, both as a work of poetry and as a source of spiritual guidance. A natural connection ensues between Tennyson’s own great work and this religious eulogization of him. Furthermore, In Memoriam, by virtue of its hymn-like qualities, possesses formal similarities that justify a closer comparison between these two pieces. Like a standard hymn, In Memoriam has a structure of four lines with four main stresses, although it follows an ABBA rhyme scheme instead of the ABAB rhyme scheme commonly used in hymns. Given these connections and similarities of form, I will draw our attention to where the hymn utilizes motifs that are similar to, but also modified from, portions of In Memoriam.

I begin by looking at the similarities and differences between the explicitly religious and worshipful opening of both the hymn and Tennyson’s prologue to In Memoriam. This prologue can give us important insights into understanding In Memoriam, as it was written near the end of the compositional process. Both the hymn and the prologue to In Memoriam begin with an address to a member of the Trinity, but the differences from here on are striking. Rawnsley’s hymn begins with an address to the Father. The Father is treated as a great giver who desires (and gives) only the best for His creation. He is beautiful and guides his servants, with Tennyson preeminent among them, towards wisdom and harmony. The hymnist has a calm confidence in this Father. In contrast, Tennyson begins with the Son, who is beloved, but whose status is much more ambiguous. The Son made both life and death and his “foot . . . Is on the skull which thou hath made” (Prologue.7). Even his status as God is somewhat in doubt: “Thou seemest holy and divine” (Prologue.13). A strong contrast is made between knowledge and faith, and only the latter is viewed as even a possibility for the poet, and an uncertain one at that. The hymn’s simple, staid trust in God contrasts in striking ways with the doubt exhibited by Tennyson. This contrast suggests a potential recontextualization of Tennyson within formally orthodox and safe expressions of praise that attempts to minimize his open and honest expression of doubt.

This contrast and development recurs in the differences between Tennyson’s own self-reflection and the hymn’s depiction of him. I turn again to the prologue of In Memoriam, which shares with the hymn both the motif of singing and the prioritization of wisdom in poetry. The hymn depicts Tennyson as a sage and musician who plays his instrument in accordance with the divine harmony. Tennyson does, in fact, request this outcome within his prologue, praying that “mind and soul, according well / May make one music as before” (Prologue.27). However, instead of describing his words as wise, he dwells on the foolishness and weakness of his work (and of humanity in general), concluding with a request for forgiveness for his “wild and wandering cries / Confusions of a wasted youth” and asks for wisdom (Prologue.41-42). What to make of these contrasts? One could argue that the hymn’s eulogizing of Tennyson is less a disagreement with him than an affirmation that he has fulfilled his hopes: he has achieved the wisdom and the harmony he sought and prayed for. And this is convincing to at least some extent. But it simply will not do to allow this argument to eliminate the difference between Tennyson’s self-portrayal and the hymn’s portrayal of him. Tennyson’s doubt in his own work seems too deep to simply dismiss, and we cannot focus on his request for wisdom at the expense of ignoring his self-description of the poem as that of “wild and wandering cries.” The funeral hymn, when compared to the prologue of In Memoriam, clearly airbrushes Tennyson. It softens him, makes him more amenable to the church-going public, and depicts him as a serene sage rather than a man wrestling with doubt and pain.

A similar dynamic can be found when we compare Tennyson’s depiction of Hallam to the funeral hymn’s depiction of Tennyson. While many parallels could be drawn with different poems within In Memoriam, I want to draw our attention to poem XCVI, as this poem works with motifs of music and harmony that are echoed by the hymn in interesting ways. The poem begins with Tennyson replying to an unspecified interlocutor who is suspicious of doubt, who suggests that doubt is “Devil-born” (XCVI.4). In response to this suggestion, Tennyson depicts Hallam as a possible counter-example:

I know not: one indeed I knew

In many a subtle question versed

Who touched the jarring lyre at first,

But ever strove to make it true:

 

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,

At last he beat his music out

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds. (XCVI.5-12)

 

Tennyson thus provides a picture of Hallam that does not deny his doubt but nevertheless depicts Hallam as a sincere man of faith and one who can be admired and (perhaps) emulated.

There are important parallels between this depiction of Hallam and the hymn’s depiction of Tennyson. Both Hallam and Tennyson are described as musicians who pursue truth and harmony. However, Tennyson’s depiction of Hallam is less smooth than the hymn’s depiction of Tennyson. There are cracks in the façade, as it were. In the hymn, Tennyson is described as bringing forth a chime that attunes to the divine harmony and as always producing words that are “pure and right” (18). There is a sense of effortlessness to the hymn’s description of Tennyson’s harmonious songs. Hallam, on the other hand, must work much harder. The lyre that he touches is “jarring” (XCVI.7). His music is “beat” out (XCVI.10). There is a sense of toil rather than effortlessness, struggle rather than placidity. The hymn exhibits a simple faith in the Father, evincing no sign of doubt. Hallam, on the other hand, exhibits no sign of this religious certainty, instead experiencing faith in the form of “honest doubt” which contrasts with “half the creeds” (XCVI.11-12). The hymn echoes Tennyson’s praise and idealization of Hallam in important ways. But even in these similarities, it ascribes a placidity and certainty to Tennyson that Tennyson is unwilling to apply to Hallam. The hymn idealizes Tennyson in a way that exceeds Tennyson’s own tendencies to idealize Hallam.

Whence this transformation of Tennyson? While many factors may be at play, one suspects that the Rawnsleys felt at least some counter-pressure in their attempt to utilize Tennyson as a spiritual guide, and that this may have pushed them towards a smoothing out of Tennyson, towards a depiction of him as a reliable and sage figure, not one who wrestles with the creeds and the basic beliefs of the church. A passage in Hardwicke Rawnsley’s book Memories of the Tennysons may shine light on this question. As he approached the Tennyson residence shortly after the poet’s death, Rawnsley spoke to an old worker who expressed a largely positive opinion of Tennyson but seemed to question Tennyson’s lack-luster church attendance. Rawnsley’s response is instructive:

“Poor fellow,” thought I, “how little do you realize that the dead poet there, in the Aldworth sanctuary, has done more than any prophet of song, for this past forty years, to keep our land and people near to God. He needs not apology for non-attendance at Haslemere Church, who, a ‘votary of the Temple’s inner shrine,’ was always at divine worship.” (160)

Rawnsely’s response, while dismissive, seems also to be a bit defensive; there is a sense that one must assert the true depth of Tennyson in the face of those who question his spirituality. The assertion that he was “always at divine worship” is matched by the hagiographical character of the funeral hymn.

The comparison between In Memoriam and this hymn dramatizes the development of a certain national hagiography around Tennyson, but also suggests an awareness of a remaining suspicion of Tennyson. The hymn smooths out doubts and difficulties in Tennyson’s own musings on spiritual poetry and its relation to the traditional Christian faith. It does this through its untroubled use of religious language and imagery and its placid confidence in Tennyson’s wisdom, in contrast to Tennyson’s doubts about the Son and more charged depiction of his own poetry and the “honest doubt” (XCVI.11) of Hallam. Much more work can be done here. What might these discrepancies tell us about Tennyson’s awareness of himself as an inspiring figure to others? What other forms of eulogy might have been conducted that would have been more consistent with Tennyson’s own self-perception? Notwithstanding these further questions, this hymn provides a window into a certain reception of Tennyson in Broad Church circles that evinces a tendency towards smoothing out troublesome aspects of Tennyson’s own self-perception in the effort to establish Tennyson as a sage and spiritual guide for England and the British Empire.

Collection Cover

First page of Collection

Works Cited:

Murphy, Graham. “Rawnsley, Hardwicke Drummond (1851–1920), Church of England clergyman and conservationist.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  September 17, 2015. Oxford University Press. Date of access 14 Oct. 2019: <https://www-oxforddnb-com.ezproxy.baylor.edu/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-37884>

Rawnsley, H. D. Memories of the Tennysons. James Maclehose and Sons, 1900. Date of access 12 Oct 2019:archive.org/details/memoriesoftennys00rawn/page/n5.

Tennyson, Alfred. “In Memoriam A. H. H.” Tennyson, A Selected Edition: Revised Edition edited by Christopher Ricks, Longman/Pearson, 2007, pp. 331–484.

Posted in ABL Rare Item Analyses by Students, Armstrong Browning Library

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