Death Comes for the Poet

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

“Mistah Tennyson. He dead.”

I’m of course paraphrasing, ever so slightly, Joseph Conrad’s unforgettable line, “Mistah Kurtz. He dead…” in Conrad’s great novella, Heart of Darkness.

So for our purposes today, it’s not Kurtz, it’s the greatest Victorian poet of them all, Tennyson. And he’s not Mistah Tennyson. He’s Lord Tennyson. Lord Alfred Tennyson. You know with some of these poets whose star is a supernova the resonances aren’t just in their verse, their incomparable lines, they’re also to be found in the biographical penumbra. So the greatest Victorian poet was Alfred Tennyson. Did you catch it? The only English king – alone of all the English kings and queens – to have been given the epithet ‘the Great’, was Alfred the Great, who reigned eleven and a half centuries ago.

Now for the record, our poetic Alfred the Great – Lord Tennyson – died on the 6th of October, 1892. One hundred and thirty-one years ago today.

And as long as we’re at it, Tennyson died ten years before Conrad’s masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, the black heart of which is that undying line, “Mistah Kurtz. He dead…” Tennyson died ten years before Heart of Darkness crossed the bar and dropped anchor, came ashore, planted its flag in our cultural, psychological and historical landscape. It’s another story that, but Conrad setting out in that year, 1902 – laying bare that rotten core of our imperial endeavours – what they were doing to us as a people as well as to the people we were sweeping up into the maw of the greatest empire the world had ever known – setting that out side by side with some of the other doings of that year, makes for a jaw-dropping exercise. Put those wildly disparate elements into a painting – the heart of which painting is that ‘Mr Kurtz. He dead’ – and you’ve got a work of art that can only be described as surrealism on steroids. So for example, in 1902 the United States gets its first movie theatre. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria – we’ll be hearing about him again in 1914 – gets the British Order of the Garter. Theodore Roosevelt becomes the first American president to ride in an automobile. The first science fiction film is premiered in Paris. A newspaper cartoon inspires the first teddy bear. The first Aswan dam on the Nile is completed. Americans Talullah Bankhead, Charles Lindbergh, and John Steinbeck are born. As is their fellow American Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. King Edward VII is crowned. Sibelius’s Symphony Number 2 premiers. Tenor Enrico Caruso makes the first million-selling recording. The Australian Public Service is created. Cuba gets its independence. London School of Economics opens. Australia becomes the first independent country to grant women the vote at a national level.

And in the heart of darkness, somewhere in West Africa, where a British warship was lobbing shells into a continent, Mister Kurtz. He dead.” For me, what Conrad lays bare in that moment, in that line, that’s beginning of the not so long ago departed death-drenched 20th century.

And in a funny sort of way that gets us back to 1892, to Mister Tennyson. He dead. Gets us back there because Tennyson’s passing in many ways marked the passing of the Victorian sensibility, the Victorian era. Indeed, Tennyson’s life was death-haunted, death-shrouded. But whether you look at the man – or at his times, his age – it was just the foothills of the horrors that were up ahead, that Mister Kurtz. He dead. would usher in.

So, yes, Mister Tennyson. He dead. On this day in 1892. He wasn’t born in London. He didn’t grow up in London. He didn’t die in London. But London’s his permanent resting place. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on October 12th. In Poet’s Corner of course. His grave is next to Robert Browning’s and in front of the monument to Chaucer. He was born and grew up in Lincolnshire. Went to Cambridge. Died in Adworth, in the Berkshire Downs. He was 84. He’d been the Poet Laureate for 42 years. It was three years and more before a successor was appointed. The idea of abolishing the office of poet laureate was seriously mooted when Tennyson died – that in itself was a measure of the sense of national loss.

But always you come back to the man, and the wrack of his life story, his personal torments and losses. His mother gave birth twelve times in fourteen years. Eight sons and four daughters. Tennyson was the fourth child. One brother died in infancy. Another was addicted to opium and vulnerable to alcohol. Another collapsed into alcoholism. Yet another brother, Edward, succumbed to insanity. And then there the seventh brother, Septimus, who was given to rising from the hearthrug and introducing himself, “I am Septimus, the most morbid of all the Tennysons.”

And that’s without even starting in on the deaths of his parents, his beloved son Lionel, and – this almost goes without saying – the death, at a very early age, of his closest Cambridge friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, the young man who was engaged to Tennyson’s sister Emily. Tennyson and his sister – like the Hallams of course – were devastated. The tragedy of the young man’s death – it came out of the blue, struck down by an apoplexy attack – while visiting Vienna. An apparently robust, healthy young man dead in an hour in the hotel room he was sharing with his father. Out of the tragedy of Arthur Henry Hallam’s death came Tennyson’s greatest poem, In Memoriam. Tennyson began the poem just five days after the terrible event. It took him 17 years to finish it and publish it. And like every great artist, Tennyson’s experiences and reflections upon life and death find their way into his poetry, transmuted and transfigured of course.

In a reminiscence for their two sons, Tennyson’s wife Emily wrote, “many a time has your father gone out in the dark and cast himself on a grave in the little churchyard near wishing to be beneath it.” Tennyson himself wrote, “When I was about twenty, I used to feel moods of misery unutterable! I remember once in London the realisation coming over me, of the whole of its inhabitants lying horizontal a hundred years hence.”

Now, it surely only goes part way toward balancing all of the above out, but Tennyson’s marriage was very happy. The death of their beloved son, Lionel, when he was a very young man, just in his 30s, excepted.

But to know a little bit of Tennyson’s life story is to understand why Queen Victoria treasured him. She of course had suffered the terrible loss of her beloved Albert. And what Tennyson had to say about loss and grief and love and suffering – she took comfort in it. She thought he, of all, poets understood.

Now a last resonance. It is somehow beyond perfect that Tennyson should have died at this time of year. Consider, for example, the great American poet Emily Dickinson’s finest poem. For the most part she didn’t title her poems. They’re known by the first line.

The first line of this great poem is “There’s a certain slant of light…”

Now for Emily Dickinson, it’s a certain slant of light on a winter afternoon. But it could just as easily be an October afternoon. We’re all aware, now, thanks to the slant of light, that the year is dying.

Here’s the poem. And as you listen to it, think of Tennyson dying in the slant of light of this day, October 6th. Given everything about him, it couldn’t have been more fitting that he died on October 6th.

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference –

Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

And to end – a Tennyson poem. It’s a kind of requiem. OK, a Tennyson poem and a Tennyson fact. After Shakespeare, Tennyson is the most quoted poet in the Oxford Book of Quotations. Now there’s a rich, evocative fact for you.

The poem is Crossing the Bar. It’s late Tennyson – it was written exactly three years before his death.

He wrote it while he was crossing the Solent. He showed it to his son. His son said, “that is the crown of your life’s work.” Tennyson said, “it came in a moment.” A few days before his death, Tennyson said to his son, “Mind you put my ‘Crossing the Bar’ at the end of all editions of my poems.”

The Solent is a strait of the English Channel, between the mainland and the northwestern coast of the Isle of Wight. The bar is of course a sandbar. That’s the literal sense. The figurative sense is death. In departing this life the soul crosses the bar, heads out into the sea, into death, into those unknown, uncharted waters.

Here are the last two stanzas of the poem. Perfect in every way for Tennyson, for his death, and especially his death at this time of the year.

 Twilight and evening bell,

      And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

      When I embark;

   For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

      The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face-to-face

      When I have crost the bar.

You’ve been listening to the London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the- right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals.

By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts. Or take our Ripper walk. It was created and was guided for many years by Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald Rumbelow. In the words of the Jack the Ripper A to Z, Donald is “internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” He’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper walk. He curates it; he mentors our Ripper Walk guides.

The London Walks All-Star team of guides includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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