It was with a kind of heart-thrill not to be forgotten that, one morning, at school, I opened a letter from my father in which was enclosed a message from that “true poet, surely to be found, when truth is found again,” Charles Tennyson Turner, an elder brother of the Laureate. My father had sent him one of my school-day sonnets, and the old poet had been kind enough not only to read it, but to criticise it. So it came to pass that correspondence sprang up between us, which ended in my looking upon him as my mentor in the music of the sonnet, and as my most unwearying of counsellors in matters pertaining to the “Terza Rima.” (p. 221)
I have just been reading some of those quaint faded letters, scribbled upon any kind of piece of paper that was handy; often on a bit of sermon paper, always exact as to date of month and year, always full of tender dealing with a boy’s verses, and scholarly criticism both of thought and rhyme, and I have been wondering at the kindness and graciousness of them. It was not till after correspondence for ten years that we met. He was a great invalid, and, when I was at home in Lincolnshire for vacation, it often chanced he was away at Bournemouth, or Bath, or Barmouth. (pp. 221-222)
But one bitter day in early January of 1876, I found myself at Grasby Vicarage, gone thither to see the poet in his pastoral home, and to talk of that which was of poetry dearest to his heart, the structure of the sonnet. I shall never forget the first impression made upon my mind, as I jogged up with a kind of farm-boy and cowboy and gardener’s boy in one, through the freezing snow-bound flats of dreariest Lincolnshire, and came to the poet’s home. (p. 222)….
Arrived at Grasby, one was struck by the homeliness, the extreme plainness of all the surroundings. The tiles in the front Hall had long since lost their mortar, and clattered and moved as one passed toward the poet’s dining-room. Upstairs and downstairs the same simplicity pervaded the house. There was not a stick of unnecessary furniture in the place. But who can describe that richest of all furnishing that filled the house—the genial welcoming,—the tender questions of the welfare of those at home,—the knowing of all one’s belongings by name, the little reminiscences of the early days of one’s father and mother? Or who can forget, whoever experienced it, the solicitude with which, with their own aged hands, those dwellers in the Grasby Vicarage seemed determined to wait upon their young guest, almost ashamed to be thus entreated by his elders? (pp. 223-224)….
Dinner was soon served, and, after early dinner, we adjourned to the little study, and there, as Charles Tennyson sat and read to me in his deep and beautiful voice, first this and then that sonnet, one was able to take his kind face in, and feel that he was every inch a Tennyson. The same grand brow, the same broad chest, the same fine mouth, and the same deeply-lined furrows either side of it, the same finely-chiselled nose. The eyes of the man dark and piercing, the complexion, the brown Spanish-looking colouring that were common to most of the family. There was about him that picturesqueness quite unforgettable, that native dignity which must have made one pick this man out of a crowd, as being princely-born. His loose coat, his white shirt collar and white cuffs turned back over his coat, gave a sort of old English look to the man, who reminded me of a well-known portrait of John Milton, as he sat and boomed out sonorously his favourite sonnets. (p. 226)….
It was not, however, till the following day, that I seemed to sound the deeps of his gentle heart. Then, as he read me that tender sonnet entitled, “On Shooting a Swallow in Early Youth,” cccxxix.—I saw not secret, but very real tears on the poet’s face, and when he had finished reading it or chanting it, he was unable to say anything for a few minutes, such sorrow had possessed his soul. (pp. 227-228)….
That evening was given up to sonnet-talk. I asked why it was that he had so stuck to the sonnet metre; he could only say that Alfred’s fame, and name, and great mastery of verse had so overshadowed him, that he had felt fearful of attempting any lyric or epic writing, and he had been content, perforce, with the “sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.” I asked him why he had been silent so long—for his first volume of sonnets had appeared in 1830, and his second volume did not see the light till 1864. He told me that he could not account for his dumbness. He supposed the wells had been frozen at his heart—but, he added, “I think it was Alfred’s perfect work that made me feel so ashamed of my own poor attempts that I did not brace myself to the task.” (p. 230)….
Next morning we were summoned early to go through the cold to the colder little parish Church, to hear a curate read in a cold voice the morning prayers to our three selves. I can see the quaint little company pattering through the snow. Mrs. Tennyson in grey-frieze cloak, with what seemed to be a pair of clogs on her feet. And the old poet with a huge frieze coaching-day cape whose collar was turned up to keep his ears from harm. I remember, too, his tender and courtly solicitude for my own want of a great-coat, and how he insisted that a shawl or rug should be wrapped about my shoulders for the morning “office.” Then we came back to breakfast. It is true that tea was made, the bacon was fried and was likely to catch cold somewhat. But nothing was to hinder the due performance of family prayers; for the servants had not been to the village church. Prayers were duly, if somewhat slowly and largely, said, and, when we rose from our knees, the bacon looked like a marble “brecchia.” I mention this tiny little incident to show how entirely, in a world where bacon and the comforts of a cosy breakfast were not the presiding spirits of that tender-hearted, high-souled household, lived and moved and had their being. And I shall not soon forget the deeply reverential air with which the poet read the portion of Scripture and recited the prayers. With what anxiety he asked of the old servant, as she floundered round the room, after the health of this or that parishioner. For nearly thirty years had he made the woes and wants of the Grasby village his own. He had built the Vicarage, the Church, the Schools, and now crippled and full of pain he would each morning go through the cold, and the mud and the rain, to pray with the people who could come to church, and for them, if they would not or could not. (pp. 231-233)….
The rest of the day we spent in sonnet-reading and recitations. (p. 233)….
It was in talking over “The Lover and His Watch,” cccxviii., that he showed me how much we miss, by refusing to see poetry in common things, and especially in thinking of all the mechanisms of our day as if they could have no poetry in them. (p. 241)….
I left Grasby very full of rich sonnet-music, and have never forgotten the sound of the sonneteer’s voice. (p. 242)….
In the following spring, on my wedding day, I wrote to thank him for a book he had, in his kindly thought, sent to me as a wedding present. I chanced to tell him how, as we came from the church, my wife had gone aside a moment to lay her bridal bouquet upon her father’s grave in the Brathay churchyard. In less than a week there came back a touching sonnet “The Wedding Posy,” cccxxxvi. It was among the last he wrote. I am not sure but that it was the very last. His health was failing fast. A little more than a year after, he who had suffered much passed quietly away to the land where there is no pain, on April 25, 1879. His dear and saintly wife, the sister of Lady Tennyson, was not long separated from him: within a month they bore her body to rest beside his own in the Cheltenham Cemetery. (pp. 245-246)
(Memories of the Tennysons, pp. 221-247)