Hearing the horns of Elfland

Liverpool poet Adrian Henri explains how a chance encounter in a junk shop led to a lifelong obsession with Tennyson's poetry
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Early October 1965: our annual field trip to North Wales with the first year students I was teaching at Liverpool College of Art, at a pre-war holiday camp for poor children from the city. On an afternoon break in Mold, the nearest town, I bought a second-hand Collected Tennyson from a stall outside a junk shop. Perhaps it was the autumnal countryside, perhaps the emotional turmoil of the end of a love affair and the beginning of another, but something chimed with my mood, the time and the place. The words sang and danced in my head:

All night has the casement jessamine stirr'd

To the dancers dancing in tune;

Till a silence fell with the waking bird,

And a hush with the setting moon (Maud)

I had studied Fine Art, not English, was teaching art, and had only relatively recently begun to devote as much time to poetry as to painting. My self- education was wholly Modernist: Eliot, Pound, Mallarme, Apollinaire, the Surrealists. Hadn't Theo de Wyzewa, spokesman for the French Symbolist school, famously declared "the aesthetic value of a work of art is always in direct inverse proportion to the number of people who can understand it"? But just as, when I was a student, I couldn't resist sneaking into the art galleries in Liverpool and Manchester to look at the Pre-Raphaelite paintings my tutors dismissed so airily, so lines from the Pre-Raphaelites' favourite poet, remembered from schooldays, would occasionally resonate in my head, like the voices of the Lotus Eaters, tired of their long Odyssey:

There is sweet music here that softer falls

Than petals from blown roses on the grass,

Or night-dews on still waters between walls

Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass.

The chance rediscovery of Tennyson that day came to embody a whole series of paradoxes: for instance, wasn't he, at his most dreamily musical, the nearest British equivalent to the Symbolists?

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,

And thinner, clearer, farther going!

O sweet and far from cliff and scar

The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:

Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

(The Splendour Falls)

And yet part of the fascination, for me, was that Tennyson was probably our last truly popular great poet: Betjeman, by contrast, was loved by the public but sneered at by academic critics, and his popularity in any case rested largely on his television films. Tennyson was Poet Laureate but he also lunched with the editor of The Times to discuss the progress of the Crimean War; had his work set to music and sung around countless pianos; had one of his books in every literate household; used to read out loud to his Sovereign; and, above all, was loved and quoted by thousands. In the early Sixties, my attitude to poetry was conditioned by a rejection of the reigning, backward-looking, Little England school known as The Movement - back-to-basics, Victorian-values Eurosceptics before their time - so I was deliberately using experimental and popular forms, like the blues and pop-song metres, rather than the traditional forms they favoured. Simultaneously, however, I was aware that the Modernism that had been my solitary discovery in Rhyl Public Library had long left its audience behind. Wasn't there a way of opening out this narrow bridgehead onto a broad, popular front? The poetry reading seemed to be the answer, particularly with the regular weekly audience we had then in Liverpool. But hadn't Tennyson been famous for his poetry readings? And hadn't his enthusiasm for innovation led him to record on the new- fangled phonograph? What a tragedy it is that some idiot allowed the precious wax cylinders to melt and warp: from one brief hearing of these, despite all the problems, one feels he would put us all out of business as a reader of his verse, if he were around today. Perhaps poetry could be popular and good and innovative. Here, in this dusty, green-and-gold- bound volume, seemed to be the answer: yes, it could.

Innovative he certainly was. Reading "Maud'' entire for the first time, not just the bit in the song that everyone knows, but the whole "Monodrama'', I realised what a tour de force, what a demonstration of technical versatility was there. Delving further, I found the dialect poems, particularly the delightfully satirical "The Northern Farmer, New Style'':

Doesn'yt thou 'ear my 'erse's legs, as they canters awaay?

Proputty, proputty, proputty - that's what I 'ears 'em saay.

Proputty, proputty, proputty - Sam, thou's an as for they

paains

Theer's moor sense i' one o' 'is legs nor in all they braains"

Tennyson seemed to be equally good at writing about public events: the charge of the Light Brigade; the arrival of Princess Alexandra; the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851:

And, lo! the long laborious miles

Of Palace; lo! the giant aisles,

rich in model and design;

Harvest-tool and husbandry,

Loom and wheel and enginery...

and private grief, as in ''In Memoriam''. He could be as heartbreakingly simple as Housman - another, later discovery of mine:

And the stately ships go on

To their haven under the hill;

But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,

And the sound of a voice that is still!

and there is a passage in "Locksley Hall" that's as sensual as the mores of the time would allow.

Add to all this the ability to write stirring pieces like "The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet", and to construct, more or less single-handedly in poems like "The Lady of Shallott" and ''Idylls of the King'', that whole late-Victorian, neo-medieval world of Burne-Jones and William Morris and Co, and there emerges the supreme technician, the ultimate poetic all-rounder. I felt it on that rainy week in Colomendy Camp, and the feeling has only grown stronger since.

Of all the poems, "Maud" is the one I come back to most. Partly because of its extraordinary range of metres, forms and styles, but also because I have always felt that, beneath the apparent impersonality of the narrative, there was some sort of personal, emotional content, much as I had felt from the first about Eliot and The Waste Land. Later, when I read about the events of Tennyson's early life, I realised how close they were to the life of "Maud's" protagonist. He was brought up in a remote vicarage; his father, embittered by the preferment of his younger brother to the family fortune, and the inadequacy of his stipend to maintain wife and children, took to drink, eventually breaking up the marriage. Tennyson's love for Rosa Barry, daughter of a wealthy farmer, was both unrequited and socially impossible; even his eventual marriage to Emily Sellwood was delayed for 14 years by doubts about his suitability. It was a kind of literal embodiment of Arthur Hughes's famous painting, The Long Engagement.

Now consider the narrator of "Maud": his father, ruined by the speculations of another, dies by his own hand; he falls for the daughter of his father's Nemesis, only to find that his lowly social status prevents their attaining the life together they both dream of; his frustrated rage at this leads to a series of disastrous, precipitate actions that mean he must leave his country, and Maud, for ever. The poem ranges in mood from the appalled, almost horrific beginning:

I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,

Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,

The red-ribb'd ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,

And Echo there, whatever is ask'd her, answers 'Death'.

to the ecstatic invocation of the awaited lover, following the oft-quoted song lyric:

She is coming, my own, my sweet;

Were it ever so airy a tread,

My heart would hear her and beat,

Were it earth in an earthy bed;

My dust would hear her and heat,

Had I lain for a century dead;

Would start and tremble under her feet,

And blossom in purple and red.

When my first poems were published in book form some years later, quotations from Tenny- son had found their way into several of them. This year saw the first performance of "Lowlands Away", Richard Gordon-Smith's settings of new poems by me for soloists, choir and orchestra. When the composer asked me to "write him a storm", it seemed perfectly natural to start and finish with a set of variations on "Break, Break, Break". Tennyson has been part of my mental landscape, in a way few others are, ever since that day in 1965.

Adrian Henri presents an abridged version of this article in "Poetry Please", on BBC Radio Four, Sunday, 4 August

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