Tennyson in Llanberis

January 23, 2021 0 Comments
Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1869)

Alfred Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire, and lived there throughout the first part of his life.  The portrait of him that always comes to mind is the photo Julia Margaret Cameron took of him in 1865, which shows him as prematurely aged, with thinning, straggly hair, untidy beard and lined face (Tennyson said it made him look like a ‘dirty monk’).

Neither of these facts – the flatlands upbringing and the hermit-like appearance – prepare you for the fact that as a young man Tennyson was fond of energetic walking in mountain country.  He visited Wales for the first time in summer 1839, drawn by a fascination with Arthurian legend.  He walked from Aberystwyth to Barmouth, before moving to Llanberis.

Aberystwyth was a disappointment.  Tennyson wrote to Emily Sellwood, who married him in 1850, a stereotypical Englishman’s account of a first visit to west Wales:

I cannot say I have seen much worth the trouble of the journey, always excepting the Welsh women’s hats which look very comical to an English eye, being in truth men’s hats, beavers, with the brim a little broad, and tied under the chin with a black ribband. Some faces look very pretty in them.  It is remarkable how fluently the little boys and girls can speak Welsh, but I have seen no leeks yet, nor shot any cheeses. This place, the Cambrian Brighton, pleases me not … a sea certainly to-day of a most lovely blue, but with scarce a ripple. Anything more unlike the old Homeric ‘much-sounding’ sea I never saw. Yet the bay is said to be tempestuous. O for a good Mablethorpe breaker!

Undeterred, Tennyson returned to Aberystwyth in 1844.  He repeated the walk to Barmouth, and went on to Caernarfon, from where he climbed Snowdon three times.  In 1856 he was back for a lengthy holiday in Wales, this time with his family.  Now there was a fresh inspiration for his medievalist appetite: the Mabinogi stories as translated by Lady Charlotte Guest.  Wherever they stayed he and his wife would pay teachers to teach them Welsh, so that they could follow Guest’s stories in the original.  The story of Geraint later surfaced in Tennyson’s poem ‘Enid’.  The family started in Llangollen and moved on to Dolgellau, Barmouth and Harlech.  Tennyson climbed Cadair Idris, where he was caught in a rain storm.  His wife, waited anxiously below.  She noted in her diary:

I heard the roar of waters, streams and cataracts, and I never saw anything more awful than that great veil of rain drawn straight over Cader Idris, pale light at the lower edge.  It looked as if death were behind it, and made me shudder when I thought he was there.

The family then journeyed south and visited Caerleon, where Tennyson dreamed of King Arthur: ‘the Usk murmurs past my windows and I sit like King Arthur in Caerleon’.

There was another family trip to south Wales in 1868, and in 1871 Tennyson and his son Hallam climbed Snowdon.

Parker Hagerty, Dinorwic Slate Quarry (c1890) (National Library of Wales)

The Arthurian and Mabinogi stories had a profound effect on Tennyson’s poetry, especially Idylls of the King, but it’s in some of the early works where the Welsh landscape is most vividly pictured.  In 1839 he wrote a poem he called ‘Edwin Morris; or, The Lake’.  It wasn’t published till 1851, and belongs to a group of poems Tennyson called ‘English idylls’.  They were based on the ‘idylls’ of the Hellenistic Greek poet Theocritus: highly artificial poems often featuring rustic characters in singing competitions.  Edwin Morris is the first ‘singer’ in the poem.  The unnamed narrator introduces him as a poet who knows and loves the natural world (‘A full-cell’d honeycomb of eloquence / Stored from all flowers’).  He sings, enraptured, of his love of nature, and his parallel love for a woman.  The second speaker, ‘the fat-faced curate Edward Bull’, responds with a dismissive and reactionary rant.  For him women are no source of inspiration; their only function is to bear men’s children: ‘I say, God made the woman for the man, / And for the good and increase of the world’.  Finally, the narrator tells Edwin of his own failed love affair.

The kernel of ‘Edwin Morris’ is by turns hyper-romantic, crude and melodramatic, and it’s easy to see why Tennyson was dissatisfied with it.  Its Welsh origin, though, is interesting. The poem begins with these lines:

O Me, my pleasant rambles by the lake,
My sweet, wild, fresh three-quarters of a year,
My one Oasis in the dust and drouth
Of city life! I was a sketcher then:
See here, my doing: curves of mountain, bridge,
Boat, island, ruins of a castle, built
When men knew how to build, upon a rock,
With turrets lichen-gilded like a rock:
And here, new-comers in an ancient hold,
New-comers from the Mersey, millionaires
Here lived the Hills–a Tudor-chimnied bulk
Of mellow brickwork on an isle of bowers.

John Glover, Snowdon and Dolbadarn Castle, North Wales (1838) (National Library of Wales)

This scene is imaginary or composite, but hints of Llanberis peep through it, including the ‘ruins of a castle, built / When men knew how to build, upon a rock’, which fits well the setting of Dolbadarn Castle.  A similar scene frames the poem at its end:

She moves among my visions of the lake,
While the prime swallow dips his wing, or then
While the gold-lily blows, and overhead
The light cloud smoulders on the summer crag.

Llanberis and its surroundings are reflected much more closely in another ‘English idyll’, ‘The golden year’.  This poem was also written in Llanberis during Tennyson’s 1939 holiday there.  It remained unpublished until 1846.  Again, the model is Theocritus, but there is also an echo of Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, with its theme of a returning ‘golden age’.

Thomas Creswick’s illustration for ‘The golden year’ (1857)

‘The golden year’ again takes the form of a conversation piece, between young Leonard and old James, but the theme is social, economic and spiritual change rather than love.  Leonard, ‘a tongue-tied poet in the feverish days’ convinced by an early Victorian faith in ‘progress’, prophesies that a new age of man and nature will soon dawn.  His song alludes to burning issues of the day, like free trade, religious conflict, and Chartism (Leonard is an idealist and egalitarian):

When wealth no more shall rest in mounded heaps,
But smit with freer light shall slowly melt
In many streams to fatten lower lands,
And light shall spread, and man be liker man
Thro’ all the season of the golden year.

Old James, a realist, scorns Leonard’s dream as delusional ‘folly’.  The golden age is no more imminent than life in heaven after death.  The only way to make progress is to work away, day by day, on the task in hand.

Again, the dialogue is enclosed in a landscape frame, in this case highly specific to Tennyson’s Llanberis.  The poem begins:

Well, you shall have that song which Leonard wrote:
It was last summer on a tour in Wales:
Old James was with me: we that day had been
Up Snowdon; and I wish’d for Leonard there,
And found him in Llanberis: then we crost
Between the lakes, and clamber’d half-way up
The counterside …

James and the narrator had started in Llanberis, presumably taking the easiest way up the mountain, where the railway track was to be laid in 1896.  The lakes are Llyn Peris and Llyn Padarn, and the ‘counterside’ the three friends climbed is the hill to the north, where slate was quarried in the Dinorwic quarry.

The best part of the poem is its end.  It follows James’s insistence that pragmatism and hard work are the only routes to salvation, and finds a striking image for his final sentiment (‘That unto him who works, and feels he works / This same grand year is ever at the doors):

He spoke; and, high above, I heard them blast
The steep slate-quarry, and the great echo flap
And buffet round the hills from bluff to bluff.

These few lines, with their hard consonants (‘f’ and the plosive ‘b’) set up a vivid sound picture of the moment explosives loose another mass of rock from the face of the mountain, for the quarrymen to split and dress into slates.  They are almost certainly the first appearance of the slate industry in English poetry.  By the time of Tennyson’s visit the Dinorwic quarries, owned by Thomas Assheton Smith, had been in production for fifty years.  In 1824 Smith had built a horse-drawn tramway to connect them to the coast at Port Dinorwic, and exports boomed.  Over 1,000 workers were employed at Dinorwic by the time of Tennyson’s visit.  He was clearly struck by the scale and impact of the industry, in the midst of a landscape that otherwise seemed eternally natural and unchanging.

John Wright Oakes, Slate quarries, Llanberis (1840-47) (Harris Museum & Art Gallery)20

Snowdonia continued as a Parnassus for Tennyson’s poetry after 1839.  When he revisited Llanberis with his son Hallam in August 1871 they stayed in the Victoria Hotel, built by Assheton Smith to cater for the growing tourist trade.  Kept awake by late-night revelling, Tennyson wrote some verses to send home:

Dancing above was heard, heavy feet to the sound of a light air,
Light were the feet no doubt but floors were misrepresenting.

More doggerel followed next day, when father and son set out for a walk through the mountains:

Walked to Vale Gwynant, Llyn Gwynant shone very distant,
Touched by the morning sun, great mountains glorying o’er it,
Moel Hebog loom’d out, and Siabod tower’d up in aether:
Liked Beddgelert much, flat green with murmur of waters,
Bathed in a deep still pool not far from Pont Aberglasglyn –
(Ravens croak’d, and took white, human skin for a lambkin).
Then we returned. – What a day!  Many more if fate will allow it.

Llanberis makes a final appearance in a third poem, ‘The sisters’, published in 1842.  Falling in love at first sight, says the speaker, is possible, just as is falling in love with a place: 

                                            Yet once, when first
I came on lake Llanberris in the dark,
A moonless night with storm—one lightning-fork
Flash’d out the lake; and tho’ I loiter’d there
The full day after, yet in retrospect
That less than momentary thunder-sketch
Of lake and mountain conquers all the day.

Welsh Outlook, Dec. 1917

Perhaps Tennyson’s visits to Llanberis were not forgotten by the many Welsh poets of the town, and especially by Edward Foulkes.  Foulkes was born in Llanddeiniolen in 1850, but lived in Llanberis and worked as an official at the Dinorwic slate quarry.  He was a man of wide learning, with a special interest in Wordsworth and other English poets.  In the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Liverpool in 1884 he was victorious with his pryddest ‘Yr Aipht’, but he was also known for his Welsh translations of English verse.  Some of these, including ‘Y Chwechant’, were versions of Tennyson, with whom Foulkes corresponded.  A Liberal in politics, he was interested in the rise of the labour movement, and wrote one of the earliest essays in Welsh on socialism.  After his death in 1917 Robert Williams Parry wrote a sonnet in his memory, ‘Edward Ffoulkes’, published in Yr haf a cherddi eraill (1924).  The poem captures the breadth of Foulkes’s interests and sympathies:

Fe garodd bob rhyw geinder is y rhod
Mewn natur, mewn celfyddyd, ac mewn dysg;
‘Roedd hefyd ar ei bryd a’i osgedd nôd
Y dynion nid adweinir yn ein mysg …

as well as Foulkes’s ability to explore untrodden paths:

Gerddodd angysbell ffyrdd, cans i’r fath un
‘Roedd rhodio’n orffwys, a myfyrio’n hedd.

Leave a Reply