THE BROOK


 The Grand Old Man of Letters, statue of the Poet Laureate in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge 

The Grand Old Man of Letters, statue of the Poet Laureate in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge 

Tennyson, born Alfred but now known from his title as Alfred Lord Tennyson, was a prolific and popular poet. He was a favourite of Queen Victoria, was made Poet Laureate in 1850 and was given a peerage in 1884 as Baron Tennyson. He became a grand old man of letters. My Globe Edition of Poetical Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson (1908) runs to 650 pages, much of which is unreadable today.

However he did write celebrated poems that are remembered today: ‘In Memoriam’, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘Break, Break, Break'. He also wrote the apparently light lyric 'The Brook'. It is often described as a metaphor for human life, as a personification of a stream and as a simple poem. It's  often studied at school. It sounds light, as a song lyric. There are no obvious problems apart from a few rural or archaic words such as "coot", "hern" "bicker" and "thorpes", meaning a kind of duck, a heron, to flow and a village or town respectively. 

These are the first four stanzas, which will give an idea of the musicality and apparent simplicity:

                                    I come from haunts of coot and hern,

                                        I make a sudden sally

                                   And sparkle out among the fern,

                                       To bicker down a valley.

 

                                   By thirty hills I hurry down,

                                      Or slip between the ridges,

                                   By twenty thorpes, a little town,

                                      And half a hundred bridges.

 

                                   Till last by Philip's farm I flow

                                       To join the brimming river,

                                   For men may come and men may go,

                                       But I go on for ever.

 

                                    I chatter over stony ways,

                                       In little sharps and trebles,

                                    I bubble into eddying bays,

                                       I babble on the pebbles.

 The Old Rectory at Somersby, which was Tennyson's home for the most of the first thirty years of his life.

The Old Rectory at Somersby, which was Tennyson's home for the most of the first thirty years of his life.

Yet this is also an important poem, for he remained a deep and loyal friend to those he loved, and to the places he loved. This is best understood in the small villages of east Lincolnshire, where he was born. His father was the rector of Somersby and also two other parishes - all with minuscule population. They spent summers on the Lincolnshire coast, at Mablethorpe where they rented a cottage near the broad sandy beach, and he went to school in nearby Louth. It was not an auspicious start on the road to laureateship and peerage compared to the rich and semi-aristocratic Byron and Shelley - or even his friend Arthur Hallam, who had been to Eton like Shelley.

He went to Trinity College in Cambridge, where in 1829 he met the much wealthier student and poet Hallam. His new friend came to stay in Somersby, and fell in love with Tennyson’s sister. They travelled together, and wrote together. But just three years later Arthur died while travelling in Europe, at the age of 22. Tennyson never forgot him. Perhaps his greatest poem, ‘In Memoriam’, written twenty years after that first meeting, was in memory of Hallam; he named his son Hallam. Other poems were written with Hallam in mind.

 The old bridge over Tennyson's favourite brook, a few minutes walk from the Rectory where he lived.

The old bridge over Tennyson's favourite brook, a few minutes walk from the Rectory where he lived.

'The Brook' may have been too, at least in part, because using that brief period in Somerby they must have spent time at Tennyson’s favourite spot, just down the road from the rectory. In the extended version, the lines:

                                                               crost

      By that old bridge which, half in ruins then,

      Still makes a hoary eyebrow for the gleam

      Beyond it, where the waters marry…

Make absolute sense when we see the bridge and brook where Tennyson loved to spend time as a youth.

His feelings about this brook, and its central role in his life,  were expressed in ‘A Farewell’, published in 1842 when the family left Somersby.

          Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea,

          Thy tribute wave deliver:

          No more by thee my steps shall be,

          For ever and for ever.

 

          Flow, softly flow, by lawn and lea,

          A rivulet then a river:

          No where by thee my steps shall be,

          For ever and for ever.

 

          But here will sigh thine alder tree,

          And here thine aspen shiver;

          And here by thee will hum the bee,

          For ever and for ever.

 

          A thousand suns will stream on thee,

          A thousand moons will quiver;

          But not by thee my steps shall be,

          For ever and for ever.

The sense of place, and of absolute loyalty to place both in returning there so often and in the most important memories of his life, of his brothers and Hallam, are a key to understanding Tennyson.

                                  St Margaret's Church at Somersby, where Tennyson's father was the rector.

                                 St Margaret's Church at Somersby, where Tennyson's father was the rector.