Arthur’s Bards : Tennyson’s visit to Hawker in 1848

by Charles Cox

Late in 1847, with The Princess finished and safely on its way to publication and his mind turning again to his next major project, Alfred Tennyson expressed the wish to spend the winter ‘alone with God’. His great, long contemplated work on King Arthur was to be set in the far western lands and islands of the Celtic fringe, ‘on the rocky coast of Cornwall, beside the wintry sea’. And at Bude, he told his friend Aubrey de Vere, ‘there are larger waves . . . than on any other part of the British coast’.

It was in fact not until six months later that Tennyson, having paid an extended visit to Ireland and toyed with the idea of a trip to Italy or perhaps to France, maybe with Ralph Waldo Emerson, possibly on his own, at last ‘set out for Lyonesse’, arriving in Bude at the county’s northeastern corner late on the 30th May 1848 and putting up at the Falcon Hotel.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

The lines are by Thomas Hardy, who made his own first, fateful journey to this same shore in 1870. What befell the young Hardy was love and marriage and that famous long estrangement that resulted in immortal heart-broken poetry of guilt and loss. What happened to Tennyson was rather different: he fell six foot off a wall and hurt his knee.

Tennyson’s own account of the mishap is typically gruff: ‘Arrived at Bude in dark, askt girl way to sea, she opens the back door . . . I go out and in a moment go sheer downward upward of 6 feet over wall on fanged cobbles. Up again and walked to sea over dark hill.’ It is apparently to Henry Hallam, as reported by Caroline Fox, that we owe the soundtrack that accompanied this involuntary poetic flight: ‘Where is the sea? Show me the sea!’ he is said to have cried as he rushed out into the dark and launched himself into the void. Later writers have embroidered further upon Tennyson’s spare narration, and it seems a shame not to quote from one of the more colourful recent versions:

Eager for an immediate glimpse of the waves he asked a girl at his inn the way to the sea. She took him to a back door and pointed into the darkness. With several glasses already inside him he fell from a wall at the back of the inn and dropped more than six foot onto a ‘pavement fang’d with cobbles’, cutting his leg open badly. (The pavement was, in fact, the railway line, and the unusually sharp cobbles the stones between the sleepers . . . )

This is a fine and vivid evocation: unfortunately there was no railway in Bude until fifty years later.

Next morning the newly arrived tourist explored the town and watched the ‘angry waves rushing in’ on the beach. But the injury to his knee was not trifling; he had gashed it badly and afterwards wrote that ‘it was a mercy I didn’t break my kneepan;’ so on the third day of his stay he called in the local doctor, John Dinham. The accident, as it turned out, had been at least in part a happy one. As the doctor attended to the leg it seems that Tennyson enquired after a local literary man, the Rev. Robert Hawker, vicar of the nearby parish of Morwenstow. Quite when or how Tennyson first heard of Hawker is unclear, but that he was aware of him is not surprising. Hawker’s Pompeii won the Newdigate at Oxford a couple of years before Tennyson’s Timbuctoo took the 1829 Cambridge prize, and the two men had published successive volumes more or less in parallel ever since. Hawker’s Echoes from Old Cornwall had appeared in 1846 and effectively established him among the ranks of recognized poets.

Tennyson’s questioning of the doctor constituted rather more than the usual surgery small talk. Dinham reported that his patient made ‘earnest inquiries’ about Hawker, asking whether he was ‘easy of access, affable, &c’. He was obviously contemplating a visit. Now it so happened that Dr Dinham was married to Hawker’s sister, so not only was he able to give positive answers to all Tennyson’s queries, but offered to drive him out to Morwenstow the following day. They parted without, it seems, exchanging names.

Nor apparently did the Doctor ascertain the identity of his passenger as they travelled together on the high and rolling Bude to Bideford road next morning. Tennyson’s journal says, ‘Took a gig to Reverend Hawker at Morwenstow, passing Comb valley – fine view over sea, coldest manner of vicar till I told my name, then all heartiness. Walk on cliff with him, told of shipwreck.’ Hawker’s version of the meeting is, fortunately, much more expansive. Perhaps the initial frigidity of his welcome is explained by his first impression of his unexpected guest, ‘a tall swarthy Spanish-looking man, with an eye like a sword’, but his doubts soon evaporated: ‘He sate down and we conversed. I at once found myself with no common mind’. Their talk quickly turned to poetry, and ‘we then talked about Cornwall and King Arthur, my themes, and I quoted Tennyson’s fine acct. of the restoration of Excalibur to the Lake’. Still, if Hawker is to be believed, he had no idea that his visitor was none other than Tennyson himself, and it was only after he had quoted some lines from ‘Locksley Hall’, said farewell to his departing brother-in-law Dr Dinham, and suggested a walk down to the shore, that Tennyson eventually came out with it:

‘Do you know my name?’

I said , ‘No, I have not even a guess.’

‘Do you wish to know it?’

‘I don’t much care – “that which we call a rose,” etc.’

‘Well, then,’ said he, ‘my name is Tennyson!!’

‘What!’ said I, ‘the Tennyson?’

‘What do you mean by the Tennyson? I am Alfred Tennyson who wrote Locksley Hall’.

The rather too apt coincidence of the quotations, the dramatic tension, the whiff of melodrama as Tennyson at last reveals his identity with, as it were, a swirl of his Spanish cloak, are hard to swallow whole. Hawker’s kindly biographer remarks elsewhere that the Vicar’s antiquarian studies were ‘remarkable rather for beauty of thought and expression than for historical accuracy’. Perhaps the same applies here. For the second time in forty-eight hours Tennyson’s actions take on a curiously mythic quality.

That is not to say that Hawker’s account is without its value, and it is clear that the two poets hit it off splendidly. As they wended down to the rocks they talked of ‘all verses – all lands – the secret history of many of his poems’. Hawker continues,

‘Then, seated on the brow of the Cliff, with Dundagel full in sight, he revealed to me the purpose of his journey to the West. He is about to conceive a Poem – the hero King Arthur – the Scenery in part the vanished Land of Lyonesse, between the Mainland and the Scilly Isles. Much converse then and there befel of Arthur and his Queen, his wound at Camlan and his prophesied return. Legends were exchanged, books noted down and references given.’

They talked and talked. Tennyson stayed to dinner. They pored over books and manuscripts from Hawker’s shelves, some of which Tennyson asked to borrow and which, Hawker noted, ‘I perhaps shall never see again’.

‘Then evening fell. He arose to go; and I agreed to drive him on his way. He demanded a pipe, and produced a package of very common shag. By great good luck my Sexton had about him his own . . . which accordingly the minstrel filled and fired. Wild language occupied the way, until we shook farewell at Combe. This, said Tennyson, has indeed been a day to be remembered.’

Tennyson did remember it; he even remembered, albeit seven years later, ‘those two Lectures which you once lent me’ and offered to return them. ‘A very pleasant day’, he called it; but to Hawker, the older man but by his own tacit and ungrudging admission the lesser poet – to Hawker, in his long and sequestered ministry, it was a red letter day, a day of days, a memory cherished for the rest of his life, ‘a great memorial day in this my solitary place to have heard the voice and seen the form of Alfred Tennyson’. They never met again.

© Charles Cox, 2012