Reaching the bottom

Written in response to Side View’s theme: details at

There are times in one’s life when one seems to be staring directly at a brick wall.

No matter all those moments of promise which have gone before: words of well-grounded praise, rooms of applauding admirers, accolades and awards: these seem to crumble into dust in one’s hands and one stands, contemplating immoveable masonry and mortar barely an inch from one’s nose.

It is what one does, at these moments, that shapes us ultimately: because the brick wall can often prove a crossroads.

It was unusual that a grammar school boy, son of a Vicar of Grimsby, should not only make it to Cambridge, but win the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for poetry at 20 – “no slight honour”, someone high up commented at the time. His first book of poetry had got him noticed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is good to have powerful friends.

The young man’s name was Alfred Tennyson. And his brilliant world was about to become smaller.

In 1831 Tennyson’s father died. His Cambridge career was brought abruptly to an end as he was recalled to the Rectory where the family was allowed to stay for another six years. His responsibility lay with his family now.

But he still had his poetry. Though some criticised it as sentimental, it was making ripples across the literary world. If Tennyson could continue to write successfully, then all was not lost. Indeed Cambridge would seem simply an unpalatable inconvenience.

Two years after the cataclysmic change in his life he published his second volume of poetry. And the critics tore it to shreds.

Tennyson was devastated. The door to his father’s life closed; then the door to his academic studies; finally, it seemed, the door to his writing.

Many writers will be reading this, and will know how searing and final such rejection seems.

He did not publish again for ten long years.

To cap it all, the family made an unwise investment in a church wood-carving venture and much of their amassed fortune disappeared in a cloud of wood shavings.

Could it get any worse? To fall from his early heights to this: living modestly somewhere in Twickenham, unpublished for a decade?

But  anecdotes about Tennyson show he was made of stern, if slightly sentimental stuff. This man was the zeitgeist of Victoriana. Not for him, bricks and mortar: not for long.

He knew his early stuff was good. So in 1842 Tennyson published two volumes of poems: one of old stuff, published before, but with that It-feeling that he knew in his bones would suit the Now: the Victorian spirit was in full swing, and perhaps Tennyson had simply been a man before his time.

The second was a volume of hitherto unpublished work.

They were a tearaway success. And they have endured. Eight years later they were casting around for a Poet Laureate to follow in Wordsworth’s hallowed footsteps and eventually Tennyson was offered the post. Victoria adored him and pressed a Baronetcy on him, which he politely refused. Disraeli would repeat the entreaty more than once; but it took Gladstone’s offer of a seat in the House of Lords to make him relent.

The man was, and is, an icon.

His are some of the only words I know by heart, and all because of stanzas published in that fateful second volume of verse: The Lady Of Shalott.

Here sits a metaphor at the top of a tall tower, staring into a mirrored reflection, terrified to look out into the real world.

And with good reason: if she did, this tragic figure from the Arthurian tales would bring upon herself a curse, and die.

Through the mirror she gazes at the world passing by, desperate to be part of it yet held back by enchantment of the very nastiest kind. This, Reader, is psychological torture. You may look, but you may never belong. She is, says the poet, half-sick of shadows.

Until a bow-shot disintegrated everything with fatal speed.

She saw Lancelot, didn’t she? The Byron of his day: the King’s best friend, sane, quite good, but oh, so dangerous to know. If Queen Guinevere could not resist him how was our lady of the tower to avoid looking up from the mirror?

The rest is literary legend. The mirror cracked and Tennyson allowed his heroine just enough time to come down from the tower and arrange herself in an aesthetically pleasing pose in a boat on the river, before wandering wistfully off this mortal coil. By the time the knight saw her it was way too late, and polite nothings about her having a lovely face didn’t help anyone.

She came to mind, this mythical recluse, when I read a blog today.

Beautifully phrased, intricately argued, it was a writer who works two shifts a week and spends the rest in a dream world. He longs to get out to see the real world: to experience a vivid life, travelling and achieving and living to the full; but something stops him.

An enervating stasis? He believes not. This may be, he says, how he is meant to be: an observer looking in the mirror to watch events on the outside, dreaming of his heart’s desire.

But for such a talented writer, I did wonder of he was staring at the very same wall Tennyson met, all those years before.

I have no way of knowing. But such writing should not go unnoticed. As someone once said about a beautiful woman lying in a boat: God in his mercy lend them grace…

23 thoughts on “Reaching the bottom

  1. Bravo! You executed this post as you always do and had me close to tears on this one, Kate. We all have such mirrors, at times at least. I know I do – then there are other times that I pay it no heed . . .

    1. It’s hard to judge when to engage and when to withdraw, Penny, isn’t it? I am forever getting it wrong. But I do love life down there, way away from the lofty heights of that tower.

  2. I am the lady of the tower, or have been until relatively recently; sooner or later, one must bring oneself into the world or die (the thing to remember is, one dies regardless – and there are, it seems to me, many deaths worse than the unavoidable one). My mother, who has advanced macular degeneration and thus has only heard of this old converted-house apartment I live in now, asks me regularly if I still live up in my tree… 🙂 The place was bought by developers a couple of years ago and we all know developers are not that much into keeping the status quo, no matter how quaint and pretty. They’ve already chopped down all the trees, except for the tall pear right outside my window. The mirror has cracked, I do believe, but unlike Tennyson’s heroine, I have been preparing myself to wander (hopefully not too wistfully) into (onto?) “this mortal coil.”

    I am delighted you’re still (again) with us – you have a unique and enchanting way of combining, hm, what Paula said above and I couldn’t possibly say better. 🙂

    1. I hope and trust that when the moment comes to forsake the tree all the preparation means it happens naturally, and you find a lovely replacement tower. It does sound enchanting with the pear tree outside the window. What a beautiful comment, Ruth. Thank you so much 🙂

  3. This generates a good deal of reflection on the nature of artistic success, and the quirks of fate that will obscure a rare talent perhaps never to emerge, perhaps only to do so when it is too late to benefit the artist. One contrasts that against the celebration of many whose contributions are, at best, mediocre.

  4. That was my favourite poem for a long time. Mostly because of Anne of Green Gables. But I still know most of the words to this day. So heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

    1. It is heart-wrenching, isn’t it, Kristine? The picture has stayed with me ever since I first read it more than 25 years ago. Even now, Tennyson’s words and images have a way of enduring.

  5. Really great post, you tied a lot of seemingly disparate elements together, which is always a pleasure to see. As is anything regarding Tennyson; Charge of the Light Brigade gives me chills every time I read it.

    1. I was in two minds, Zoe, whether he was right, and that was where he was meant to be; that kind of existence, almost Carmelite, is so far from my realm of experience I didn’t feel equipped to judge. It did feel very like The Lady though. Posting is a good way to touch the world: a bit like the web she weaves.

      Lovely to hear that 4-minute voice Zoe 🙂 Hope you’re well.

  6. I do believe that I shall have you prepare me a summer reading list Kate. Your writing challenges me and I appreciate that. Before commenting, I scoured a few posts to find a blog that I read earlier that talked of a film or book called something like Beautiful Losers. It apparently tracks several happy impoverished artists whose art becomes more valuable upon their deaths. Seemed fitting with your post but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen it.

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