Tuesday 3 July 2018

From the Diaries of Mr Alfred Tennyson, 1848

This blog's been a bit quiet because the Team Tsathogga campaign is on hold for the summer, and I'm trying to finish a book on poetry and insanity in the early nineteenth century, which is currently absorbing most of my mental energy.

Occasionally, however, I chance across something that looks potentially gameable.

These are all real extracts from Tennyson’s journal, written during a trip to Cornwall he made in the summer of 1848. Maybe it’s just his choice of words and imagery, but I can’t help the feeling that there’s some kind of Call of Cthulhu adventure going on in the background. Something to do with caves and slimes, sea-birds and shipwrecks, weird fossils and ruined castles, Arthurian relics and isolated seaside towns. 

I wish I knew who the ‘Ethiopian serenaders’ were on July 19th.

Image result for alfred tennyson
'It's all getting a bit squamous, old boy...'

Anyway. Here it is.
  • May 30th: 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.
  • May 31st: Walked through Bude and came down on coast, angry waves rushing in.
  • June 2nd: Took a gig to Reverend Hawker at Morwenstow. Walk on cliff with him, told of shipwreck.
  • June 4th: Rainy and bad, went and sat in Tintagel ruins, cliff all black and red and yellow, weird looking thing.
  • June 5th: Went through the sea-tunnel cavern over great blocks. Walls lined with shells, pink or puce jellies. Girls playing about the rocks as in a theatre.
  • June 6th: Slate quarries, one great pillar left standing; ship under the cliff loading; went into a tavern all polished with the waves like dark marble with veins of pink and white. Follow’d up little stream falling through the worn slate, smoked a pipe at a little inn, dined, walked once more to the old castle darkening in the gloom.
  • June 7th: Slaughter bridge, clear brook among alders. Sought for King Arthur’s stone, found it at last by a rock under two or three sycamores, walked seaward, came down by churchyard. Song from ship.
  • June 8th: Walked seaward. Large rich crimson clover; sea purple and green like a peacock’s neck.
  • June 9th: Walked up the rope walk. The two Hewitts rowed me some way up the river, very civil of them, intelligent men, one quoted Milton. Fine bank of wood and echo.
  • June 13th: Wind began to blow cold.
  • June 15th: Mr Peach showed me some of his fossils out of the clay slate.
  • June 17th: Mr Peach showed me zoophytes, corallines, a spider, strange sights through microscope.
  • June 20th: Set off for Polperro, ripple-mark, queer old narrow-streeted place, back at 9. Turf-fires on the hills; jewel-fires in the waves from the oar which the Cornish people call ‘bryming’.
  • June 21st: Lostwithiel. Remains of palace, old castle circular, muffled in ivy.
  • July 1st: Coast looked gray and grand in the fading light. Went into cave, Rembrandt-like light through the opening.
  • July 3rd: Went with candles into great cave, round the rock through surf. Mr S. bore me on his back through surf.
  • July 6th: Went to Land’s End by Logan rock, leadenbacked mews wailing on cliff, one with two young ones. Mist. Great yellow flare just before sunset. Funeral. Land’s End and Life’s End.
  • July 7th: Back to Penzance, sat long with Mr Rodd, birds in drawing room.
  • July 8th: The Lizard, rocks in sea, two southern eyes of England. Tamarisk hedge in flower.
  • July 10th: Glorious grass-green monsters of waves. Into caves of Asparagus Island. Sat watching wave-rainbows. Glorious ranks of waves and billows. By coast to Lizard Point: saw sunset thence.
  • July 11th: Down to Lizard cove. Saw the further ships under Penzance like dark beads threading the sunny shore.
  • July 12th: Bathed, ran in and out of cave. Went and lay over Pentreath beach, thunder of waves to west.
  • July 13th: Sailed, could not land at Kynance. Saw the long green swell heaving on the black cliff, rode into Pigeonthugo, dismal wailing of mews.
  • July 15th: To Truro, Brazilian miner.
  • July 19th: Ethiopian serenaders, sole hope of evening.
  • July 20th: Cotehele old hall, brutal mannered housekeeper, tapestried rooms (grape gatherers, dogs, etc).
  • July 21st: To point of Dartmoor, rain, rain.
  • July 24th: Flea’d at night.
  • July 25th: Mr Talfourd talked of Nature, very interesting evening.
  • July 26th: Pretty railway by the sea.


  1. The hills are shadows, and they flow
    From form to form, and nothing stands;

    1. In Memorian was completed in 1849, so the timing is almost spot on...

  2. Yep -- just after his Cthuloid point crawl.

  3. Oh. This is fantastic, seems like the formula for a Tim Powers novel.

    1. I know, right? 'Strange sights through microscope' is the kind of hint that just begs for fictional elaboration...

  4. Oh god it's like a horror movie keeps trying to start but Tennyson just doesn't give a fuuccck. He is baiting entropy.

    The little girls playing in the cave, angry waves, wierd cliffs, slaughter bridge, the theme music starts to rise but Tennyson has already fucked off over the hill, oblivious, and the cast is left standing around.

    1. That's a brilliant way of describing it, actually. He'd be a terrible player in a 'Call of Cthulhu' game.

      'Spooky happenings at the old ruin, you say? OK, I thank the mysterious old man politely, leave town on the next train, and carry on with my seaside holiday...'

  5. Are his entries that terse or did you do your own extracting?

    I'm reminded more of MR James, A Warning to the Curious perhaps.

    1. Some of these are complete entries. Others are extracts from slightly longer entries, but none of the entries are more than a few lines long. My main editorial intervention has been to cut the entries for the less interesting days.

      And I agree that they're very M.R. Jamesian. Although, as Patrick's pointed out, Tennyson seems to lack the fatal curiosity that undoes so many of James' protagonists.

    2. ==I'm trying to finish a book on poetry and insanity in the early nineteenth century

      Can you unpack 'poetry and insanity'? is it poets deliberately unhinging themselves, or attracted to marginal figures or cracking unambiguous language?

      I have been put off Tennyson by the more charismatic guardians of the canon, whom I admire, and have not read his work. Perhaps his journals are more interesting! Do you like him?

    3. The second quarter of the 19th century saw the rise of 'Romantic' ideas of poetic genius - the idea that being a true poet meant possessing the kind of mystic visionary insight into reality written about by Wordsworth and Shelley. But it also saw the rise of a new medicalised psychiatry which was swift to interpret all kinds of unusual states of consciousness in medicalised and pathological terms.

      So imagine you're Tennyson in 1830-ish. You keep having these weird trances, and you want to be a poet. Your poetic idols tell you that visions and trances are exactly the kind of experiences that true poets should be having - but, at the same time, they're building this huge new asylum down the road, and you know that you've got a family history of insanity, and people keep publishing books about how uncontrolled imagination can threaten your mental health. So how do you interpret your trances and intuitions? Are they mystical insights, or symptoms of incipient insanity? The various ways in which the poets of the period worked through this question forms the subject of the book.

      I do like Tennyson, but I like his earlier work more than the poems he produced as Victoria's poet laureate. I think 'Ulysses', 'Le Morte D'Arthur', 'St Simeon Stylites', and 'Maud' are all great poems. But he's a very depressive writer, so if you prefer poems about people actually doing things rather than poems about people standing around feeling anxious and sad then you're likely to find him rather frustrating!

    4. ==it also saw the rise of a new medicalised psychiatry

      I didn't realise psychiatry began that early, I would have guessed 1860 or so. You have identified a neat tension between the two groups. I have often thought that poets should make good psycho-analysts but of course the ideal patient is the artist, like those you have described, so I'm really imagining a dialogue between equals. You don't need to be a poet to listen sympathetically to a neurotic housewife.

      The kind of poetry I prefer is that which puts me in awe of the language being used, I'm open when it comes to content. I really wanted to get a handsome edition of Idylls of the King but I wasn't impressed by his language in the way I am by Wordsworth's or Browning's.

    5. Well, 1830s style psychiatry didn't have much in common with modern psychoanalysis. The kind of psychological thinking that led to Freud mostly kicked off in the 1850s and 60s, so your guess was pretty close...

      I don't think 'Idylls' is his best work. Take a look at his earlier Arthurian stuff - 'Morte D'Arthur' and 'The Lady of Shallot' - and see what you think.

      And it's good to know that someone out there is still reading Browning!

    6. I will take a look at his earlier work. I do feel something of a fool judging some of the greatest writers who have lived but with so many hours in the week for reading some form of triage is necessary.

      I think it was Jeeves who put me onto Browning. I picked up a nice Limited Editions Club edition, if you live in the states the LEC are the best value for money books in circulation imo.

  6. Thank you for these journal entries, JM. I wish Edward Gorey had had the idea to illustrate these when he was alive. I can imagine something like The Iron Tonic coming from them.

    1. Oh, wow, I hadn't known about The Iron Tonic. Those are *wonderful*!

  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_Serenaders