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Tennyson, Shakespeare and Women


At the moment I’m working with the wonderful team that made The Trial of Lady Godiva, on creating a companion piece on Tennyson’s poem Godiva. This is a joy to work on, sourcing images from artistic representations of the story and around the themes explored by the poem. It’s an exercise in visual storytelling but also aims to bring the contemporary relevance of Tennyson’s 1840 poem home to modern audiences.


The statue of Lady Godiva in the centre of Coventry is regularly a place for modern day protests. One of her legacies is as a historic symbol of civic justice. Tennyson himself eludes to this fact:

Not only we, the latest seed of Time,

New men, that in the flying of a wheel

Cry down the past, not only we, that prate

Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,

And loathed to see them overtax’d; but she

Did more, and underwent, and overcame,

The woman of a thousand summers back…


In Tennyson’s present time the ‘new men’, ‘the latest seed of Time’ talk of societal injustices but a woman centuries ago set the precedent, and indeed, ‘did more’. Sadly there is no shortage of images on Coventry’s modern day poverty, homelessness and the deprivation imposed by callous and unjust distributions of wealth and social support. A mixture of footage from documentary, art and film form a montage which complements Tennyson’s clear and beautiful poem to female protest and power.


Coincidentally, my PhD work draws on an allusion to another Tennyson woman - The Lady of Shallott. The Shakespeare Memorial Room is now situated at the top of the Library of Birmingham in a modern gold, circular crown, overlooking the city. Very few people who look at the new Library of Birmingham realise what resides in that golden tower. The Shakespeare Collection itself is locked in stacks and only accessible on request. Shakespeare has effectively been hidden away from the people of Birmingham. Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallott seems a suitable poetic analogy with Shakespeare sitting separate from the world, ‘to hold as ‘there the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ (Hamlet, 3.2). Unfortunately, that mirror sits in such high a place that no one sees that reflection.


The repositioning and reimagining of Shakespeare, an author so embedded in the national consciousness, is a mammoth task but possibly a necessary one if the Everything to Everybody Project is to demonstrate the civic impact of the Shakespeare collection and propose a sustainable way forward for it within the city. Unlike the Lady of Shallott, Shakespeare’s descent from his isolated tower might then avoid that fatality resulting from a lack of comprehension or connection to his art. It may be possible through a steady and gradual reevaluation, the accumulation of his works and the world’s reaction to them will find their reflection in today’s city. The city will then hopefully look at Shakespeare as intended by the collection's founder, George Dawson, as theirs and a reflection of their potential, their greatness, their beauty and their value.


Tennyson, the longest serving Poet Laureate (1850-1892), a poet and dramatist who worked with the ultimate Victorian actor/manager, Sir Henry Irving, often found expression for his art and themes through female characters. He was inspired by Shakespeare to an enormous degree and one of his more famous poems, Mariana, draws on Measure for Measure, a play about mercy and justice vying against the strict enforcement of the law. I have come full-circle!


On his death bed, Tennyson called not for the Bible in his final hours but for the works of Shakespeare. In his essay, ‘Shakespeare and the Death of Tennyson’, Christopher Decker explores this spiritual relationship between the spokesman for the Victorian poet and the Bard. Tennyson’s son, Hallam recalled in his father’s Memoir how: ‘At noon he called out, ‘Where is my Shakespeare? I must have my Shakespeare.’’ In biblical style he called for his copy of the complete works three times, again at 10pm and at 2am before his death, the book open at the lines:

Hang there like fruit, my soul,

Till the tree die…

Even Tennyson’s doctor recalled how he died with ‘his hand clasping the Shakespeare which he had asked for but recently, and which he had kept by him to the end.’

One of the first rare books I bought was the Moxon edition of Tennyson’s works, illustrated by the Pre-Raphaelites - it’s a very beautiful and much loved book. The illustrations to this post come from that edition. And, just because I adore it, here is:


Mariana by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


"Mariana in the Moated Grange"

(Shakespeare, Measure for Measure)


With blackest moss the flower-plots

Were thickly crusted, one and all:

The rusted nails fell from the knots

That held the pear to the gable-wall.

The broken sheds look'd sad and strange:

Unlifted was the clinking latch;

Weeded and worn the ancient thatch

Upon the lonely moated grange.

She only said, "My life is dreary,

He cometh not," she said;

She said, "I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!"


Her tears fell with the dews at even;

Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;

She could not look on the sweet heaven,

Either at morn or eventide.

After the flitting of the bats,

When thickest dark did trance the sky,

She drew her casement-curtain by,

And glanced athwart the glooming flats.

She only said, "The night is dreary,

He cometh not," she said;

She said, "I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!"

Upon the middle of the night,

Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:

The cock sung out an hour ere light:

From the dark fen the oxen's low

Came to her: without hope of change,

In sleep she seem'd to walk forlorn,

Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn

About the lonely moated grange.

She only said, "The day is dreary,

He cometh not," she said;

She said, "I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!"


About a stone-cast from the wall

A sluice with blacken'd waters slept,

And o'er it many, round and small,

The cluster'd marish-mosses crept.

Hard by a poplar shook alway,

All silver-green with gnarled bark:

For leagues no other tree did mark

The level waste, the rounding gray.

She only said, "My life is dreary,

He cometh not," she said;

She said "I am aweary, aweary

I would that I were dead!"


And ever when the moon was low,

And the shrill winds were up and away,

In the white curtain, to and fro,

She saw the gusty shadow sway.

But when the moon was very low

And wild winds bound within their cell,

The shadow of the poplar fell

Upon her bed, across her brow.

She only said, "The night is dreary,

He cometh not," she said;

She said "I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!"


All day within the dreamy house,

The doors upon their hinges creak'd;

The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse

Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd,

Or from the crevice peer'd about.

Old faces glimmer'd thro' the doors

Old footsteps trod the upper floors,

Old voices called her from without.

She only said, "My life is dreary,

He cometh not," she said;

She said, "I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!"



The sparrow's chirrup on the roof,

The slow clock ticking, and the sound

Which to the wooing wind aloof

The poplar made, did all confound

Her sense; but most she loathed the hour

When the thick-moted sunbeam lay

Athwart the chambers, and the day

Was sloping toward his western bower.

Then said she, "I am very dreary,

He will not come," she said;

She wept, "I am aweary, aweary,

Oh God, that I were dead!"

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