Monday, December 7, 2009

The Laureate's Sister

Cecelia Tennyson

Park House was always like a secret,
set on the north side of the valley
among beech woods, but overlooking
them and the main line from London

to Maidstone. Behind the narrow front
containing only a bare entrance hall,
stood another hall, much more likeable,
with a fine circular stone staircase rising

to the floor where Cecelia lived. Cecelia,
eleventh of the twelve Tennyson children,
whom I saw only for moments at a time
in the beginning of the new century. "Zilly,"

she said, tapping downstairs after tea
(and never before, whatever the weather),
"I'm out for a stroll." Zilly was my friend,
her only daughter – an old lady herself

and knew the routines. On her way through
the larger hall with the view, Cecelia stopped
to stroke the bust of her first-born, Edmund,
who had died young, with a fastidious look

that might have been mistaken as a reproach
to idle dusting, except she spoke to the boy
very affectionately. Once I heard her say this:
"Tasso, I think, speaks of an infant's death

beautifully. I cannot recollect the words,
but it sipped the cup of life and perceiving
its bitterness turned its head and refused
the draught"; and on a different occasion

and again, with no word for her Maker
"A sorrow like ours can neither be increased
nor diminished by outward circumstances;
it has a life independent of them." Afterwards

she wandered outside into the gardens
where she would stray for twenty minutes.
Zilly and I looked aside then, but still waited
to be visible when she stepped back indoors,

always saying to Zilly, if it were winter-time,
in a deep, complaining and mournful voice,
"Very dark tonight." To which Zilly replied,
"Of course it is my dear. The sun has gone down."

from The Mower : New & Selected Poems by Andrew Motion.

Park House in the North Downs was owned by Tennyson's college friend Edmund Law Lushington ("the accomplished Greek and German scholar, and Egyptologist") who married Tennyson's sister Cecelia in 1842. The wedding was famously described in the concluding section of In Memoriam, while the park surrounding the house became the model for the setting of The Princess. Today only the coach house survives from Park House.