Gladstone and Tennyson
It is refreshing to turn aside from the atmosphere of politics to the friendship between the greatest statesman and the greatest poet in the reign of Queen Victoria.
They first met, as quite young men, a few months after the death of Arthur Hallam. Gladstone having been his closest school friend, Tennyson had an almost romantic desire to see him.
"It was about the year 1837 when lie called on me in Carlton Gardens," says Mr. Gladstone. "This was an unexpected honour, for I had no other tie with him than having been in earlier life the friend of his friend, to whom he afterwards erected so splendid a literary monument.
A warm friendship sprang up between the two men. In July 1871 we find the Gladstones staying a Aldworth with the Tennysons, Mr. Gladstone listening with full appreciation to the poet reading his "Holy Grail" aloud. The day after their arrival they all walked to Blackdown—Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone frisking about like a boy and girl in the heather, according to the poet's account. He describes the statesman as a very noble fellow, and perfectly unaffected, a man of versatile mind and great impulsiveness. But, adds Tennyson, "One could not but feel but humbled in the presence of those whose life was evidently one long self-sacrifice . . . . Mrs. Gladstone wears herself out by all her hospital work, in addition to the work of a Prime Minister's wife. Her daughter helps her, and helps her brother also in his bad Lambeth parish."
A few years later we get a picture of the return visit, when the poet and his wife arrived at Hawarden Castle in the autumn of 1876. Here, while the autumn tints touched to a golden glory the old trees in the Hawarden Park, and the sunlight lay broad over the sea-blown land, the poet and statesman discussed the large topics of the world which lay near to the hearts of both. They spoke of the great Italian poet Dante, whom both had learned to love; they spoke of Gladstone's latest speech and the poet's latest song, until Tennyson returned to his winter quarters at Farringford, and wrote to his hostess: "We retain golden memories of our visit to Hawarden, and your statesman, not like Diocletian among his cabbages, but among his oaks, axe in hand."
As time passed on they grew further and further apart in polities.
"I love Gladstone, but I hate his Irish policy," Tennyson was known to exclaim.
Gladstone would try to convert him to see the gratitude of Ireland to England. "Some Irish labourers," he told him one day, "came over to England to help with the English harvest. A Yorkshire farmer lent them a barn to sleep in. Next season, when they came over, they carried on their shoulders, each by turn, a keg of whisky as a present to their host."
But Tennyson had been in Ireland, and he did not believe in the genuine gratitude of Ireland, as a nation, to England.
In the autumn of 1883 they both went for a holiday cruise in the Pembroke Castle. Thousands of people lined the shore as they embarked, cheering in turn for "Gladstone" and "Tennyson." Both men were "as jovial together as boys out for a holiday, but they took good care to keep off the quagmire of polities." They passed the grand headlands of Skye; they landed and drove between "ferny, heathery hills" with wild grey crags; they listened to the music of rushing rivers, and thought the whole landscape more beautiful than anything they had ever seen. And both men were seventy-four, within four months of each other!
At Kirkwall a speech was called for, to which Mr. Gladstone responded, speaking for himself and the poet. His words were generous and fine. "Mr. Tennyson's life and labours correspond in point of time as nearly as possible to my own," he said; ''but Mr. Tennyson's exertions have been on a higher plane of human action than my own. He has worked in a higher field, and his work will be more durable. We public men play a part which places us much in view of our countrymen; it is our business to speak, but the words which we speak have wings and fly away and disappear. In distant times some may ask with regard to the Prime Minister, 'Who was he, and what did the do? We know nothing about him.' The work of Mr. Tennyson is of a higher order. The Poet Laureate has written his own song on the hearts of his countrymen that can never die."
They went over to Copenhagen, and passed between Denmark and Sweden, entertaining the King and Queen of Denmark on board, the Czar and Czarina, the King and Queen of Greece, and many other interesting people.
It was on this voyage that Mr. Gladstone urged on Tennyson to accept a peerage, wishing thus "publicly to proclaim the position which literature ought to hold in the world's work."
Though usually avoiding politics Tennyson once expressed himself strongly to his political friend in verse:—
Four year before Gladstone, Lord Tennyson passed away. His love for the great statesman remained to the end, and only a few hours before his death he turned to his son, saying,—
"Have I not been walking with Gladstone in the garden and showing him my trees?"
Both now lie in Westminster Abbey, among the great and brave of our land.