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Pictures and Poems 5 : Flower in the Crannied Wall

Alfred Lord Tennyson

I’m looking for Tennyson, been looking for years. Started with Mr Whitney reading Crossing the Bar to a class, mostly bored, of nine year olds but I liked this sort of thing and went home by way of the library. Found the verse in the reference section (for some reason) and my junior library card wouldn’t let me loan from there; so I copied it out. That night learning it by heart.

And in another class…

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

Came a year or two later and I tried to get to whole thing. Testing myself as I pushed newspapers through doors on winter mornings while ducking cannons to right of me, cannons to left of me. Much later, while a Manchester student I got word my sister had died and I cried and had nowhere to go for it was in the early hours and no trains ran. She was seventeen, had barely lived and travelled little, if at all. She was the first person close to me who’d died. I felt I barely knew her. The darkness was huge. Grief came like a flood and I had only poetry that night. I turned to Tennyson and I read In Memoriam from A to Z. It took til dawn.

I envy not in any moods
         The captive void of noble rage,
         The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods:
I envy not the beast that takes
         His license in the field of time,
         Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;
Nor, what may count itself as blest,
         The heart that never plighted troth
         But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
         I feel it, when I sorrow most;
         ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.


Later still I discovered Idylls of the King and tramped the West Country from Tintagel to Aller, From Queen’s Camel to Glastonbury Tor armed with legends. I’d loved the Arthur stories from a small boy but found the best telling in Tennyson. From Bedivere seeing the great brand Excalibur make lightenings in the moon as he finally flung the sword away to the mirror cracking from side to side in the tower of the Lady of Shalott, I was entranced.I’ve never wandered too closely to the man himself. From what I know I think I’d find him troublesome. He was demanding, divorced from reality and never washed. He had a band of loyal friends who let him be what he was and what he was was difficult ( and not a little smelly). My admiration is huge but its mostly for what he did rather than for who he was. I’d gladly invite Keats or Stevie Smith or Thomas Grey to my imaginary dinner party of poets. I think I’d pass on Tennyson. But he was a wild and captivating man to look at. The hanging locks, the grizzled beard, the face like a thousand crags and huge Ulster coats and a hat you could seek on the top of a crumpetty tree.

One of that group of friends was the artist George Frederick Watts and it was to him that the task fell of honouring the poet with a statue. Watts was in his 80s and never lived to see the statue unveiled. But what a wonderful job he did. Nine tenths of the glory of Lincoln cathedral (Once the tallest building in the world) is round the front. The back is magnificent too but is almost always caught in shadow. This is the less visited side, the quiet side, the gloomy side and this is where Tennyson can be found.

If you visit Lincoln (and you should!) enjoy the castle and the close and the amazing front and interior of the mighty church. But take a little time to wander in the shade and visit Tennyson, and his dog, and spend a little time contemplating the two most important subjects in anybody’s mind; those things that are known and understood and those things which are neither known nor understood. For millennia we have searched for truth and beauty, for understanding of our lives and world through religion and science. Answers (real answers) come rarely but the questions remain in every head and are seldom so well expressed as in the six lines of the poem that Watts captured in the towering reproduction of his friend.

Flower in the Crannied Wall 

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

And there, in the presence of one of the corniest rhymes in the history of English poetry is the answer to the question “Why are we here?” Put simply; to find out as much as we can.