I had to go to see a man about a matter and found that he lived on Tennyson St. "Into the valley of death," I bellowed as I drove up to his house, "rode the six hundred."
Here in Christchurch we've got a Torville and Dean Lane - how many people under 40 would know who they were? - and a Hillary Cres - alongside, I'm pleased to say, a Tensing Cres of equal size - but most of the streets were named by and after the Victorian English who laid them out in the 19th century.
They thought well of their politicians back then so there's a Gladstone Quay and a Disraeli St. But it's writers who predominate, and especially poets. I used to drive to school along Wordsworth St and Shakespeare St and then teach Wordsworth and Shakespeare. And I taught a few bits of dear old Tennyson.
At my secondary school there was a prize for reading out loud and one year we were given a chunk of Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur to recite. Fifty years on it's still there in my skull.
Then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.
It's vintage Tennyson, a romantic fantasy, rich with sadness. He was a sentimental writer, but then he was writing in a sentimental age for a sentimental audience. Victorian readers loved to indulge their feelings, to wallow in a deep warm bath of emotion. Dickens wrote their novels, Tennyson their poems.
And though he was no great thinker and he had little of substance to say, Tennyson was a master of the language. To recite the lines above is to be drawn in by his hypnotic control of rhythm. And look at the clarity of those images in the second four lines, all done with the simplest words that sound like the things they conjure.
Tennyson's emotional territory was grief and loss. He knew the numbness of despair.
Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O sea,
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
Aside from the Charge of the Light Brigade, which is a piece of jingoistic rara, his best known poem is In Memoriam, a long and melancholic meditation brought about by the death of his best friend Arthur Hallam from a stroke at the age of 22. From there comes the famous couplet:
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
It was to this poem that Queen Victoria turned after she was widowed, and she took such consolation from it that she summoned Tennyson for an audience. By then Tennyson was a famous man and his fame had brought wealth and a large house on the Isle of Wight. But he found he couldn't live there in the summer because too many tourists came looking for him. Celebrity culture is nothing new.
He was poet laureate for the last 42 years of his life, during which time he became Alfred, Lord Tennyson, took a seat in the House of Lords with his great long beard, pontificated on the matters of the day and wrote almost nothing worth reading. Like a lot of poets, he'd done his good stuff young.
And the best of that good stuff for me is Ulysses, a gem of a poem, much anthologised and rightly so. It tells of Ulysses as an old man becalmed at home and resenting it and deciding that there is scope in his life for one last journey.
… for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It's nonsense but it's stirring nonsense and as I knocked on the door of the man in Tennyson St, I found myself reciting the closing lines:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
The man was out. I got into my car and drove home.