Sunday, September 28, 2014

Professor of poetry

Francis Turner Palgrave, a close friend of Alfred Tennyson and a connoisseur of English poetry, was born 190 years ago today. He worked most of his life as a civil servant in the education service, but in his 60s was elected Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry. Soon after Palgrave’s death, his daughter, Gwenllian, published a book about her father’s life in which she quotes extensively from diaries he kept intermittently for over 50 years.

Palgrave was born on 28 September 1824 in Great Yarmouth, the eldest son of Sir Francis Palgrave, the historian, and his wife Elizabeth Turner, daughter of a banker. He grew up in Yarmouth and also in Hampstead, London, but was largely educated at home, in an atmosphere of ‘high artistic culture’, ‘fervid anglo-catholicism’ and ‘strenuous thought’, until the age of 14, when his father could afford to sent him to Charterhouse public school as a day boy.

After travelling on the Continent, Palgrave won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford; but, in 1846, he interrupted his studies for a year or so to serve as assistant private secretary to William Gladstone. From 1847 to 1862, he was fellow of Exeter College. In 1849, he took up a civil service post in the education department, which led him, from 1850 to 1855, to be vice-principal at Kneller Hall, a government training college for elementary teachers at Twickenham. There he met Alfred Tennyson. When the training college was abandoned, Palgrave returned to Whitehall in 1855, becoming examiner in the education department, and eventually assistant secretary.

Palgrave married Cecil Grenville Milnes in 1862, and they had one son and four daughters. Apart from Tennyson and Gladstone, Palgrave was friends with other notables of the time, including Robert Browning and Matthew Arnold. He wrote and published poetry, in volumes such as Visons of England. However, his principal claim to fame was to publish the Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics (1861), a comprehensive and carefully chosen (in consultation with Tennyson) anthology of the best poetry in the language. This tome is considered to have helped popularise the poetry of William Wordsworth, and to have had a significant influence on poetic taste for several generations.

In 1884, Palgrave resigned his civil service position, and, the following year, was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford. By then, his life was mostly divided between London and Lyme Regis where he had bought a holiday home in 1872, with almost annual visits to Italy. He died in London in 1897. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Dictionary of National Biography (source of the quotes above) or The Twickenham Museum website.

Palgrave kept a journal for much of his life, and although this has not been published separately, Palgrave’s daughter, Gwenllian, included many extracts in her biography: Francis Turner Palgrave - His Journals and Memories of his Life. This was published by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1899. It is freely available at Internet Archive. According to Gwenllian, her father started keeping a journal, intermittently, as early as 1834, in the form of letters to his mother. His last journal entry was in 1890. Here are a few extracts from Palgrave’s diary, culled from 
Gwenllian’s biography,

31 March 1849 [Palgrave’s first meeting with Tennyson]
‘In the evening to Mr. Brookfield’s. Found there Lingen, A. Tennyson; afterwards Thackeray and H. Hallam came. Walked towards Hampstead with A. Tennyson. Conversed on Universities, the ‘Princess,’ his plans, &c.; he very open and friendly: a noble, solid mind, bearing the look of one who had suffered greatly: - strength and sensitiveness blended.’

2 April 1849
‘In the afternoon to A. Tennyson’s in the Hampstead Road. Long conversation with him; he read me songs to be inserted in the ‘Princess,’ and poems on A. Hallam, some exquisite.’

July 1870
‘On the 14th of July we welcomed another little boy. After eight or nine days this little darling began to pine, and my dear Cis wishing to have him baptised, he received the names Arthur Frederick, the second after Freddy Cavendish, who promised to be godfather. The baby looked at us with deep violet eyes, as if asking to live. I could not realise fear, though his dear mother had begun to realise she must resign her treasure. But in the afternoon of the 31st, as this sweet patient little Arthur lay on Cecil’s lap, every hope was clearly over. . . . We buried him in the quiet country ground at Barnes, where Cecil’s Aunt Sidney lies.’

23 November 1870
‘The war still, but with more than one difference. In so great and complex an action and where so much human feeling is mixed, a cause cannot remain true to itself: initial right and justice are insufficient to leaven the vast mass of after events. It seems clear that the French will die as a nation, sooner than make a surrender of defeat.’

29 May 1871
‘All to Stokesay Castle, a singularly perfect specimen of domestic residence temp. Edward I. The site of this small ancient relic, lovely amid green wooded hills and mountainesque horizon - indebted much to the haze of an exquisite summer day. Thence to Ludlow: the castle here of all dates, is as fine as that uncomfortable thing, a ruin, ever can be.’

21 July 1871
‘Came to Lyme. In the evenings I am reading to Cis the ‘Bride of Lammermoor’: this seems to me to stand above all other novels, like a play by Shakespeare above all other plays. Indeed, in astonishing truthfulness and variety in creation of character, in power and pathos, I cannot see how this, at least, is inferior to Shakespeare . . . We have spent four agreeable days at the Palace at Exeter: I had one long walk with the Bishop, and a really good discussion on Darwin and cognate topics. He was at his best on such points: large and wise and liberal . . . After that a brief visit to Whitestaunton, a charming house of early Elizabethan date; we much regretted the brevity of our visit, having greatly liked our hosts.’

20 October 1871
‘We came to Lyme, and Cis and I went carefully over our little intended purchase, Little Park. It is a pretty little old place, with its many little rooms and pretty garden and lovely views. May it be a true haunt of peace to us and our dear ones! . . . Returned home to a warm welcome from our dear, dear lively little ones.’

4 July 1874
‘We went to Chichester, taking little Cecy and Frank. A year has much shaken the good old Dean, but when pretty well there was all his old charm and life. He is about the best type of a former age that I know, or, rather, he has the best of the last age joined with our modern movement.’

23 July 1879
‘Cis and I took the two eldest children to ‘Hamlet.’ I had not seen any serious acting for years, and went expecting to find my greatest pleasure in the dear children’s; but I returned very deeply impressed with the frequent admirable renderings of Irving as ‘Hamlet’ and Miss Terry as ‘Ophelia.’ . . . Above all, the amazing difficulty of the art impressed me; as with painting, I doubt how far the spectator can pretend to point out the way in which parts might be improved, though he may lawfully feel not satisfied. What was good also, both in these and in the other actors, is to me so much clearly gained. Also if ‘Hamlet’ acted unequally, how unequally, a vrai dire, is ‘Hamlet’ written!’

17 July 1883
‘We took the children to ‘The Merchant of Venice’ for the second time. Irving’s Shylock seemed to me a fine and true rendering of Shakespeare’s intention - viz. the mediaeval Jew a little raised in dignity and humanity. The Terry Portia was generally admirable. This play gains, certainly, immensely by representation . . , the sort of tradition which gives Shylock the protagonist, if not the hero part, is amply justified. . . I certainly think that those who cannot see that Irving gave a very powerful, and Miss Terry a very beautiful, interpretation, and that the piece as a whole was a thoroughly ‘adequate’ representation of what Shakespeare meant, must never expect to be satisfied by human art.’

7 April 1885 [Naples]
‘The Pompeian frescoes and mosaics are much beyond what I expected in quality of Art: the invention is so copious, the handling so absolutely assured, that I fully felt the sad lesson how Art (despite a few reactions) has had one long downward career for two thousand years.’

2 October 1886 [Dorchester]
‘Walked with Frank through twilight to Winterbourne Came: a pretty little thatched house among trees. I was allowed to go up to the great aged poet in the bedroom which - at eighty-four and with now failing bodily strength - he is not likely to quit. Mr. [William] Barnes had invited me when Frank visited him last Christmas, and truly glad was I, and honoured did I feel, to accomplish it. A very finely cut face, expressive blue eyes, a long white beard, hands fine like a girl’s - all was the absolute ideal of a true poet. Few in our time equal him in variety and novelty of motive: in quantity of true sweet inspiration and musical verse. None have surpassed him in exquisite wholeness and unity of execution. He was dressed in red with white fur of some sort, and a darker red cap: Titian or Tintoret had no nobler, no more high born looking sitter among the doges of Venice. His welcome was equally cordial and simple; and, despite his bodily weakness, the soul, bright and energetic, seemed equally ready for death or for life. He talked of his visit to Tennyson; of his own work, saying he had taken Homer, and him only, as his model in aiming at choosing the one proper epithet when describing: also his love for the old pure English. I shall remember this most interesting half-hour all my life, and my dear Frank, I trust, will remember it many years beyond me.’

26 November 1885
‘Ince telegraphed that, I was elected Professor of Poetry by a majority of sixty. The pleasure this gave at home, and the many kind letters called forth from friends, have been the really agreeable elements in this success. It will be difficult to satisfy expectations - to face the illustrious images of ancestors in the Chair. But I am glad of a chance to be a little useful before the night cometh, if I may be so allowed.’

3 February 1887
‘A very pleasant visit to Browning. He was very affectionate and open, and told much of his earlier days. I was sorry to hear that he had lately been clearing his papers, and had burnt letters which, while his parents lived, he had written to them by way of minute daily journal from Russia, Italy, and England.’

10 February 1887
‘My dear eldest girl was married to James Duncan. Amongst the many friends who came to the house were Browning and Matt Arnold, who were among those signing the marriage register. . .’

27 February 1890
‘With dearest Cis to Oxford. Saw Jowett and Lyttelton Gell, and were received by the Rector of Exeter with his usual friendliness.’

‘My father’s journal,’ Gwenllian writes, ‘now breaks off with a pathetic abruptness; the last entry (February 27, 1890) being exactly a month before my mother’s death. From that time he altogether discontinued keeping a Journal. It is impossible to write of the effect which so near and sacred a sorrow had upon him. Such was the depth and the intensity of his feeling and reverence towards her, that even in her lifetime he only spoke of her - or of her opinions and judgment - with a kind of bated breath, as though she were too far above him to be mentioned in an ordinary way. During the remaining years of his life, few days passed without his recalling to his children some memory of her unselfishness, her humility, or her beautiful simplicity. For the first few months after her death this sorrow absolutely crushed him, and his friends, seeing him, feared that he would never recover any interest or happiness in life. But his own perfect selflessness - for with him it was always something more than unselfishness - enabled him to gather up the threads of life again for the sake of his children with a courage and loving tenderness which were inexpressibly touching. Many observed that his devotion to his children, strong and intense as it had always been, grew as these years passed, not only deeper, but also in many senses like that of a mother’s. He never conceived a plan, nor undertook anything, even for his own comfort or pleasure, without first thinking whether it would be for their happiness.’

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