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Friends in Need

As time went on, Lear and the Tennysons became closer, and they came to know the intimate details of each other’s troubles. In his letters, Lear speaks openly about his illness, his emotional struggles with ‘the morbids’, and his financial difficulties, to which the Tennysons respond with love and support, inviting him to come and stay with them, encouraging his artistic progress, and cheering him. In turn, the Tennysons sought comfort from Lear, and Emily confided in him a great deal, including after Lionel’s untimely death in 1886.

Edward Lear, letter to Alfred Tennyson, 9 June 1855 (5415), lamenting that ‘I feel woundily like a spectator, — all through my life’ and suggesting coming to ‘a Pharmouse or a Nin’ nearby their home to paint

Edward Lear, letter to Alfred Tennyson, 9 June 1855 (5415), lamenting that ‘I feel woundily like a spectator, — all through my life’ and suggesting coming to ‘a Pharmouse or a Nin’ nearby their home to paint.

I. transcript:

My dear Tennyson,
I am sorry you have had to write twice. I shall meet you at Welds - and you are much better dining at Carlyle’s than with me, — & so the week is nearly well filled up. If — beyond that — you are still in town, & like to write & fix Friday or any other day — only be so kind as to do so, & you know how glad I should be. Yet I should not be glad if you had nearer or livelier engagements.
Collins has just now written to beg I will dine there at 6, to meet Millais, who sets out tomorrow for Perth. He says “do come & see the last (for us) of John Millais,’ — So I throw over a lesserer engagement & shall go. — I feel woundily like a spectator, — all through my life — of what goes on amongst those I know: — very little an actor. David’s particular Pelican in the Wilderness was a fool to what I have been all my days, whether in a crowd or not. —
But I suppose it’s all right, or will come so bye & bye. —

As soon as — / O Lord! when will that be? — / I have done this blessed Swiss Pigchr, I mean to cut out of town somewhere, to work at Sir J. Potter’s Philae. Do you think there is a Pharmouse or a Nin somewhere near you, where there would be a big room looking to the North? — so that I could paint in it quietly, & come & see you & Mrs. Tennyson promiscuously? — I know what you would say, or are saying — “come to us”. — But that wouldn’t do: — the botherations of 6 feet paintings & all the conbothertions of artists’ ways do not, & will not dovetail with country houses in Anglosax’nland; — I have tried the matter well — & know it to be so. Utter idleness gets possession of me body & soul in that atmosphere: — afterward, remorse.
As it is I am out here till 12 o’cl — & cannot get to work before 10, — so that life is become — (as it does annually at this season — ) shocking to me. Besides, now that there is & can be no more of Frank, I have no interest, as I had when he used to be so constantly here, in sticking to work.
If one were but a chimney pot, or a pipkin, or a mackerel, or anything respectable & consistent there would be some comfort; but the years go by without making the use of one’s faculties one ought to do, & so I feel disgusted I do.
Last night at the Reenders’, I sate next to [?] Wharncliffe, who had come click straight from Jerusalem — & had seen a good deal of Holman Hunt: they seemed to like him so much, & talked so unconventionally & unfashionably, that I came to like them also.
If I can’t find any place near Freshwater, I shall look out at Eastbourne: but in the Autumn I go altogether.
Yours sincerely,
Edward Lear.

Emily Tennyson, letter to Edward Lear, 7 Sept 1855 (5425), enclosing an ‘alone’ to comfort him.

Emily Tennyson, letter to Edward Lear, 7 Sept 1855 (5425), enclosing an ‘alone’ to comfort him.

In August 1855, Henry Lushington - a mutual friend of Lear and the Tennysons - died, leaving them saddened and grieving. Lear had already been suffering from depression, and the fallout from this tragedy was a particular strain on him. Emily sent him many lines of comfort, suggesting that ‘we must help each other, those who at all understand each other & love each other’. Over the next few months, her letters cheered and consoled Lear, while she found comfort in his words while Alfred was away. On Alfred’s return, the couple sent Lear an ‘alone’ that had just been written for Maud. Later that month, the Tennysons invited Lear and Lushington down to Farringford, suggesting that ‘the sadness of the past’ would ‘but deepen the delight of our hours together’ (25 Sept 1855).


So beautiful
it looks this
fresh bright September

Dear Mr Lear,
Here is an “alone” which I hope may comfort you by being more ‘alone’ than you asked for. I am expecting visitors so farewell. Alfred’s love. He sends you this I have not sent it of myself
Most sincerely yours
Emily Tennyson


Courage poor heart of stone
I will not ask thee why
Thou cans’t not understand
That thou art left forever alone
Courage, poor stupid heart of stone:
Or if I ask thee why
Care not thou to reply
She is but dead & the time is of hand
When thou shalt more than die.

Edward Lear, letter to Emily Tennyson, 28 & 29 Oct 1855 (5431) thanking her and Alfred for his stay at Farringford

Edward Lear, letter to Emily Tennyson, 28&29 Oct 1855 (5431) thanking her and Alfred for his stay at Farringford.

After this affectionate letter of thanks follows an even longer note the next day, filled with nonsense words, sketches, and descriptions of Lear’s irritation at a social event. Lear closes by thanking Emily for her kind words before regretting that, in going abroad, ‘I shall not see you or Alfred again for a most brutal long time’.


[…] I have thought of Farringford at all times & seasons ever since I left. In the morning I see everything — even to the plate of mushrooms: then Hallam & Lionel come in, — & when they are gone, you, Alfred & Frank begin to talk like Gods together careless of mankind: — & so on, all through the day. According to the morbid nature of the animal, — I even complain sometimes that such rare flashes of light as such visits are to me, make the path darker after they are over: — a bright blue & green landscape with purple hills, & winding rivers, & unexplored forests, and airy downs, & trees & birds, & all sorts of calm repose, — exchanged for a dull dark plain horizonless, pathless, & covered with cloud above, while beneath are brambles & weariness.
I really do believe that I enjoy hardly any one thing on earth while it is present: — always looking back, or frettingly peering into the dim beyond. — With all this, I may say to you & Alfred, that the 3 or 4 days of the 16th-20th October/55, — were the best I have passed for many a long day. — If I live to grow old, & can hope to exist in England, I should like to be somewhere near you in one’s later days. — I wish sometimes you could settle near Park House. Then I might have a room in Boxley, & moon cripply cripply about those hills, & sometimes see by turns Hallam & Lionel’s children, & Frank’s grandchildren, & so slide pleasantly out of life. Alfred, by that time would have written endlessly, & there would be 6 or 8 thick green volumes of poems. I — possibly, — should be in the workhouse, but I know you would all come & see me.
Now: — I won’t write any more nonsense, but be all statistic & beautiful common sense […].’

Emily Tennyson, letter to Edward Lear, 16 Dec 1854, writing to console and cheer him during his ‘morbids’ (5409)

Emily Tennyson, letter to Edward Lear, 16 Dec 1854, writing to console and cheer him during his 'morbids' (5409)

Lear would later say of Emily: ‘I should think, computing moderately, that 15 angels, several hundred of ordinary women, many philosophers, a heap of truly wise and kind mothers, 3 or 4 minor prophets and a lot of doctors and schoolmistresses, might all be boiled down, and yet their combined essence fall short of what Emily Tennyson is’ (letter to Chichester Fortescue, 12 June 1859).


Dear Mr. Lear,
Thank you for your most kind letter, but indeed there was no need for it. I have so strong a feeling of the uncertainty of all human things that I mean to burn it at once.
I see clearly that whether you will or not you positively must come here that little Hallam may make you laugh when he takes up his drum as he did the other evening and when I asked him where he was going
“To battle” he said.
The good time will come; only be of good cheer. Hard indeed it is when you have so many causes for sadness but I remember when I first met you the tone with which you said one Sunday evening “I can only sing Sunday songs today”, and I feel sure you must understand what those words mean “sorrowful but always rejoicing”. We cannot dispute the first right of your old friends to you and we will yield it with a good grace If only you promise as far as we mortals may promise to come and try here how you like the I.W climate.
I will meanwhile write and ask about bookings at Niton that if you should not like this place as well as I hope you will you may have a pleasant home ready there if possible.
I have been so long writing about the climate of the Undercliff this letter is too late for the post. The [Dr.?] of the Undercliff of course praises it but I will try and learn from Mr Peel all particulars of Niton, both as to climate and comfort. I know it is reported much warmer than this.


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Last updated: 2 August 2017

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