Tennyson at Cambridge: The Chancellor’s Gold Medal

In this essay undergraduate Emma Leadbetter describes how Tennyson won a prestigious student prize for his poem 'Timbuctoo' - a formative episode in his early poetic life.

Tennyson was already making a name for himself in Cambridge literary circles, but it was his future friends - most of them members of the society - who were immediate favourites on the announcement of the annual Cambridge poetry prize in 1829. The Chancellor's Gold Medal was awarded for the best ode or poem in heroic couplets on a designated subject. In 1828, the prize had been awarded to Christopher Wordsworth, brother of William, for a poem on 'The Invasion of Russia by Napoleon Buonaparte'. The following year, anonymous entries were invited on the subject of 'Timbuctoo'. Tennyson's friends Arthur Hallam and Richard Monckton Milnes announced their intention of entering, and both were confident of success.

Tennyson had already published Poems by Two Brothers, a joint venture with his brother Charles, although it had received little attention in the national press. Despite this albeit limited success, Tennyson was reluctant to compete even in friendly rivalry against his peers. His father wrote to him, encouraging him to compose an entry, and in the end Tennyson agreed unwillingly to revise an old, unpublished piece called 'Armageddon'. It was the first entry for the Chancellor's Gold Medal ever to have been written in blank verse, rather than traditional heroic couplets. (J. Cuming Walters, who wrote a biography of Tennyson in 1897 (see Works Cited below), notes that the organisers had worried that nothing obvious rhymed with the word 'Timbuctoo'.)

The subject of 'Timbuctoo' was very topical, at the beginning of European colonization of central Africa. The legends and mythologies of Africa, as well as its landscape, animals, and inhabitants, were fascinating to the British public. Timbuctoo, in what is now Mali, had been visited by a Scottish explorer named A.G. Laing in 1826. Tennyson's poem feeds on the mythology of its imagined setting, as the poet describes himself standing on a vantage point looking down to the sea:

I stood upon the Mountain which o'erlooks
The narrow seas, whose rapid interval
Parts Afric from green Europe.

The exotic and landscape draws the poet to thoughts of mankind's reliance on legend and mystery, which connect us with the ancient past as well as giving us hope for the future. Tennyson muses on the symbiotic relationship between human thoughts and the physical world.

Looking out at this seemingly ancient and otherworldy landscape encourages us to fantasise about its mythological origins:

I gaz'd upon the sheeny coast beyond,
There where the Giant of old Time infixed
The limits of his prowess, pillars high
Long time eras'd from Earth: even as the Sea
When weary of wild inroad buildeth up
Huge mounds whereby to stay his yeasty waves.

The scientific explanation of the formation of the pillars the poet is describing sits alongside the story of the giant who built them. But the poem's tone is often one of loss, as we are forced to acknowledge that Timbuctoo's aura of mystery and secrecy is not intrinsic but is created in the mind of the onlooker.

The legends of Timbuctoo, Atlantis and Eldorado had their being in the heart of Man, and the exploration of the real Timbuctoo can only destroy their supernatural or legendary charm:

And much I mus'd on legends quaint and old
Which whilome won the hearts of all on Earth
Toward their brightness, ev'n as flame draws air;
But had their being in the heart of Man
As air is th' life of flame: and thou wert then
A center'd glory-circled Memory,
Divinest Atalantis, whom the waves
Have buried deep, and thou of later name
Imperial Eldorado roof'd with gold:
Shadows to which, despite all shocks of Change,
All on-set of capricious Accident,
Men clung with yearning Hope which would not die.

The last line's poignancy comes from its use of the past tense: '[... despite all shocks of Change...] / Men clung with yearning Hope which would not die'. The line seems to suggest that the steady hope which stories and fantasies provided to men in the past is now coming to an end, and that the shocks of 'Change' and 'Accident' are finally taking their toll on our ability to keep faith in legends, even a modern legend like that of Timbuctoo.

As the poet looks out over the African plains in incomprehension and confusion a spirit appears to him, and helps him to see the past and present glories of nature and ancient civilisation, combined in the physical reality of the town and its surroundings. But the poet's heightened perception of the glory of Timbuctoo, a glory which equals that of the ancient world and which is compared to Heaven, is only temporary. The Spirit mournfully predicts the future of Timbuctoo once it comes into contact with the too real and human influences of Europe.

Oh City! oh latest Throne! where I was rais'd
To be a mystery of loveliness
Unto all eyes, the time is well-nigh come
When I must render up this glorious home
To keen Discovery: soon yon brilliant towers
Shall darken with the waving of her wand;
Darken, and shrink and shiver into huts,
Black specks amid a waste of dreary sand,
Low-built, mud-wall'd, Barbarian settlements.
How chang'd from this fair City!

Needless to say, Tennyson's strange but inspired work won the prize - the examiners preferring his simplicity of style (if not argument!) to Hallam's complicated entry in . The poem was published in the Trinity college journal and in The Cambridge Chronicle and Journal on June 12th 1829. It was perhaps as a result of Tennyson's win that he entered into a real friendship with Arthur Hallam, who became a great support to Tennyson in his literary endeavours. Tennyson's achievement in winning the Gold Medal threw him into the spotlight, and further enhanced his standing in the eyes of the young intellectual set at Cambridge. Hallam wrote that:

My friend Tennyson's poem, which got the prize, will be thought by the ten sober persons aforementioned twice as absurd as mine [. . .] The splendid imaginative power that pervades it will be seen through all hindrances. I consider Tennyson as promising fair to be the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of the country.

There are two apocryphal stories (both told by J. Cuming Walters) related to Tennyson's 'Timbuctoo'. The first is that Tennyson entered two pieces with the same title, one designed to please the conservative examiners, and one to please himself. It was the latter which won the medal. The second story is that one of the judges wrote "v.q." (very queer) on the manuscript, which was misread as "v.g." (very good). Whatever the truth of these slightly spiteful anecdotes, they show the extent to which Tennyson's poem attracted interest inside and outside the university. Over the next fifty years Tennyson had to come to terms with the positives and negatives of drawing the attention of the British press. His 'horror of publicity' (as Hallam Tennyson called it) showed itself even at this early age, for he refused to read his poem in the University Senate House, as was tradition, and instead obtained permission from the Vice-Chancellor for his friend Charles Merivale to read it in his place.

Further Reading

To research this essay Emma Leadbetter made use of nineteenth-century books in the Cambridge University Library, in particular: A Complete Collection of the English Poems which have obtained the Chancellor's Gold Medal (London, Macmillan; 1859); J. Cuming Walters, Tennyson: Poet, Philosopher, Idealist (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co, 1893); and Hallam Tennyson, A Memoir (London: Macmillan, 1897).

Further Thinking

Hallam thought his friend's poem was extremely 'promising'. What promising qualities do you see in it? What aspects of it seem like the later Tennyson?

'Timbuctoo' was written in order to win a prize - although it should be noted that it was an adaptation of an existing poem. Do you think that poems written to win prizes are as likely to be good as any other poem? More likely? Less likely?

You can read Emma Leadbetter'e essay about the Apostles on this website. Just use the menu on the left.
The sublime is an important idea in philosophy and aesthetics (i.e. the study of beauty and taste). It refers to something great, and often beyond measurement, whether physically (as in an astonishing landscape), intellectually, or aesthetically.
A poem in terza rima (Italian: literally 'third rhyme') is made up of three-line stanzas using the rhyming pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-e-d). It was most notably used by Dante in his Divine Comedy.

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