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Eric Shackle Writes: Ay! Be Merry, All Birds, To-day

Journalist Eric Shackle points out that Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated worldwide next Thursday, was a great lover of birds - and so too is one of his descendants.

The famous British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose 200th birthday will
be celebrated worldwide on August 6, was a great birdlover. One of his
lesser-known poems, called "Ay", names a dozen bird species ranging from
the cuckoo to "the mad little tits."

Ay! Be merry, all birds, to-day,
Be merry on earth as you never were merry before,
Be merry in heaven, O larks, and far away,
And merry for ever and ever, and one day more.
Why? For it's easy to find a rhyme.

Look, look, how he flits.
The fire-crown'd king of the wrens, from out of the pine !
Look how they tumble the blossom, the mad little tits !
'Cuck-oo! Cuck-oo!' was ever a May so fine?
Why? For it's easy to find a rhyme.

O merry the linnet and dove,
And swallow and sparrow and throstle, and have your desire!
O merry my heart, you have gotten the wings of love,
And flit like the king of the wrens with a crown of fire.
Why? For it's ay ay, ay ay.

This poem, and many others, can be found in a 1903 book, The Birds of
by Watkin Watkins, B.A. Cantab, of the Inner Temple, Barrister-at-law,
Member of the British Ornithologists' Union.

He says "Tennyson exhibits a knowledge of birds and their ways which is
considerably greater than that displayed by the majority of British Poets,
and which entitles him to take a place in this respect by the side of
Chaucer, Wordsworth and Shakespeare."

Queen Victoria liked Alfred's poems so much that she made him a hereditary
baron, with a seat in The House of Lords.

He seems to have transmitted some of his genes to Alan Tennyson, the Heir
Presumptive to his title, who is a distant relative (in lineage and
geographically) living in New Zealand's capital city, Wellington. Alan is
co-author of a book, Extinct Birds of New Zealand.

[Heir Presumptive is an archaic term for the person thought to be next in
line for the barony.]

Alan was born in Wellington in 1965, and first worked for the Forest and
Bird Protection Society. Then he moved to the Department of Conservation.
Apart from watching birds (feathered variety) he's Curator of Fossil
Vertebrates at New Zealand's national musem, Te Papa.

The book, "The Extinct Birds of New Zealand" by Alan Tennyson and Paul
Martinson [Te Papa Press 2006] received a rave review from Rebecca Priestley
in The New Zealand Listener:

She wrote:

"The story of the huia, a poster bird for extinct New Zealand species, has
been well told. Last seen in 1907, the beautiful huia, with its black body
and distinctive orange wattle, had been collected to death by 19th century
dealers and ornithologists for display in museums and fashionable
drawing-rooms -- and for its white-tipped tail feathers, which made quite
the jaunty hat decoration.

"Icon maybe, but the huia has plenty of company -- 58 of our bird species,
or 26 per cent -- have become extinct since humans arrived here in the 13th
century. To celebrate those species, and to remind us of the continuing
threat , Te Papa fossil vertebrates curator Alan Tennyson and wildlife
artist Paul Martinson have together made a magnificent book, Extinct Birds
of New Zealand.

"The bulk of the book is made up of accounts of the 58 extinct species,
including nine species of moa. Even th giant moa, the tallest bird ever
known to have lived -- oustretched, its neck could reach up to three metres
high -- was at the mercy of Haast's eagle... The moa fell victim to human
hunting around AD1400, and Haast's eagle soon followed, suffering from loss
of prey."

As Heir Presumptive, Alan Tennyson is thought to be next in line for the
Tennyson barony, now held by his older brother, David, the sixth Lord

David Tennyson , a modest man who lives quietly in Christchurch and
apparently never uses his ancient title, celebrated his 49th birthday on
June 4, 2009.

Asked whether either he or his brother writes poetry, Alan replied: "David
is more involved in the Tennyson Society than I."

The sixth baron seems to be more interested in recreational cycling, as he
is president of the Canterbury Recreational Cycling Club. Christchurch has
thousands of cyclists. You can ride 100 miles (160km) over the Canterbury
Plains without having to climb a single hill.

The six Barons Tennyson are a mixed bunch, several achieving fame in fields
far removed from poetry. Alf's son, the second baron, Hallam Tennyson,
became Australia's second Governor-General, and Hallam's son Lionel Hallam
Tennyson captained England's cricket team in 1921, and became the third
Baron seven years later.

Lionel's son, Harold Christopher Tennyson, (1919-1991) became the fourth
Baron, and his younger son became the fifth Baron. When he died three years
ago, "the line of the eldest son of the first Baron failed," and the title
passed unexpectedly to David Tennyson, in faraway New Zealand. He is the great-grandson of Hon. Lionel Tennyson, the poet's second son.

Here's a list of the six Barons, and links to websites where you can read
about them:

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson (1809-1892)

Hallam Tennyson, 2nd Baron Tennyson (1852-1928)

Lionel Hallam Tennyson, 3rd Baron Tennyson (1889-1951)

Harold Christopher Tennyson, 4th Baron Tennyson (1919-1991)

Mark Aubrey Tennyson, 5th Baron Tennyson (1920-2006)
http://www.thepeerage.com/p8285.htm (scroll down)

David Harold Alexander Tennyson, 6th Baron Tennyson (b.

Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, as he is usually referred to these days, was reluctant to accept a baronetcy (far less important than a barony) when Britain's
Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli offered one to him. Another PM, William
Gladstone, finally talked him into accepting a peerage.

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Tennyson,_1st_Baron_Tennyson
says the poet was "a passionate man with some peculiarites of nature, he was
never particularly comfortable as a peer, and it is widely held that he took
the peerage in order to secure a future for his son Hallam."

Still quoting Wikipedia:

"Tennyson wrote a number of phrases that have become commonplaces of the
English language, including:

Nature, red in tooth and claw/
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all/
Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die
My strength is as the strength of ten / Because my heart is pure
Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers
The old order changeth, yielding place to new

"He is the second most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of
Quotations, after Shakespeare."

Sir Edmund William Gosse (1849-1928), a famous British critic who remembered
having met an aged Lord Tennyson when he (Gosse) was a small boy, wrote
these words about the poet:

"We still look to the earlier masters for supreme excellence in particular
directions: to Wordsworth for sublime philosophy, to Coleridge for ethereal
magic, to Byron for passion, to Shelley for lyric intensity, to Keats for

"Tennyson does not excel each of these in his own special field, but he is
often nearer to the particular man in his particular mastery than anyone
else can be said to be, and he has in addition his own special field of

"What this is cannot be easily defined; it consists, perhaps, in the beauty
of the atmosphere which Tennyson contrives to cast around his work, molding
it in the blue mystery of twilight, in the opaline haze of sunset: this
atmosphere, suffused over his poetry with inestimable skill and with a tact
rarely at fault, produces an unfailing illusion or mirage of loveliness."

Further interesting details about the poet, written by Professor Glenn
Everett, of America's Northeast Victorian Studies Association, can be found
on the Victorian Web:


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