Lawn Tennyson: the poetry of motion

U 3.492: Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet.

U 9.648: And Harry of six wives' daughter and other lady friends from neighbour seats, as Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet, sings.

An unadmiring Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce's Ulysses, coined the dismissive name 'Alfred Lawn Tennyson' […]

Seamus Perry in his Tennyson biography is just one of many who do not doubt for a moment that Joyce was the wordsmith who forged this (inaccurately quoted) witticism. Not so.

"Lawn Tennyson" (or “Lawn Tennison”) had been around since at least 1877 when Judy (the upstart counterpart to Punch) provided caricatures of types of tennis-players “By Our Own Lawn Tennison” (24 October, p. 19). Punch itself followed soon after, in 1878, printing this "New One", immediately taken up by the contemporary press:

Now then, where will you find the true 'poetry of motion'?

Give it up? Why, in your Lawn Tennyson, of course!

There is a dating issue. The game of lawn tennis was invented in 1873/4, but Alfred Tennyson did not accept his baronetcy until 1883. So in 1877 ‘Lawn Tennyson’ is not an alteration of the later title ‘Lord Tennyson’, but is just a fanciful elaboration of the word ‘tennis’ after the poet’s surname. Poet Laureate from 1850, Tennyson had been offered and declined a title twice in the 1860s, but there is no consistent evidence that he was known even popularly as ‘Lord Tennyson’ until he was officially created Baron Tennyson of Aldworth in 1884.

In 1884 an advertisement for actor Mr. Walter Browne in The Era (Saturday, 16 August 1884) announced his role as "Baron Lawn Tennison" in Impatience at the Vaudeville Theatre.

By 1886 Lawn Tennyson had made it to the west coast of America:

The Puck has some verses on lawn tennis, probably written by a lawn Tennyson. At least they are bad enough.

Morning Oregonian, 15 July 1886

Punch took one more swing in 1888 under the heading "Is Marriage a Failure?"

Ah me, my dear, my dear Mr Punch, I am afraid it is! I've done my best; but no, the Thanes fly from me, and I am, in the language of Lawn Tennison,

'Love Fifty' — alias Can't-Mari-Any in the Moated Grange.

A variant of the 1878 Punch joke quoted from Puck resurfaced in the St. Paul Daily News (St. Paul, Minnesota) on Wednesday, 8 November, 1893:

Miss Brownberry - Mr Hovey is simply superb with a racket; his movements are the very poetry of motion.

Don't you think so?

Mr. Otto Sight - Most assuredly; he's a regular lawn Tennyson.

It had certainly been the rounds when Joyce employed it.

Harald Beck

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