Thursday, May 30, 2019

Here’s my puzzle:

Many years ago, my mother taught me the line “A Mister Wilkinson, a clergyman” as a way to remember the rhythm of blank verse, iambic pentametre.

While I was in Lerwick, feeling feeble, I temporarily abandoned “No Name” and read Trollope’s “Miss Mackenzie” which I happened to have in my iPad. (It’s terrific, by the way.) And in it, whom should I encounter but a Mr Wilkinson, a clergyman, in those words precisely.

He is an utterly minor character, present at a dinner party with his wife, contributing no conversation, swept off stage on the next page, never to reappear.

I googled the line. I found it in that great compendium at, in very small indeed almost unreadable print, in a letter from Edward Fitzgerald (of Omar Khayyam fame) to Hallam Tennyson, son of the poet laureate, in which Fitzgerald says that Tennyson pere had claimed authorship of the line which was in fact his. Wordsworth comes in here somewhere – I think they’re laughing at him.

But there are no details. When did Tennyson claim the line? Where did Fitzgerald publish it?  His  translation of the Rubaiyat is in iambic pentametre (“The moving finger writes, and having writ…”) but without looking it up, I’m pretty sure that Mr Wilkinson doesn’t appear. And, perhaps most curious of all, how was the line transmitted to the 20th century? Where did my mother learn it?

“Miss Mackenzie” is very close in date (early 1860’s) to the letter from Fitzgerald to Tennyson fils. I feel pretty sure that Mr Wilkinson is an in-joke amongst those bearded Victorian writers. (“Did you hear that Tony Trollope has got Mr Wilkinson into his new book?”) But there are more questions to be answered.


Helen called in this morning and found me knitting:

Sharon Miller is right;  this sort of thing is addictive. Here is the shawl to date:


  1. Anonymous7:44 PM

    Re Mr Wilkinson, put the line (in quotes) in to Google rather than Google books and look at Rhythym and Will etc by Matthew Campbell and also John Russell Vincent's "Crawford Papers". Between them they give a plausible explanation of Tennyson's and Fitzgerald's involvements. Much as I like the idea that Mr Wilknson pops up in the Rubiyat, you ar correct that he does not.

  2. You look very content sitting there kitting. I Like the shawl. It's going to be pretty.

  3. Lovely picture of you knitting!

  4. Fascinating story, Jean. I'd never heard of Mr Wilkinson before (shouldn't that be the Reverend Wilkinson?) When explaining Iambic Pentametre over many years I always used a sentence of my own: "I went to see a man about a dog." I felt that this showed why it was such a common metrical pattern as it occurs so often in English.

  5. I love that picture of you - you should use it as your header picture :)

  6. =Tamar6:09 PM

    JennyS: Having done just that with Google, I can imagine two competing explanations. First, that the whole story was made up to give a background to the line. it has the feeling of a folk etymology. Second version, that the incident occurred almost as reported, but that FitzGerald had read the line in Trollope and _quoted_ it when he and Tennyson were discussing someone's marriage, to indicate that it really didn't matter who performed the wedding, as the character is a nonentity in the book. That would depend on Trollope's having published the story before the reported conversation happened. Given that so far nobody has dated the conversation version, my unsupported guess is that Trollope wrote it first, FitzGerald quoted it, and Tennyson noticed that it was in iambic pentameter. The date is the sticking point.