Alfred, Lord Tennyson
BORN: 1809, Somersby, Lincolnshire, England
DIED: 1892, Aldworth, Surrey, England
GENRE: Poetry, drama
In Memoriam (1849)
‘‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’’ (1854)
Idylls of the King (1874)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Lord Tennyson, Alfred, photograph. AP Images.
British author Alfred, Lord Tennyson is considered an icon of the Victorian period of English history and is regarded as one of the most accomplished lyric poets in the history of English verse. He was immensely popular in his lifetime, especially in the years following the publication of his lengthy elegiac poem In Memoriam (1850). While Tennyson was the foremost poet of his generation and the poetic voice of Victorian England, many critics have since found his poetry excessively emotive and moralistic, though he is universally acclaimed as a lyricist of unsurpassed skill.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Unhappy Childhood with an Unstable Father. The fourth of twelve children, Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England, on August 6, 1809. His father, George Clayton Tennyson, was a rector who maintained his benefice grudgingly as a means of supporting himself and his family. The elder son of a wealthy landowner, he had obtained the rectory when his younger brother was designated as prospective heir to the family’s estate. Tennyson’s father had been essentially disinherited and reacted by indulging in drugs and alcohol, creating an unpleasant domestic atmosphere often made worse by his violent temper. It also believed that George Tennyson was mentally unstable, and each of his children also suffered to some extent from drug addiction or mental illness.
Biographers speculate that the general melancholy and morbidity expressed in much of Tennyson’s verse is rooted in the unhappy environment at Somersby. He began writing poetry long before he was sent to school. All his life he used writing as a way of taking his mind off his troubles. One odd aspect of his method of composition was set in childhood as well. He would make up phrases or discrete lines as he walked, and store them in his memory until he had a proper setting for them.
Launched Writing Career. In 1827, when he was almost eighteen years old, Tennyson’s first volume of poetry, Poems by Two Brothers was published. Later that year, Tennyson enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won the chancellor’s gold medal for his poem ‘‘Timbuctoo’’ in 1829. Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, published in 1830, was well received and marked the beginning of Tennyson’s literary career. Another collection, Poems, appeared in 1832 but was less favorably reviewed, many critics praising Tennyson’s artistry but objecting to what they considered an absence of intellectual substance.
The latter volume was published at the urging of Arthur Hallam, a brilliant Cambridge undergraduate who had become Tennyson’s closest friend and was an ardent admirer of his poetry. Hallam’s enthusiasm was welcomed by Tennyson, whose personal circumstances had led to a growing despondency. His father died in 1831, leaving Tennyson’s family in debt and forcing his early departure from Trinity College. One of Tennyson’s brothers suffered a mental breakdown and required institutionalization. Tennyson himself was morbidly fearful of falling victim to epilepsy or madness. Hallam’s untimely death in 1833, which prompted the series of elegies later comprising In Memoriam, contributed greatly to Tennyson’s despair.
Financial and Poetic Uncertainty. For nearly a decade after Hallam’s death Tennyson published no further poetry. During this period, he became engaged to Emily Sellwood, but financial difficulties and Tennyson’s persistent anxiety over the condition of his health resulted in their separation. As Tennyson struggled, Great Britain was also changing as Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, beginning a long reign (which ended in 1901) and setting the tone for an important era in British history. During the Victorian age, the Industrial Revolution reached its peak and provided British colonial and military expansion during the nineteenth century. At home, there was a vast increase in the factory system, industrialization, and urbanization, changing the fabric of British society. Reform and social justice were also emphasized, as humanitarian legislation eliminated some long-standing abuses.
In this environment in 1842, yielding to a friend’s insistence, Tennyson published his two-volume collection Poems, for which reviewers were virtually unanimous in expressing admiration. That same year, however, an unsuccessful financial venture cost Tennyson nearly everything he owned, causing him to succumb to a deep depression that required medical treatment. In 1845, he was granted a government pension in recognition of both his poetic achievement and his apparent need. Contributing to his financial stability, the first edition of his narrative poem The Princess: A Medley, published in 1847, sold out within two months. Tennyson resumed his courtship of Sellwood in 1849, and they were married the following year.
The timely success of In Memoriam, published in 1850, ensured Tennyson’s appointment as poet laureate, succeeding William Wordsworth. The success of In Memoriam and his appointment as poet laureate assured Tennyson the opportunity to become the poetic voice of his generation, and in his ceremonial position he composed such poems as ‘‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’’ and ‘‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’’, each of which is a celebration of heroism and public duty. Idylls of the King (1859), considered by Tennyson’s contemporaries to be his masterpiece, and Enoch Arden (1864), which sold more than forty thousand copies upon publication, increased both his popularity and his wealth and earned him the designation ‘‘the people’s poet.’’
Poet Laureate. Although the dramatic works written later in his career like Queen Mary (1875) and The Foresters (1892) were largely unsuccessful, Tennyson completed several additional collections of poems in the last decade of his life, all of which were well received. They included: Ballads and Other Poems (1880), Tiresias, and Other Poems (1885),and Demeter, and Other Poems (1889). In 1883 he accepted a peerage, the first poet to be so honored strictly on the basis ofliterary achievement. Ill for the last two years of his life, Tennyson died on October 6,1892, at his home and was interred in Westminster Abbey.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Tennyson's famous contemporaries include:
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815—1879): Cameron was a British photographer noted for taking pictures of Victorian celebrities, including Tennyson and his friends. She is also remembered for a cycle of photographs based on an Arthurian theme.
Prince Albert Edward (1841-1910): Prince Edward, who was Prince of Wales during Tennyson's lifetime, succeeded Queen Victoria to the throne in 1901. The Edwardian period in England saw many advances in technology and science and the reconstruction of the army between the Boer War and the outbreak of World War I.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870): British novelist Dickens was a prolific and beloved writer of the Victorian era and is best known for such novels as Oliver Twist (1838), Bleak House (1853), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859).
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): A witty novelist, poet, and playwright, Wilde was known as the leader of the Decadent movement that dominated British literature at the end of the nineteenth century. His only novel was The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), while his plays include Lady Windemere's Fan (1892) and An Ideal Husband (1895).
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910): Nightingale was a pioneer in the medical field who sought improved health care and conditions for the citizens of Great Britain. After serving as a nurse in the Crimean War, she launched a campaign for medical reform and started a nursing hospital in London.
Works in Literary Context
Tennyson’s poetry had a number of influences, including Elizabethan songs, the traditional ballad, and the poetry of the Romantics who came before him. They included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats, as well as other authors like William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Sir Walter Scott. Traditional legends, classical mythology and poets, and fairy tales also informed some of his narrative subjects, such as ‘‘The Day-Dream.’’ Tennyson had nearly a lifelong interest in the legends of King Arthur, which ultimately resulted in Idylls of the King (1889). Yet many critics believe that his most characteristic lyrics are unique and individual, marked by a Tennysonian “something’’ that had no precedent in English verse.
Idylls of the King and the British Empire. Tennyson’s epic poem Idylls of the King followed the controversial Maud by examining the rise and fall of idealism in society. ‘‘I tried in my Idylls’ Tennyson wrote, ‘‘to teach men the need of an ideal.’’ F. E. L. Priestley has observed that Tennyson used the ‘‘Arthurian cycle as a medium for discussion of problems which [were] both contemporary and perennial,'' and concludes that the Idylls ‘‘represent one of Tennyson's most earnest and important efforts to deal with the major problems of his time.’’ Tennyson was concerned with what he considered to be a growing tendency toward hedonism in society and an attendant rejection of spiritual values. Idylls of the King expresses his ideal of the British empire as an exemplar of moral and social order: the ‘‘Table Round / A glorious company’’ would ‘‘serve as a model for the mighty world.'' However, when individual acts of betrayal and corruption result from adultery committed by Arthur's wife and Lancelot, the ensuing disorder destroys the Round Table, symbolizing the effects of moral decay that were Tennyson's chief concern about the society of his day.
Theme of Death. In Tennyson’s major work, In Memoriam, he expressed his personal grief over Hallam’s death while examining more generally the nature of death and bereavement in relation to contemporary scientific issues, especially those involving evolution and the geologic dating of the earth's history, which brought into question traditional religious beliefs. Largely regarded as an affirmation of faith, In Memoriam was especially valued for its reflections on overcoming loss. Comprising 132 sections written over the course of nearly two decades, the poem progresses from despair to joy and concludes with a marriage celebration, symbolically expressing Tennyson's faith in the moral evolution of humanity and reflecting the nineteenth-century ideal of social progress.
Suicidal Bravery. In an earlier assessment of the narrative poem ‘‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’’ (1854) Christopher Ricks has argued that the poem is indirectly concerned with the idea of suicide, which pervades Tennyson's early poetry, but can also be discovered in his later works. In armed combat, self-extinction loses the stigma that traditionally attaches to it in Western society and is esteemed an honorable behavior instead. There is little doubt that military actions have sometimes been prompted by an urge for annihilation. Seen from this angle, the enthusiastic self-sacrifice of soldiers, loses its heroic note but gains a profoundly human significance that would have appealed to Tennyson. It is important to note in this connection that his description deviates at one point from the steadfast regularity that otherwise characterizes the advance. In the last stanza, lavish praise is bestowed on the ‘‘wild charge’’ of the Light Brigade as if the poet had for once yielded to a secret conviction that the ride had a suicidal aspect.
The suicide motif arises from the argument advanced in the second stanza where the moment of awareness is expressly articulated. ‘‘Their’s but to do and die’’: the steady progress of the collective body of troopers who pass lemminglike to their doom will raise associations that are more closely related to contemporary everyday life than to military engagement. The common man has become painfully aware of the infinite variety of administrative mishaps that devolve upon him in the shape of coercive patterns imposed from above. Legal restrictions, bureaucratic regulations, rigid codes of professional conduct, technocratic directions—the individual’s existence is weighed down by constraints that we often know to be erroneous and yet are forced to comply with, since the rhythms of contemporary life depend on our enactment of predetermined roles.
Moreover, the predicament requires distinctly more than sheeplike obedience. Fortitude and active dedication are called for if the rigorous discipline of the modern state is to be maintained. Advancing or retreating with the steady measure of a pendulum, men may at all times be forced into situations that could terminate in personal annihilation. Modern society is still prepared to acknowledge the importance of unflinching loyalty on the part of the individual. Yet no purgatorial purification or spiritual reward, not even the certainty of lasting public esteem, could still be attained through acts of selfless devotion, and this is precisely the point where the ‘‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’’ falls short of illustrating the human condition in our time. Tennyson ended his poem on a note of praise, promising everlasting glory for the victims of an administrative blunder.
Influence. As perhaps the leading poet of the Victorian era as well as the poet laureate of Great Britain, Tennyson was highly regarded in his lifetime as well as long after his death. Many Victorian readers were touched by his words, including Queen Victoria herself. University students were reading his verse, quoting it as a mark of sophistication. An extraordinary number of writers, both in Great Britain and the United States, count Tennyson as an influence, including T. S. Eliot, George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, and Walt Whitman.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Tennyson was just one of many authors to tackle the legends of King Arthur. Each work focuses on different aspects of the mythology, demonstrating the mutability and enduring popularity of the stories.
Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), a novel by Sir Thomas Malory. Perhaps the best-known version of the Arthurian saga, Malory drew upon a multitude of sources to construct the story of Arthur's life and reign, from the ''sword in the stone'' to Arthur's death at the hands of his son Mordred.
The Once and Future King (1958), a novel by T. H. White. In a modernized take on the Arthurian legends, the mythological figures are updated with real-life emotions, the events of a far-off time given contemporary relevance.
Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), a novel by John Steinbeck. This updated, ''living'' translation of Malory is by the noted American author, long an admirer of the Arthurian cycle.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), a novel by Mark Twain. A comedic take on King Arthur's Camelot, this novel features a time-traveling American who introduces modern concepts and inventions to his new medieval world.
The Mists of Avalon (1983), a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Arthurian cycle is retold from the perspective of the women, chiefly the Ladies of the Lake in this novel. The Knights of the Round Table and Arthur become the supporting characters, much as the women are in conventional tales.
Works in Critical Context
Today, Tennyson is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. This critical reputation began in his lifetime when many of his poems were universally acclaimed. By the end of his lifetime, however, there were the beginnings of an anti-Victorian movement, as new styles of poetry and criticism emerged. Tennyson was so closely identified with his era that his critics began dismissing him with disillusionment for his Romantic stylistic and language choices, which were considered Victorian. Many early twentieth-century readers found his stylistic and subjective choices to be dated. By mid-century, Tennyson’s importance was again recognized, and he continued to be appreciated into the twenty-first century. However, critics remain divided, as some critics consider him a minor poet of a minor historical period while others recognize his anticipation of twentieth century poetic movements.
Early Works. Tennyson’s first two significant collections, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and Poems, were considered by many critics to be of high poetic merit but devoid of meaning or purpose beyond their pure artistry. In a review of the latter collection, philosopher John Stuart Mill urged Tennyson to ‘‘cultivate ... philosophy as well as poetry,’’ expressing a sentiment not uncommon among Tennyson’s early reviewers. The collection of Poems that appeared in 1842 included radically revised versions of his best poems from the earlier volumes, and addressed such themes as duty, self-discipline, and the complexities of religious faith, offering what critics considered to be a truer representation of human life than that of his early works.
Maud. Maud, and Other Poems (1855) was the first collection Tennyson published as poet laureate, but it elicited a negative response. The title poem is a ‘‘monodrama’’ in which the changing consciousness of the narrator is traced through a series of tragedies that result in his insanity. Confined to an asylum, the protagonist is cured of his madness and asserts his love for humanity by serving his country in the Crimean War. Both author George Eliot and prime minister William Gladstone denounced the poem as morbid and obscure, and were among many who disapproved of Tennyson’s apparent glorification of war, which he depicted as an ennobling enterprise essential to the cleansing and regeneration of a morally corrupt society. Maud has since been reevaluated by critics who find it Tennyson’s most stylistically inventive poem, praising its violent rhythms and passionate language. Modern critics largely agree with Christopher Ricks that Maud was for Tennyson an ‘‘exorcism’’; as Ricks explains, ‘‘Maud was an intense and precarious attempt ... to encompass the bitter experiences of four decades of a life in which many of the formative influences had also been deformative.’’ Thus madness, suicide, familial conflict, shattered love, death and loss, and untempered pursuit of wealth, all central sadnesses in Tennyson’s life, are attacked openly and passionately in Maud, with war cultivating the spirit of sacrifice and loyalty that Tennyson felt essential to avert the selfdestruction of a selfishly materialistic society.
Responses to Literature
1. What can you discern about Victorian values from reading Tennyson’s ‘‘Ulysses’’? In an essay, summarize the values laid out in the poem and how values have changed since the poem was written. What would an updated version of ‘‘Ulysses’’ be like?
2. In a presentation, explain the personal loss and resulting despair that motivated Tennyson’s In Memoriam.
3. In ‘‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’’ Tennyson turned a military blunder into a tale of glory. In a group, discuss the following questions: What do you think is the significance of having the Light Brigade temporarily victorious in stanza 4? Does it add to the story’s tension? Does it make these brave soldiers more admirable? How?
4. Read about the presidential administration of John F. Kennedy and write a paper that addresses the following questions: Why was it called ‘‘Camelot’’? Find particular figures from the Arthurian myths that correspond to figures in U.S. politics. In particular, whom would you say is most like the Lady of Shalott?
Barreca, Regina, ed. Sex and Death in Victorian Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Culler, A. Dwight. The Poetry of Tennyson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977.
Kincaid, James R. Tennyson’s Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975.
Shannon, Edgar F., Jr. Tennyson and the Reviewers: A Study of His Literary Reputation and the Influence of the Critics upon His Poetry, 1827-1851. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952.
Tennyson, Charles, and Christine Fall. Alfred Tennyson: An Annotated Bibliography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1967.
Turner, Paul. Tennyson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.