Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892)

Life and Works

Alfred Lord Tennyson was born at Somersby, Lincolnshire. His father was a clergyman, and his son always felt that his family in comparison to other people led an impoverished life. He was also afraid of suffering a mental illness, epilepsy, especially since some relatives were affected by it. In 1843 he was put under a doctor's care for some weeks.

Portrait of the poet

In 1827 he together with two brothers went to Trinity College, Cambridge. The Tennyson brothers were well-known because they had published Poems in 1827 and had won university prizes for poetry. In 1829, Tennyson joined the university club "The Apostles". The group included Arthur Henry Hallam, his greatest friend, James Spedding, Edward Lushington and Richard Monckton Milnes. Hallam became engaged to Emily Tennyson when he visited Sommersby and his early death in 1833 shocked Tennyson, who wrote some of his best poetry in honour of his friend, In Memoriam, "The Passing of Arthur", Ulysses and Tithonus.

Tennyson met Emily Sellwood, in 1836, and married in 1853. They settled in Farringford, a house in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. From there the family moved in 1869 to Aldworth, Surrey. During these later years he produced some of his best poems.

Alfred Tennyson published another book of poems in 1832, yet harsh criticism prevented him from publishing for nine years. The success of his 1842 Poems made him a popular poet, and in 1845 he received a pension from the Government of £ 200 a year. His appointment as Poet Laureate, plus the success of In Memoriam, established him as the most popular poet of the Victorian era. By the age of 41 he had already written some of his greatest poems. He dedicated The Idylls of the King to Prince Albert, who felt a deep and sincere admiration for Tennyson and who did his best to make Tennyson a national poet.

Tennyson died on October 6, 1892, at the age of 83.

The Lady of Shalott, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Tennyson found himself divided between the needs of the poet and those of society. He wrote in the aftermath of the Romantic period, so he realised that Romanticism was no longer suitable in all its terms. He realised as well that the Romantic idea of the poet and of poetry was no longer possible, and that the poet had to give poetry a public use. Poetry had to give pleasure and had to express emotional experiences, including reactions to the death of his best friend.

In much of his poetry the reader can find a mixture of an exalted, dreamy idealism and of violence. This was most probably a reaction to the progressing materialism of the period in everyday life.

The early work presents two operating impulses: while the one was subjective and 'aesthetic', the second sought identification with the large life of common men. Another series of poems deal with love, 'embodied in sensuous imagery' as J.S. Mill put it. Both "The Lady of Shalott" (1833) and "Marianna" (1830) are good examples. These poems show satisfaction with the role of the artist. In some poems, as for example "The Poet" (1830), Tennyson can go beyond a facility of impersonation and put his art to use. In others such as "The Palace of Art" (1833) or "Supposed Confessions of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind" (1830), Tennyson shows little interest in the metaphysical problems of his age. The conclusion of "The Palace of Art" is that withdrawal from real life into an aesthetic realm is the greatest sin of which the artist can be guilty. In other poems, that will anticipate The Idylls of the King, Tennyson rejects mere beauty into classical myth, associating it with sensuality. The erotic is the type of sin and weakness by which social decline is brought about.



Some of his early poems, "Recollections of the Arabian Nights" (1830), or "Ode to Memory" (1830), for example, suggest that he drew upon private fantasies and that he knew that his strength lay in the world of his childhood.

The death of Hallam was a severe blow because of the loneliness and melancholy that gripped him and because Hallam was a powerful intellectual force that had been formative and influential for Tennyson. The poet asked himself if life was worth living. His death helped Tennyson to put his feelings into the poems. "The Two Voices" (1842) deals with suicide, which is rejected because life speaks of hope. The conclusion anticipates the confidence of some of the poems he wrote in his maturity. He revised other poems, as for example, "The Lotos-Eaters" to justify escape into a dreamy realm because of the suffering of mankind. He could also ess his fears about suffering within a classical outlook in which Homer and Lucretius stand at the front.

He developed two different poetic modes. The first mode, "Marianna" (1830), intended to create visual static tableaux. Nothing happens in the poem. The mental depression gives a static representation of Marianna while she is waiting for her lover to come.

"The Kraken" (1830) is written in another mode. This is a kinetic poem, i.e., a poem in which the climax imposes a visionary resolution.

Tennyson Statue at Lincoln Cathedral Designed by George Frederick Watts.

In terms of structure and effect these poems appear opposed, but they share the lack of theme. In the 1830s Tennyson was searching a way of reconciling the two modes, while at the same time they had to be morally and intellectually relevant. He managed to convey both a couple of years later when he wrote "The Lady of Shalott" and "The Palace of Art". Both poems are structured as a series of sections that lead to a sort of conversion exposed in an epiphanic mode.


Drawing by D.G. Roseetti manuscript of a poem


Although the poems may seem detached from contemporary society, they are the product of that society. They reflect the problematic relation between artist and society, and the political turmoil of 1832. Tennyson dramatized the relation to society in a mythic, parabolic narrative, set in other times and places. Both poems show his first attempt to find an adequate relation between the I and the public world. They also show how he had solved some technical problems by joining static and climatic verse, and how he created a morally relevant poetry of vision and conversion. Tennyson was interested throughout his career in a character's consciousness and this made him discover a form that was effective in processes of conversion and moments of revelation. The structure of his poems is that of a narrative in which the main character progresses through a series of panels that may take the form of landscapes, states of mind, arguments, etc., until he has a revelation, either as a dream or as a vision. This effects a conversion to new ways of life and action. He progresses by means of parables, visions, argument and actions. His use of flashbacks, and complex plotting creates a type of narrative in In Memoriam that anticipates Faulkner's modernist narrative.

Tennyson wroite poems dealing with the past, both classical --as in "The Lotos Eaters"-- and Medieval as in the Arthurian legend, "Morte d'Arthur", "Sir Galahad" (1842) or "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" (1842). Moreover, he also dealt with contemporary issues as is the case of "Locksley Hall". His poetry on modern topics takes the form of idylls, such as "Audley Court" and "Walking to the Mail", or vers de societé like "The Talking Oak", "Amphion" or "The Day Dream". He was searching for a new manner so as to become popular. Many of his poems, "Godiva", "The Lord of Burleigh" and "Lady Clare" show that Tennyson could play the key of popular taste by drawing on the pretty, the charming and the sentimental.

In Memoriam was written as a consequence of the death of Hallam, in ---- and published in 1850. It is a long poem composed of 131 sections. The poem finds its unity in the stanza form and in its subject, death. Some critics regard it as an elegy, others remark its pastoral elements. It is a mixture of both, although the reader may complain about its lack of cohesion. T.S. Eliot regarded the poem as a diary since the stanzas are imaginative responses to everyday events and particular occasions. It is surprising that the conclusion asserts that it is life, not death, what counts. Hope is in the life to come, not in life here and now.

In Memoriam has not an organic development. It simply goes from despair to hope. The individual poems, however, have a strong imaginative force. Tennyso restricted himself to octosyllabic lines which obliged him to be concise and exact. He manages to fuse feeling and the object that creates the emotion, be this fear, despair, grief, or resignation.

After In Memoriam, Tennyson becomes more and more concerned with an ideal conduct, which comes close to Nietzsche's philosophy and will rise the spirit of man to a higher destiny.

In 1855, five years after his appointment as Poet Laureate, he published Maud, a poem in which he surprisingly attacked the morality of a nation of shopkeepers. This is one of the most subtly crafted poems. The main interest of the poem lies in the development through an impressive range of lyric-forms of changing feelings such as scepticism, love, temporary collapse or recovery. The poem combines the wildness of "Locksley Hall" with the melancholy of "Mariana".

Though he intended a so-called 'parabolic drift', characters are sometimes real and substantial, and the passing of time is an important feature of the poem. The Idylls mirror the mood of late Victorianism, without the early optimism found in the novel form.

Despite the fame he acquired in his lifetime, Tennyson's critical reception waned in the twentieth century. As early as 1922 Thomas Hardy remarked the outdated mood of his poetry. In the years following First World War, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood expressed the same idea in their play The Ascent of F6 (1936). For many of the postwar generation, Tennyson had become suspect because of his patriotism. His poetry was believed to be out of touch with reality. Virginia Woolf parodied him in To the Lighthouse, as Ezra Pound did in sharp satires or James Joyce in Ulysses.


Santiago Rodríguez Guerrero Strachan (Universidad de Valladolid)