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Alfred Tennyson

Updated on March 11, 2011

Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, on August 6, 1809, the third of 11 children. His father, a clergyman, was subject to manic depression, and the family's life was frequently unhappy. The elder Tennyson was able, however, to undertake personally the education of his children, largely at home. Alfred began to write verse at an early age. His first published works appeared in the inaccurately titled Poems by Two Brothers (1827). which also included verse by his brothers Frederick and Charles.

In 1827, Tennyson matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he met Arthur Hallam, who became his closest friend. Though morbidly shy, Tennyson was encouraged by Hallam to enter into the society of the university and was accepted into a literary club "The Apostles," whose members warmly praised his poetry. In 1829, Tennyson won the Chancellor's Medal for his poem Timbuctoo and in the following year published his first volume, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. In 1831 his father died, and he was forced to leave Cambridge without a degree and return home to Somersby.

The next few years were difficult for Tennyson. His volume Poems, published in 1833, received unfavorable reviews. In the same year, Hallam, who had been engaged to Tennyson's sister Emily, died suddenly, and his death proved a staggering blow to the poet. Although Tennyson continued to write, he practically ceased publication for almost 10 years. He reworked early poems and composed new ones, finally publishing the two-volume Poems in 1842. This collection, which included the Morte d' Arthur, later to be incorporated into Idylls of the King, and Ulysses, established Tennyson as the chief poet of his generation. - His preeminence was confirmed in 1850 with the publication of In Memoriam, dedicated to Hallam's memory. In the same year, Tennyson was named poet laureate.

Tennyson married Emily Sellwood, his love of many years, in 1850. He had met and fallen in love with her in 1836, but her father had forbidden a match at the time because of Tennyson's financial insecurity. The couple settled in Farringford, a house in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in 1853. His years there with his wife and two sons, Hallam and Lionel, were the happiest of Tennyson's life. The family remained in Freshwater until 1869, when they moved to Aldworth, a house built for them in Surrey.

Tennyson's later years were uneventful but his creativity continued unabated. His great work of these years was the Idylls of the King (1859-1885). From the 1860's he decided seriously to try his hand at poetic drama, but none of his plays became successful. In 1884, almost universally revered and admired, he accepted a peerage, becoming Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Farringford-the first Englishman to be elevated to such high rank for literary distinction alone. Lord Tennyson died at Aldworth on October 6, 1892, and was buried in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Works

Tennyson's career may be divided into two parts-before In Memoriam and after. Prior to 1850 he was a young poet seeking to define his role in society. Thereafter he developed into a Victorian sage, who addressed himself to the problems of his time. His very earliest verses, unpublished in his own lifetime, are imitative and full of undigested learning. However, they are bursting with vitality and reveal hints of both the visionary and melancholy qualities associated with his mature poetry. Tennyson's unfinished play, The Devil and the Lady, written when he was 14, but first published in 1930, shows his early facility with blank verse. His contributions to the Poems by Two Brothers are written in a Byronic vein and have isolation and loss as their themes. The melodic inventiveness and descriptive power that characterize some of his best work are first seen in the Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. The finest poem of this collection, Mariana, shows how he was able to depict inner states of feeling in terms of outward objects.

Poems (1833), containing The Lady of Shalott, Oenone, The Lotos-Eaters, and The Palace of Art, marks an advance over the earlier volume, manifesting a lyric sensuousness unparalleled by any modern poet save Keats. The dreamy atmosphere surrounding most of the poems in the volume reflects the poet's own distance at this time from the world of reality, from social responsibility. His people live apart from society, sustained by aesthetic pleasures, but vaguely apprehensive that such an existence is wrong. 'When they try to enter society, however, they find it almost impossible to do so. The Lady of Shalott, for example, is destroyed in her attempt to partake of the life of the world. In nearly all these poems, Tennyson was exploring the role of the poet, carefully weighing self-indulgence against social responsibility.

The verses, both new and revised; in Poems (1842) were written during Tennyson s period of intense grief for Hallam. Many of them lament the loss of a happy past and the absence of value and meaning in the present. This contrast is treated in the English Idylls-Dora and The Gardener' s Daughter- as well as in Break, Break, Break, one of his finest lyrics. Other poems in the collection, including Ulysses and Locksley Hall, which are among the first dramatic monologues in English literature, are concerned with the necessity of carrying on and looking for hope in the future. Underlying almost all these poems· is the sense of Tennyson's continuing evaluation of the poet's purpose and function in society, his growing concern with the poet's relation to his audience, as interpreter, critic, teacher, and sage.

Tennyson's great work, In Memoriam (1850), a long elegy on the death of Hallam, begun in 1833 and completed in 1849, explored his personal thoughts on God, Christ, immortality, and the meaning of loss. Because it gave voice to both the doubts and the aspirations of his generation and because of its lyric beauty, it was almost universally acclaimed as a masterpiece. By 1850., Tennyson had worked out his ideas on the function of the poet in the modern world, and in his elegy he indicated his willingness to don the bardic mantle and reorient his poetry toward more ambitious goals.

The work of Tennyson's later years is consequently of a more public nature. He took his duties as laureate seriously and complied often with official requests for poems in commemoration of important occasions.. His odes are triumphs' of metrical brilliance. The Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington (1852) examines how an individual personality became a public symbol, and the Ode Sung at the Opening of-the International Exhibition (1862) captured the excitement of a large exposition. A Welcome to Alexandra (1863) gracefully offers greetings to the Danish princess, who was soon to marry the Prince of Wales. The patriotic poems, such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854) and The Charge of the Heavy Brigade (1882), express his. country's: appreciation of heroic action.

Tennyson also responded to the demands for a poetry of the living present, of the problems of daily life, made by such critics as Ruskin. As early as 1847, he had written The Princess, his first long poem, on the position of women and their rights. In the 1860.' s he wrote domestic narratives, including Sea Dreams (1860.) and Enoch Arden (1864), which attempted to render in verse of a rather ornate style the homely subject matter of certain Victorian novels. Some critics, pointing out the sentimentality of his domestic idylls and the jingoism of his patriotic verses, have charged that Tennyson compromised his art in the 1850's and 1860's to accommodate Victorian middle-class morality. In any case, these poems apparently did not engage his deeper sensibilities, although they give every evidence of superb workmanship.

It should be noted, however, that during this same period, Tennyson was also- writing poems rejecting many of the banal assumptions and values of his time and presenting his own strictures on the frivolities of the modern world.

Maud (1855) shows the devastation wrought on an individual's personality by the pressures and evils of a totally materialistic society. The Idylls of the King, on which Tennyson was engaged for the greater part of his laureate years, present the recalcitrance of the world to truth, order, and other human ideals. Locksley Hall Sixty Years After (1886), a companion piece to the earlier poem, while expressing great hope for the future, nonetheless evinces the poet's deep-rooted pessimism.

Despite Tennyson's pessimism about the human condition, he did not waver in his belief in God and the power of love. The Ancient Sage (1885) and Akbar's Dream (1892) testify to his faith in life after death and in the redemption offered by love. Even those poems: like Maud and Idylls of the King, in which he appears· to put the least favorable construction on human actions, bear witness to his belief that God is Love and that human love is the means not only of glorifying the Creator but also of personal salvation.

There was no diminution of Tennyson's poetic energies. During the last 20. years of his life he wrote seven poetic dramas, the best known of which are Queen Mary (1875), Harold (1876), and Becket (1884). He also published five major collections of verse. These are Ballads and Other Poems (1880), including the ballad The Revenge and the dramatic monologue Rizpah; Tiresias and Other Poems (1885); Locksley Hall Sixty Years After; Demeter and Other Poems (1889), including Demeter and Persephone, as well as the famous Crossing the Bar, which Tennyson requested be placed at the end of all editions of his poetry; and The Death of Oenone and Other Poems (1892).

Evaluation

Tennyson has been prized in the 20th century chiefly as a lyric poet whose genius lay in his ability to render various moods in song.

T. S. Eliot said that Tennyson possessed the finest ear of any English poet since Milton. Other critics view him as the greatest English poet between Wordsworth and Yeats. Until recently, Tennyson's poetry to 1850. was more highly valued than his later work. Gradually, however, Tennyson has been given his due as a thinker, and his later poems are now held in high regard as well.

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    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK

      I first came across Tennyson's poem 'Lady of Shallot' when researching the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Tennyson has inspired so much creative work. He is a true English gem. Thanks for sharing.

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 6 years ago from South Wales

      Bravo! A wonderful insight into the great man's life and work. Thank you for this terrific hub.

    • W. K. Hayes profile image

      Warren Keith Hayes 6 years ago from Bryson City, North Carolina

      If a poet asks, 'Who is Tennyson,' they should be ashmaed of themselves. Thesame thing can be said about Poe. Great article.