Alfred Tennyson 2

Baron Alfred Lord Tennyson was a poet laureate of the United Kingdom during the reign of Queen Victoria. He is also one of the most acclaimed poets in English Literature. Tennyson continued and refined the traditions of Romantic Movement left to him by his predecessors, Wordsworth, Byron and Keats. His poetry was considered remarkable for its metrical variety, rich descriptive imagery and exquisite verbal melodies.

Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Encyclopadia Britannica (1911):

TENNYSON, ALFRED TENNYSON, 1st Baron (1809–1892), English poet, was born at Somersby, Lincolnshire, on the 6th of August 1809. He was the fourth of the twelve children of the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson (1778–1831) and his wife Elizabeth Fytche (1781–1865). The Tennysons were an old Lincolnshire family settled at Bayon’s Manor. The poet’s grandfather, George Tennyson, M.P., had disinherited the poet’s father, who was settled hard by in the rectory of Somersby, in favour of the younger son, Charles Tennyson D’Eyncourt. The rich pastoral scenery of this part of Lincolnshire influenced the imagination of the boy, and is plainly reflected in all his early poetry, although it has now been stated with authority that the localities of his subject-poems, which had been ingeniously identified with real brooks and granges, were wholly imaginary. At a very early age he began to write in prose and verse. At Christmas 1815 he was sent to the grammar school at Louth, his mother having kept up a connexion with this typical Lincolnshire borough, of which her father, the Rev. Stephen Fytche, had been vicar. Tennyson was at this school for five years, and then returned to Somersby to be trained by his father. In the rectory the boys had the run of an excellent library, and here the young poet based his wide knowledge of the English classics. The news of Byron’s death (19th April 1824) made a deep impression on him: it was a day, he said, “when the whole world seemed to be darkened for me”; he went out into the woods and carved “Byron is dead” upon a rock. Tennyson was already writing copiously—“an epic of 6000 lines” at twelve, a drama in blank verse at fourteen, and so on: these exercises have, very properly, not been printed, but the poet said of them at the close of his life, “It seems to me, I wrote them all in perfect metre.” The family was in the habit of spending the summer holidays at the coast of the county, commonly at Mablethorpe, and here Tennyson gained his impressions of the vastness of the sea. FitzGerald very justly attributed the landscape character of Tennyson’s genius to the impress left on his imagination by “old Lincolnshire, where there were not only such good seas, but also such fine hill and dale among the wolds.”

In 1827 Frederick Tennyson (1807–1898), the eldest surviving brother, uniting with his younger brothers Charles and Alfred, published at Louth an anonymous collection of Poems by Two Brothers. The “two” were Charles and Alfred (whose contributions predominated), and who shared the surprising profits, £20. On the 20th February 1828 Charles and Alfred matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Frederick was already a student. The poet subsequently told Mr Edmund Gosse that his father would not let him leave Somersby till, on successive days, he had recited from memory the whole of the odes of Horace. The brothers took rooms at 12 Rose Crescent, and afterwards moved into Trumpington Street (now 157 Corpus Buildings). They were shy, and made at first few friends; but they gradually gathered selected associates around them, and Alfred grew to be looked up to in Cambridge “as to a great poet and an elder brother” by a group which included Richard Chenevix Trench, Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), James Spedding, W. H. Thompson, Edward FitzGerald, W. H. Brookfield, and, above all, A. H. Hallam (1811–1833). Charles Tennyson (1808–1879) afterwards took the additional name of Turner. He published four volumes of sonnets which have been highly praised. In June 1829 Alfred Tennyson won the Chancellor’s prize medal for his poem called “Timbuctoo.” With great imperfections, this study in Miltonic blank verse displays the genius of a poet, in spite of a curious obscurity both of thought and style. Here are already both richness and power, although their expression is not yet clarified by taste. But by this time Tennyson was writing lyrics of still higher promise, and, as Arthur Hallam early perceived, with an extraordinary earnestness in the worship of beauty. The results of this enthusiasm and this labour of the artist appeared in the volume of Poems, chiefly Lyrical, published in 1830. This book would have been astonishing as the production of a youth of twenty-one, even if, since the death of Byron six years before, there had not been a singular dearth of good poetry in England. Here at least, in the slender volume of 1830, was a new writer revealed, and in “Mariana,” “The Poet,” “Love and Death,” and “Oriana,” a singer of wonderful though still unchastened melody. Through these, and through less perfect examples, was exhibited an amazing magnificence of fancy, at present insufficiently under control, and a voluptuous pomp of imagery, tending to an over-sweetness. The veteran S. T. Coleridge, praising the genius in the book, blamed the metrical imperfection of it. For this criticism he has himself constantly been reproved, and Tennyson (whose impatience of anything like censure was phenomenal) continued to resent it to the end of his life. Yet Coleridge was perfectly just in his remark; and the metrical anarchy of the “Madelines” and “Adelines” of the 1830 volume showed that Tennyson, with all his delicacy of modulation, had not yet mastered the arts of verse.

In the summer of 1830 Tennyson and Hallam volunteered in the army of the Spanish insurgent Torrijos, and marched about a little in the Pyrenees, without meeting with an enemy. He came back to find his father ailing, and in February 1831 he left Cambridge for Somersby, where a few days later Dr George Tennyson died. The new incumbent was willing that the Tennysons should continue to live in the rectory, which they did not leave until six years later. Arthur Hallam was now betrothed to Emily Tennyson (afterwards Mrs Jesse, 1811-1889), and stayed frequently at Somersby. This was a very happy time, and one of great physical development on Alfred’s part. He took his share in all kinds of athletic exercises, and it was now that Brookfield said, “It is not fair that you should be Hercules as well as Apollo.” This high physical zest in life seems to have declined after 1831, when his eyes began to trouble him, and he became liable to depression. The poetical work of these three years, mainly spent at Somersby, was given to the world in the volume of Poems which (dated 1833) appeared at the end of 1832. This was certainly one of the most astonishing revelations of finished genius ever produced by a young man of less than four-and-twenty. Here were to be read “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Dream of Fair Women,” “Oenone,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” “The Palace of Art,” and “The Miller’s Daughter,” with a score of other lyrics, delicious and divine. The advance in craftsmanship and command over the materiél of verse shown since the volume of 1830 is absolutely astounding. If Tennyson had died of the savage article which presently appeared in the Quarterly Review, literature would have sustained terrible losses, but his name would have lived for ever among those of the great English poets. Indeed, it may be doubted whether, in several directions, he ever surpassed the glorious things to be found in this most exquisite and most precious book. It was well that its publication was completed before the blow fell upon Tennyson which took for a while all the light out of him. In August 1833 Arthur Hallam started with his father, the great historian, for Tirol. They went no farther than Vienna, where Mr Hallam, returning to the hotel on the 15th of September 1833, found his son lying dead on a sofa: a blood-vessel had broken in his brain. His body was brought back to England, and buried at Clevedon on the 3rd of January 1834. These events affected Tennyson extremely. He grew less than ever willing to come forward and face the world; his health became “variable and his spirits indifferent.” The earliest effect of Hallam’s death upon his friend’s art was the composition, in the summer of 1834, of The Two Voices; and to the same period belong the beginnings of the Idylls of the King and of In Memoriam, over both of which he meditated long. In 1835 he visited the Lakes, and saw much of Hartley Coleridge, but would not “obtrude on the great man at Rydal,” although “Wordsworth was hospitably disposed.” Careless alike of fame and of influence, Tennyson spent these years mainly at Somersby, in a uniform devotion of his whole soul to the art of poetry. In 1837, to their great distress, the Tennysons were turned out of the Lincolnshire rectory where they had lived so long. They moved to High Beech, in Epping Forest, which was their home until 1840. The poet was already engaged, or “quasi-betrothed,” to Emily Sellwood, but ten years more had to pass before they could afford to marry. At Torquay, in 1838, he wrote Audley Court on one of his rare excursions, for he had no money for touring, nor did he wish for change: he wrote at this time, “I require quiet, and myself to myself, more than any man when I write.” In 1840 the Tennysons moved to Tunbridge Wells, and a year later to Boxley, near Maidstone, to be close to Edmund Lushington, who had now married Cecilia Tennyson. Alfred was from this time more and more frequently a visitor in London.

In 1842 the two-volume edition of his Poems broke the ten years’ silence which he had enforced himself to keep. Here, with many pieces already known to all lovers of modern verse, were found rich and copious additions to his work. These he had originally intended to publish alone, and an earlier privately printed Morte d’Arthur, Dora, and other Idylls, of 1842, is the despair of book-collectors. Most of those studies of home-life in England, which formed so highly popular a section of Tennyson’s work—such as “The Gardener’s Daughter,” “Walking to the Mail,” and “The Lord of Burleigh”—were now first issued, and, in what we have grown to consider a much higher order, “Locksley Hall,” “Ulysses,” and “Sir Galahad.” To the older and more luxurious lyrics, as reprinted in 1842, Tennyson did not spare the curbing and pruning hand, and in some cases went too far in restraining the wanton spirit of beauty in its youthful impulse. It is from 1842 that the universal fame of Tennyson must be dated; from the time of the publication of the two volumes he ceased to be curiosity, or the darling of an advanced clique, and took his place as the leading poet of his age in England. Among the friends whom he now made, or for the first time cultivated, were Carlyle, Rogers, Dickens, and Elizabeth Barrett. Material difficulties now, however, for the first time intruded on his path. He became the victim of a certain “earnest-frothy” speculator, who induced him to sell his little Lincolnshire estate at Grasby, and to invest the proceeds, with all his other money, and part of that of his brothers and sisters, in a “Patent Decorative Carving Company”: in a few months the whole scheme collapsed, and Tennyson was left penniless. He was attacked by so overwhelming a hypochondria that his life was despaired of, and he was placed for some time under the charge of a hydropathic physician at Cheltenham, where absolute rest and isolation gradually brought him round to health again. The state of utter indigence to which Tennyson was reduced greatly exercised his friends, and in September 1845, at the suggestion of Henry Hallam, Sir Robert Peel was induced to bestow on the poet a pension of £200 a year. Never was public money expended in a more patriotic fashion. Tennyson’s health slowly became restored, and in 1846 he was hard at work on The Princess; in the autumn of this year he took a tour in Switzerland, and saw great mountains and such “stateliest bits of landskip” for the first time. In 1847 nervous prostration again obliged him to undergo treatment at Prestbury: “They tell me not to read, not to think; but they might as well tell me not to live.” Dr Gully’s water-cure was tried, with success. The Princess was now published, in a form afterwards considerably modified and added to. Carlyle and Fitz-Gerald “gave up all hopes of him after The Princess,” or pretended that they did. It was true that the bent of his genius was slightly altered, in a direction which seemed less purely and austerely that of the highest art; but his concessions to public taste vastly added to the width of the circle he now addressed. The home of the Tennysons was now at Cheltenham: on his occasional visits to London he was in the habit of seeing Thackeray, Coventry Patmore, Browning and Macready, as well as older friends, but he avoided “society,” In 1848, while making a tour in Cornwall, Tennyson met Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow, with whom he seems—but the evidence is uncertain—to have talked about King Arthur, and to have resumed his intention of writing an epic on that theme. In his absent-minded way Tennyson was very apt to mislay objects; in earlier life he had lost the MS. of Poems, chiefly Lyrical, and had been obliged to restore the whole from scraps and memory. Now a worse thing befell him, for in February 1850, having collected into one “long ledger-like book” all the elegies on Arthur Hallam which he had been composing at intervals since 1833, he left this only MS. in the cupboard of some lodgings in Mornington Place, Hampstead Road. By extraordinary good chance it had been overlooked by the landlady, and Coventry Patmore was able to recover it. In this way In Memoriam was dragged back from the very verge of destruction, and could be published, in its original anonymous form, in May 1850. The public was at first greatly mystified by the nature and object of this poem, which was not merely a chronicle of Tennyson’s emotions under bereavement, nor even a statement of his philosophical and religious beliefs, but, as he long afterwards explained, a sort of Divina Commedia, ending with happiness in the marriage of his youngest sister, Cecilia Lushington. In fact, the great blemishes of In Memoriam, its redundancy and the dislocation of its parts, were largely due to the desultory manner of its composition. The poet wrote the sections as they occurred to him, and did not think of weaving them together into a single poem until it was too late to give them real coherency. The metre, which by a curious naïveté Tennyson long believed that he had invented, served by its happy peculiarity to bind the sections together, and even to give an illusion of connected movement to the thought.

The sale of Tennyson’s poems now made it safe for him to settle, and on the 13th of June 1850 he was married at Shiplake to Emily Sarah Sellwood (1813-1896). Of this union no more need be said than was recorded long afterwards by the poet himself, “The peace of God came into my life before the altar when I wedded her.” Every species of good fortune was now to descend on the path of the man who had struggled against ill luck so long. Wordsworth died, and on the 19th of November 1850 Queen Victoria appointed Tennyson poet laureate. The salary connected with the post was very small, but it had a secondary value in greatly stimulating the sale of his books, which was his main source of income. The young couple took a house at Warninglid, in Sussex, which did not suit them, and then one in Montpelier Row, Twickenham, which did better. In April 1851 their first child was born dead. At this time Tennyson was brooding much upon the ancient world, and reading little but Milton, Homer and Virgil. This condition was elegantly defined by Carlyle as “sitting on a dungheap among innumerable dead dogs.” In the summer of 1851 was made the tour in Italy, of which The Daisy is the immortal record. Of 1852 the principal events were the birth of his eldest son Hallam, the second Lord Tennyson, in August, and in November the publication of the Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington. In the winter of 1853 Tennyson entered into possession of a little house and farm called Farringford, near Freshwater, in the Isle of Wight, which he leased at first, and afterwards bought: this beautiful place, ringed round with ilexes and cedars, entered into his life and coloured it with its delicate enchantment. In 1854 he published The Charge of the Light Brigade, and was busy composing Maud and its accompanying lyrics; and this volume was published in July 1855, just after he was made D.C.L. at Oxford: he was received on this occasion, which may be considered his first public appearance, with a “tremendous ovation.” The reception of Maud from the critics, however, was the worst trial to, his equanimity which Tennyson had ever had to endure, nor had the future anything like it in store for him. He had risen in Maud far above his ordinary serenity of style, to ecstasies of passion and audacities of expression which were scarcely intelligible to his readers, and certainly not welcome. It is odd that this irregular poem, with its copious and varied music, its splendid sweep of emotion, its unfailing richness of texture—this poem in which Tennyson rises to heights of human sympathy and intuition which he reached nowhere else, should have been received with bitter hostility, have been styled “the dead level of prose run mad,” and have been reproved more absurdly still for its “rampant and rabid bloodthirstiness of soul.” There came a reaction of taste and sense, but the delicate spirit of Tennyson had been wounded. For some years the world heard nothing from him; he was at Farringford, busying himself with the Arthurian traditions. He had now become an object of boundless personal curiosity, being already difficult to find, and the centre of amusing legends. It was in 1857 that Bayard Taylor saw him, and carried away the impression of a man “tall and broad-shouldered as a son of Anak, with hair, beard and eyes of southern darkness.” This period of somewhat mysterious withdrawal from the world embraced a tour in Wales in 1857, a visit to Norway in 1858, and a journey through Portugal in 1859. In 1857 two Arthurian poems had been tentatively and privately printed, as Enid and Nimue, or the True and the False, to see how the idyllic form would be liked by the inner circle of Tennyson’s friends. In the summer of 1859 the first series of Idylls of the King was at length given to the world, and achieved a popular success far beyond anything experienced before by any English poets, save perhaps Byron and Scott. Within a month of publication, 10,000 copies had been sold. The idyls were four in number, “Enid,” “Vivien” (no longer called “Nimue”), “Elaine” and “Guinevere.” These were fragments of the epic of the fall of King Arthur and the Table Round which Tennyson was so long preparing, and which he can hardly be said to have ever completed, although nearly thirty years later he closed it. The public and the critics alike were entranced with the “sweetness” and the “purity” of the treatment. A few, like Ruskin, were doubtful about “that increased quietness of style”; one or two already suspected that the “sweetness” was obtained at some sacrifice of force, and that the “purity” involved a concession to Victorian conventionality. It was not perceived at the time that the four idyls were parts of a great historical or mystical poem, and they were welcomed as four polished studies of typical women: it must be confessed that in this light their even perfection of workmanship appeared to greater advantage than it eventually did in the general texture of the so-called “epic.” In 1859 “Boadicea” was written, and “Riflemen, Form!” published in The Times. Urged by the duke of Argyll, Tennyson now turned his attention to the theme of the Holy Grail, though he progressed with it but fitfully and slowly. In 1861 he travelled in Auvergne and the Pyrenees, with Clough, who was to die a few months later; to this year belong “Helen’s Tower” and the “Dedication” of the Idylls to the prince consort, “These to his Memory.” The latter led to Tennyson’s presentation in April 1862 to the queen, who “stood pale and statue-like before him, in a kind of stately innocence,” which greatly moved his admiring homage. From this time forth the poet enjoyed the constant favour of the sovereign, though he could never be moulded into a conventional courtier. He now put the Arthurian legends aside for a time, and devoted himself to the composition, in 1862, of “Enoch Arden,” which, however, did not appear until 1864, and then in a volume which also contained “Sea Dreams,” “Aylmer’s Field” and, above all, “The Northern Farmer,” the first and finest of Tennyson’s remarkable studies in dialect. In April of this year Garibaldi visited Farringford; in February 1865 Tennyson’s mother died at Hampstead in her eighty-fifth year; in the ensuing summer he travelled in Germany. The time slipped by with incidents but few and slight, Tennyson’s popularity in Great Britain growing all the time to an extent unparalleled in the whole annals of English poetry. This universality of fame led to considerable practical discomfort; he was besieged by sightseers, and his nervous trepidation led him perhaps to exaggerate the intensity of the infliction. In 1867 he determined to make for himself a haven of refuge against the invading Philistine, and bought some land on Blackdown, above Haslemere, then a secluded corner of England; here Mr (afterwards Sir) James Knowles began to build him a house, ultimately named Aldworth. This is the time of two of his rare, privately printed pamphlets, The Window; or, the Loves of the Wrens (1867), and The Victim (1868). The noble poem Lucretius, one of the greatest of Tennyson’s versified monographs, appeared in May 1868, and in this year The Holy Grail was at last finished; it was published in 1869, together with three other idyls belonging to the Arthurian epic, and various miscellaneous lyrics, besides Lucretius. The reception of this volume was cordial, but not so universally respectful as that which Tennyson had grown to expect from his adoring public. The fact was that the heightened reputation of Browning, and still more the sudden vogue of Swinburne, Morris and Rossetti (1866-1870), considerably disturbed the minds of Tennyson’s most ardent readers, and exposed himself to a severer criticism than he had lately been accustomed to endure. He went on quite calmly, however, sure of his mission and of his music. His next volume (1872), Gareth and Lynette and The Last Tournament, continued, and, as he then supposed, concluded The Idylls of the King, to the great satisfaction of the poet, who had found much difficulty in rounding off the last sections of the poem. Nor, as he was to find, was the poem yet completed, but for the time being he dismissed it from his mind. In 1873 he was offered a baronetcy by Gladstone, and again by Disraeli in 1874; in each case the honour was gracefully declined. Believing that his work with the romantic Arthurian epics was concluded, Tennyson now turned his attention to a department of poetry which had long attracted him, but which he had never seriously attempted—the drama. He put before him a scheme, which he cannot be said to have carried far, that of illustrating “the making of England” by a series of great historical tragedies. His Queen Mary, the first of these chronicle-plays was published in 1875, and played by Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum in 1876. Although it was full of admirably dramatic writing, it was not theatrically well composed, and it failed on the stage. Extremely pertinacious in this respect, the poet went on attempting to storm the theatre, with assault upon assault, all practically failures until the seventh and last, which was unfortunately posthumous. To have really succeeded on the stage would have given Tennyson more gratification than anything else, but he was not permitted to live long enough to see this blossom also added to the heavy garland of his glory. Meanwhile Harold, a tragedy of doom, was published in 1876; but, though perhaps the finest of its author’s dramas, it has never been acted. During these years Tennyson’s thoughts were largely occupied with the building of Aldworth. His few lyrics were spirited ballads of adventure, inspired by an exalted patriotism—”The Revenge” (1878), “The Defence of Lucknow” (1879)—but he reprinted and finally published his old suppressed poem, The Lover’s Tale, and a little play of his, The Falcon, versified out of Boccaccio, was produced by the Kendals at their theatre in the last days of 1879. Tennyson had reached the limits of the threescore years and ten, and it was tacitly taken for granted that he would now retire into dignified repose. In point of fact, he now started on a new lease of poetical activity. In 1880 he published the earliest of six important collections of lyrics, this being entitled Ballads and other Poems, and containing the sombre and magnificent “Rizpah.” In 1881 The Cup and in 1882 The Promise of May, two little plays, were produced without substantial success in London theatres: the second of these is perhaps the least successful of all the poet’s longer writings, but its failure annoyed him unreasonably. This determination to be a working playwright, pushed on in the face of critical hostility and popular indifference, is a very curious trait in the character of Tennyson. In September 1883 Tennyson and Gladstone set out on a voyage round the north of Scotland, to Orkney, and across the ocean to Norway and Denmark. At Copenhagen they were entertained by the king and queen, and after much fêting, returned to Gravesend: this adventure served to cheer the poet, who had been in low spirits since the death of his favourite brother Charles, and who now entered upon a phase of admirable vigour. During the voyage Gladstone had determined to offer Tennyson a peerage. After some demur, the poet consented to accept it, but added, “For my own part, I shall regret my simple name all my life.” On the 11th of March 1884 he took his seat in the House of Lords as Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Farringford. He voted twice, but never spoke in the House. In the autumn of this year his tragedy of Becket was published, but the poet at last despaired of the stage, and disclaimed any hope of “meeting the exigencies of our modern theatre.” Curiously enough, after his death Becket was the one of all his plays which enjoyed a great success on the boards. In 1885 was published another interesting miscellany, Tiresias and other Poems, with a posthumous dedication to Edward FitzGerald. In this volume, it should be noted, The Idylls of the King was completed at last by the publication of “Balin and Balan”; it contained also the superb address “To Virgil.” In April 1886 Tennyson suffered the loss of his second son, Lionel, who died in the Red Sea on his return from India. The untiring old poet was steadily writing on, and by 1886 he had another collection of lyrics ready, Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, &c.; his eyes troubled him, but his memory and his intellectual curiosity were as vivid as ever. Late in 1888 he had a dangerous attack of rheumatic gout, from which it seemed in December that he could scarcely hope to rally, but his magnificent constitution pulled him through. He was past eighty when he published the collection of new verses entitled Demeter and other Poems (1889), which appeared almost simultaneously with the death of Browning, an event which left Tennyson a solitary figure indeed in poetic literature. In 1891 it was observed that he had wonderfully recovered the high spirits of youth, and even a remarkable portion of physical strength. His latest drama, The Foresters, now received his attention, and in March 1892 it was produced at New York, with Miss Ada Rehanr as Maid Marian. During this year Tennyson was steadily engaged on poetical composition, finishing “Akbar’s Dream,” “Kapiolani” and other contents of the posthumous volume called The Death of Oenone, 1892. In the summer he took a voyage to the Channel Islands and Devonshire; and even this was not his latest excursion from home, for in July 1892 he went up for a visit to London. Soon after entering his eighty-fourth year, however, symptoms of weakness set in, and early in September his condition began to give alarm. He retained his intellectual lucidity and an absolute command of his faculties to the last, reading Shakespeare with obvious appreciation until within a few hours of his death. With the splendour of the full moon falling upon him, his hand clasping his Shakespeare, and looking, as we are told, almost unearthly in the majestic beauty of his old age, Tennyson passed away at Aldworth on the night of the 6th of October 1892. Cymbeline, the play he had been reading on the last afternoon, was laid in his coffin, and on the 12th he was publicly buried with great solemnity in Westminster Abbey. Lady Tennyson survived until August 1896.

The physical appearance of Tennyson was very remarkable. Of his figure at the age of thirty-three Carlyle has left a superb portrait: “One of the finest-looking men in the world. A great shock of rough, dusky, dark hair; bright, laughing, hazel eyes; massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate; of sallow brown complexion, almost Indian-looking, clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy, smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical, metallic, fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous; I do not meet in these late decades such company over a pipe.” He was unusually tall, and possessed in advanced years a strange and rather terrifying air of sombre majesty. But he was, in fact, of a great simplicity in temperament, affectionate, shy, still exquisitely sensitive in extreme old age to the influences of beauty, melancholy and sweetness. Although exceedingly near-sighted, Tennyson was a very close observer of nature, and at the age of eighty his dark and glowing eyes, which were still strong, continued to permit him to enjoy the delicate features of country life around him, both at Aldworth and in the Isle of Wight. His Life, written with admirable piety and taste by his son, Hallam, second Lord Tennyson, was published in two volumes in 1897.

At the time of his death, and for some time after it, the enthusiastic recognition of the genius of Tennyson was too extravagant to be permanent. A reaction against this extravagance was perhaps inevitable, and criticism has of late been little occupied with the poet. The reason of this is easy to find. For an unusually long period this particular poetry had occupied public and professional opinion, and all the commonplace things about it had been said and re-said to satiety. It lacks for the moment the interest of freshness; it is like a wonderful picture seen so constantly that it fails any longer to concentrate attention. No living poet has ever held England—no poet but Victor Hugo has probably ever held any country—quite so long under his unbroken sway as Tennyson did. As he recedes from us, however, we begin to see that he has a much closer relation to the great Georgian writers than we used to be willing to admit. The distance between the generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge and that of Byron and Shelley is not less—it is even probably greater—than that which divides Keats from Tennyson, and he is more the last of that great school than the first of any new one. The qualities in which he seems to surpass his immediate predecessors are exactly those which should be the gift of one who sums up the labours of a mighty line of artists. He is remarkable among them for the breadth, the richness, the substantial accomplishment of his touch; he has something of all these his elders, and goes farther along the road of technical perfection than any of them. We still look to the earlier masters for supreme excellence in particular directions: to Wordsworth for sublime philosophy, to Coleridge for ethereal magic, to Byron for passion, to Shelley for lyric intensity, to Keats for richness. Tennyson does not excel each of these in his own special field, but he is often nearer to the particular man in his particular mastery than any one else can be said to be, and he has in addition his own field of supremacy. What this is cannot easily be defined; it consists, perhaps, in the beauty of the atmosphere which Tennyson contrives to cast around his work, moulding it in the blue mystery of twilight, in the opaline haze of sunset: this atmosphere, suffused over his poetry with inestimable skill and with a tact very rarely at fault, produces an almost unfailing illusion or mirage of loveliness, so that, even where (as must sometimes be the case with every poet) the thought and the imagery have little value in themselves, the fictive aura of beauty broods over the otherwise undistinguished verse. Hence, among all the English poets, it is Tennyson who presents the least percentage of entirely unattractive poetry. In his luminous subtlety and his broad undulating sweetness, his relationship with Virgil has long been manifest; he was himself aware of it. But he was also conscious that his exquisite devotion to mere lucidity and beauty might be a snare to him, and a happy instinct was always driving him to a study of mankind as well as of inanimate nature. Few English writers have known so adroitly as Tennyson how to bend the study of Shakespeare to the enrichment of their personal style. It should be added that he was a very deep and original student of literature of every description, and that the comparatively few specimens which have been preserved of his conversation contain some of the finest fragments of modern appreciation of the great poets which we possess. This is worthy of consideration in any attempt made to sketch the mind of a man who was above all other masters of recent literature an artist, and who must be studied in the vast and orbic fullness of his accomplishment in order to be appreciated at all.


From Poetry Foundation:


More than any other Victorian-era writer, Tennyson has seemed the embodiment of his age, both to his contemporaries and to modern readers. In his own day he was said to be—with Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone—one of the three most famous living persons, a reputation no other poet writing in English has ever had. As official poetic spokesman for the reign of Victoria, he felt called upon to celebrate a quickly changing industrial and mercantile world with which he felt little in common, for his deepest sympathies were called forth by an unaltered rural England; the conflict between what he thought of as his duty to society and his allegiance to the eternal beauty of nature seems peculiarly Victorian. Even his most severe critics have always recognized his lyric gift for sound and cadence, a gift probably unequaled in the history of English poetry.

The lurid history of Tennyson’s family is interesting in itself, but some knowledge of it is also essential for understanding the recurrence in his poetry of themes of madness, murder, avarice, miserliness, social climbing, marriages arranged for profit instead of love, and estrangements between families and friends.

Alfred Tennyson was born in the depths of Lincolnshire, the 4th son of the 12 children of the rector of Somersby, George Clayton Tennyson, a cultivated but embittered clergyman who took out his disappointment on his wife Elizabeth and his brood of children—on at least one occasion threatening to kill Alfred’s elder brother Frederick. The rector had been pushed into the church by his own father, also named George, a rich and ambitious country solicitor intent on founding a great family dynasty that would rise above their modest origins into a place among the English aristocracy. Old Mr. Tennyson, aware that his eldest son, the rector, was unpromising material for the family struggle upward, made his second son, his favorite child, his chief heir. Tennyson’s father, who had a strong streak of mental instability, reacted to his virtual disinheritance by taking to drink and drugs, making the home atmosphere so sour that the family spoke of the “black blood” of the Tennysons.

Part of the family heritage was a strain of epilepsy, a disease then thought to be brought on by sexual excess and therefore shameful. One of Tennyson’s brothers was confined to an insane asylum most of his life, another had recurrent bouts of addiction to drugs, a third had to be put into a mental home because of his alcoholism, another was intermittently confined and died relatively young. Of the rest of the 11 children who reached maturity, all had at least one severe mental breakdown. During the first half of his life Alfred thought that he had inherited epilepsy from his father and that it was responsible for the trances into which he occasionally fell until he was well over 40 years old.

It was in part to escape from the unhappy environment of Somersby rectory that Alfred began writing poetry long before he was sent to school, as did most of his talented brothers and sisters. All his life he used writing as a way of taking his mind from his troubles. One aspect of his method of composition was set, too, while he was still a boy: 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. As this practice suggests, his primary consideration was more often rhythm and language than discursive meaning.

When he was not quite 18 his first volume of poetry, Poems by Two Brothers (1827), was published. Alfred Tennyson wrote the major part of the volume, although it also contained poems by his two elder brothers, Frederick and Charles. It is a remarkable book for so young a poet, displaying great virtuosity of versification and the prodigality of imagery that was to mark his later works; but it is also derivative in its ideas, many of which came from his reading in his father’s library. Few copies were sold, and there were only two brief reviews, but its publication confirmed Tennyson’s determination to devote his life to poetry.

Most of Tennyson’s early education was under the direction of his father, although he spent nearly four unhappy years at a nearby grammar school. His departure in 1827 to join his elder brothers at Trinity College, Cambridge, was due more to a desire to escape from Somersby than to a desire to undertake serious academic work. At Trinity he was living for the first time among young men of his own age who knew little of the problems that had beset him for so long; he was delighted to make new friends; he was extraordinarily handsome, intelligent, humorous, and gifted at impersonation; and soon he was at the center of an admiring group of young men interested in poetry and conversation. It was probably the happiest period of his life.

In part it was the urging of his friends, in part the insistence of his father that led the normally indolent Tennyson to retailor an old poem on the subject of Armageddon and submit it in the competition for the chancellor’s gold medal for poetry; the announced subject was Timbuctoo. Tennyson’s “Timbuctoo” is a strange poem, as the process of its creation would suggest. He uses the legendary city for a consideration of the relative validity of imagination and objective reality; Timbuctoo takes its magic from the mind of man, but it can turn to dust at the touch of the mundane. It is far from a successful poem, but it shows how deeply engaged its author was with the Romantic conception of poetry. Whatever its shortcomings, it won the chancellor’s prize in the summer of 1829.

Probably more important than its success in the competition was the fact that the submission of the poem brought Tennyson into contact with the Trinity undergraduate usually regarded as the most brilliant man of his Cambridge generation, Arthur Henry Hallam. This was the beginning of four years of warm friendship between the two men, in some ways the most intense emotional experience of Tennyson’s life.

Also in 1829 both Hallam and Tennyson became members of the secret society known as the Apostles, a group of roughly a dozen undergraduates who were usually regarded as the elite of the entire university. Tennyson’s name has ever since been linked with the society, but the truth is that he dropped out of it after only a few meetings, although he retained his closeness with the other members and might even be said to have remained the poetic center of the group. The affection and acceptance he felt from his friends brought both a new warmth to Tennyson’s personality and an increasing sensuousness to the poetry he was constantly writing when he was supposed to be devoting his time to his studies.

Hallam, too, wrote poetry, and the two friends planned on having their work published together; but at the last moment Hallam’s father, perhaps worried by some lyrics Arthur had written to a young lady with whom he had been in love, forbade him to include his poems. Poems, Chiefly Lyrical appeared in June 1830. The standard of the poems in the volume is uneven, and it has the self-centered, introspective quality that one might expect of the work of a 20-year-old; but scattered among the other poems that would be forgotten if they had been written by someone else are several fine ones such as “The Kraken,” “Ode to Memory,” and—above all—“Mariana,” which is the first of Tennyson’s works to demonstrate fully his brilliant use of objects and landscapes to convey a state of strong emotion. That poem alone would be enough to justify the entire volume. The reviews appeared slowly, but they were generally favorable.

The friendship between the young men was knotted even more tightly when Hallam fell in love with Tennyson’s younger sister, Emily, on a visit to Somersby. Since they were both so young, there was no chance of their marrying for some time, and meanwhile Hallam had to finish his undergraduate years at Trinity. All the Tennyson brothers and sisters, as well as their mother, seem to have taken instantly to Hallam, but he and Emily prudently said nothing of their love to either of their fathers. Dr. Tennyson was absent on the Continent most of the time, sent there by his father and his brother in the hope that he might get over his drinking and manage Somersby parish sensibly. Arthur’s father, the distinguished historian Henry Hallam, had plans for his son that did not include marriage to the daughter of an obscure and alcoholic country clergyman.

In the summer of 1830 Tennyson and Hallam were involved in a harebrained scheme to take money and secret messages to revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the Spanish king. Tennyson’s political enthusiasm was considerably cooler than Hallam’s, but he was glad to make his first trip abroad. They went through France to the Pyrenees, meeting the revolutionaries at the Spanish border. Even Hallam’s idealistic fervor scarcely survived the disillusionment of realizing that the men they met were animated by motives as selfish as those of the royalist party against whom they were rebelling. Nonetheless, in the Pyrenees Tennyson marked out a new dimension of the metaphorical landscape that had already shown itself in “Mariana,” and for the rest of his life the mountains remained as a model for the classical scenery that so often formed the backdrop of his poetry. The Pyrenees generated such marvelous poems as “Oenone,” which he began writing there; “The Lotos-Eaters,” which was inspired by a waterfall in the mountains; and “The Eagle,” which was born from the sight of the great birds circling above them as they climbed in the rocks. Above all, the little village of Cauteretz and the valley in which it lay remained more emotionally charged for Tennyson than any other place on earth. He came again and again to walk in the valley, and it provided him with imagery until his death more than 60 years later.

Early the following year Tennyson had to leave Cambridge because of the death of his father. Dr. Tennyson had totally deteriorated mentally and physically, and he left little but debts to his family, although he had enjoyed a good income and a large allowance from his father. Tennyson’s grandfather naturally felt that it was hardly worth his while to keep Alfred and his two elder brothers at Cambridge when it was only too apparent that they were profiting little from their studies and showed no promise of ever being able to support themselves. The allowance he gave the family was generous enough, but it was not intended to support three idle grandsons at the university. Worse still, neither he nor Dr. Tennyson’s brother Charles, who was now clearly marked out as the heir to his fortune, attended the rector’s funeral, making the division in the family even more apparent. The widow and her 11 children were so improvident that they seemed incapable of living on the allowance, and they were certainly not able to support themselves otherwise.

This began a very bitter period of Tennyson’s life. An annual gift of £100 from an aunt allowed him to live in a modest manner, but he refused his grandfather’s offer to help him find a place in the church if he would be ordained. Tennyson said then, as he said all his life, that poetry was to be his career, however bleak the prospect of his ever earning a living. His third volume of poetry was published at the end of 1832, although the title page was dated 1833.

The 1832 Poems was a great step forward poetically and included the first versions of some of Tennyson’s greatest works, such as “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Palace of Art,” “A Dream of Fair Women,” “The Hesperides,” and three wonderful poems conceived in the Pyrenees, “Oenone,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” and “Mariana in the South.” The volume is notable for its consideration of the opposed attractions of isolated poetic creativity and social involvement; the former usually turns out to be the more attractive course, since it reflected Tennyson’s own concerns, but the poems demonstrate as well his feeling of estrangement in being cut off from his contemporaries by the demands of his art.

The reviews of the volume were almost universally damning. One of the worst was written by Edward Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton), who was a friend of Tennyson’s uncle Charles. The most vicious review, however, was written for the Quarterly Review by John Wilson Croker, who was proud that his brutal notice of “Endymion“ years before was said to have been one of the chief causes of the death of Keats. Croker numbered Tennyson among the Cockney poets who imitated Keats, and he made veiled insinuations about the lack of masculinity of both Tennyson and his poems. Tennyson, who was abnormally thin-skinned about criticism, found some comfort in the steady affection and support of Hallam and the other Apostles.

Hallam and Emily Tennyson had by then made their engagement public knowledge, but they saw no way of marrying for a long time: the senior Hallam refused to increase his son’s allowance sufficiently to support both of them; and when Arthur wrote to Emily’s grandfather, he was answered in the third person with the indication that old Mr. Tennyson had no intention of giving them any more money. By the summer of 1833, Hallam’s father had somewhat grudgingly accepted the engagement, but still without offering further financial help. The protracted unhappiness of both Arthur and Emily rubbed off on the whole Tennyson family.

That autumn, in what was meant as a gesture of gratitude and reconciliation to his father, Arthur Hallam accompanied him to the Continent. In Vienna Arthur died suddenly of apoplexy resulting from a congenital malformation of the brain. Emily Tennyson fell ill for nearly a year; the effects of Hallam’s death were less apparent externally in Alfred but were perhaps even more catastrophic than for his sister.

The combination of the deaths of his father and his best friend, the brutal reviews of his poetry, his conviction that both he and his family were in desperate poverty, his feelings of isolation in the depths of the country, and his ill-concealed fears that he might become a victim of epilepsy, madness, alcohol, and drugs, as others in his family had, or even that he might die like Hallam, was more than enough to upset the always fragile balance of Tennyson’s emotions. “I suffered what seemed to me to shatter all my life so that I desired to die rather than to live,” he said of that period. For a time he determined to leave England, and for 10 years he refused to have any of his poetry published, since he was convinced that the world had no place for it.

Although he was adamant about not having it published, Tennyson continued to write poetry; and he did so even more single-mindedly than before. Hallam’s death nearly crushed him, but it also provided the stimulus for a great outburst of some of the finest poems he ever wrote, many of them connected overtly or implicitly with the loss of his friend. “Ulysses,” “Morte d’Arthur,” “Tithonus,” “Tiresias,” “Break, break, break,” and “Oh! that ’twere possible” all owe their inception to the passion of grief he felt but carefully hid from his intimates. Most important was the group of unlinked poems he began writing about Hallam’s death; the first of these “elegies,” written in four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, was begun within two or three days of his hearing the news of Hallam’s death. He continued to write them for 17 years before collecting them to form what is perhaps the greatest of Victorian poems, In Memoriam (1850).

The death of his grandfather in 1835 confirmed Tennyson’s fear of poverty, for the larger part of Mr. Tennyson’s fortune went to Alfred’s uncle Charles, who promptly changed his name to Tennyson d’Eyncourt and set about rebuilding his father’s house into a grand Romantic castle, with the expectation of receiving a peerage to cap the family’s climb to eminence. His hopes were never realized, but his great house, Bayons Manor, became a model for the home of the vulgar, nouveau riche characters in many of Tennyson’s narrative poems, such as Maud (1855). Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt’s inheritance was the final wedge driving the two branches of the family apart; he and his nephew were never reconciled, but Alfred’s dislike of him was probably even more influential than admiration would have been in keeping Charles as an immediate influence in so much of Alfred’s poetry.

The details of Tennyson’s romantic attachments in the years after Hallam’s death are unclear, but he apparently had at least a flirtation with Rosa Baring, the pretty young daughter of a great banking family. Tennyson wrote a dozen or so poems to her, but it is improbable that his affections were deeply involved. The poems suggest that her position made it impossible for him to be a serious suitor to her, but she may have been more important to him as a symbol of wealth and unavailability than as a flesh-and-blood young woman. Certainly, he seems not to have been crushed when she married another man.

In 1836, however, at the age of 27, Tennyson became seriously involved with Emily Sellwood, who was four years younger than he. By the following year they considered themselves engaged. Emily had been a friend of Tennyson’s sisters, and one of her own sisters married his next older (and favorite) brother, Charles. Most of the correspondence between Tennyson and Emily has been destroyed, but from what remains it is clear that she was very much in love with him, although he apparently withheld himself somewhat in spite of his affection for her. He was worried about not having enough money to marry, but he seems also to have been much concerned with the trances into which he was still falling, which he thought were connected with the epilepsy from which other members of the family suffered. To marry, he thought, would mean passing on the disease to any children he might father.

In the summer of 1840 Tennyson broke off all relations with Emily. She continued to think of herself as engaged to him, but he abandoned any hope of marriage, either then or in the future. To spare her further embarrassment, the story was put out that her father had forbidden their marriage because of Tennyson’s poverty; this legend has been perpetuated in the present century.

Through the second half of the 1830s and most of the 1840s Tennyson lived an unsettled, nomadic life. Nominally he made his home with his mother and his unmarried brothers and sisters, who continued to rent Somersby rectory until 1837, then moved successively to Essex and to Kent; but he was as often to be found in London, staying in cheap hotels or cadging a bed from friends who lived there. He was lonely and despondent, and he drank and smoked far too much. Many of those who had known him for years believed that his poetic inspiration had failed him and that his great early promise would remain unfulfilled; but this was to neglect the fact that when all else went wrong, he clung to the composition of poetry. He was steadily accumulating a backlog of unpublished poems, and he continued adding to his “elegies” to Hallam’s memory.

One of the friends who worried away at Tennyson to have his work published was Edward FitzGerald, who loved both the poems and their author, although he was too stubborn to hide his feelings when a particular poem failed to win his approval. “Old Fitz” nagged at Tennyson, who in the spring of 1842 agreed to break his 10 long years of silence.

The two volumes of Poems (1842) were destined to be the best-loved books Tennyson ever wrote. The first volume was made up of radically revised versions of the best poems from the 1832 volume, most of them in the form in which they are now known. The second volume contained new poems, among them some of those inspired by Hallam’s death, as well as poems of widely varying styles, including the dramatic monologue “St. Simeon Stylites”; a group of Arthurian poems; his first attempt to deal with rampant sexuality, “The Vision of Sin”; and the implicitly autobiographical narrative “Locksley Hall,” dealing with the evils of worldly marriages, which was to become one of his most popular poems during his lifetime.

After the reception of the 1832 Poems and after being unpublished for so long, Tennyson was naturally apprehensive about the reviews of the new poems; but nearly all were enthusiastic, making it clear that he was now the foremost poet of his generation. Edgar Allan Poe wrote guardedly, “I am not sure that Tennyson is not the greatest of poets.”

But the bad luck that Tennyson seemed to invite struck again just as the favorable reviews were appearing. Two years earlier, expecting to make a fortune, he had invested his patrimony in a scheme to manufacture cheap wood carvings by steamdriven machines. In 1842 the scheme crashed, taking with it nearly everything that Tennyson owned, some £4,000. The shock set back any progress he had made in his emotional state over the past ten years, and in 1843 he had to go into a “hydropathic” establishment for seven months of treatment in the hope of curing his deep melancholia.

This was the first of several stays in “hydros” during the next five years. Copious applications of water inside and out, constant wrappings in cold, wet sheets, and enforced abstinence from tobacco and alcohol seemed to help him during each stay; but he would soon ruin any beneficial effects by his careless life once he had left the establishment, resuming his drinking and smoking to the despair of his friends. A rather more effective form of treatment was the £2,000 he received from an insurance policy at the death of the organizer of the woodcarving scheme. In 1845 he was granted a government civil list pension of £200 a year in recognition of both his poetic achievements and his apparent financial need. Tennyson was in reality released from having to worry about money, but the habit of years was too much for him; for the rest of his life he complained constantly of his poverty, although his poetry had made him a rich man by the time of his death. In 1845 the betterment of his fortunes brought with it no effort to resume his engagement to Emily Sellwood, showing that it was not financial want that kept them apart.

The Princess, which was published on Christmas 1847, was Tennyson’s first attempt at a long narrative poem, a form that tempted him most of his life although it was less congenial to him temperamentally than the lyric. The ostensible theme is the education of women and the establishment of female colleges, but it is clear that Tennyson’s interest in the subject runs out before the poem does, so that it gradually shifts to the consideration of what he thought of as the unnatural attempt of men and women to fulfill identical roles in society; only as the hero becomes more overtly masculine and the heroine takes on the traditional attributes of women is there a chance for their happiness. Considerably more successful than the main narrative are the thematic lyrics that Tennyson inserted into the action to show the growth of passion, and between the cantos to indicate that the natural end of the sexes is to be parents of another generation in a thoroughly traditional manner. These interpolated lyrics include some of his most splendid short poems, such as “Come down, O maid,” “Now sleeps the crimson petal,” “Sweet and low,” “The splendour falls on castle walls,” and “Tears, idle tears.” The emotion of these lyrics does more than the straight narrative to convey the forward movement of the entire poem, and their brief perfection indicates well enough that his genius lay there rather than in the descriptions of persons and their actions; this was not, however, a lesson that Tennyson himself was capable of learning. The seriousness with which the reviewers wrote of the poem was adequate recognition of his importance, but many of them found the central question of feminine education to be insufficiently considered. The first edition was quickly sold out, and subsequent editions appeared almost every year for several decades.

Tennyson’s last stay in a hydropathic hospital was in the summer of 1848, and though he was not completely cured of his illness, he was reassured about its nature. The doctor in charge apparently made a new diagnosis of his troubles, telling him that what he suffered from was not epilepsy but merely a form of gout that prefaced its attacks by a stimulation of the imagination that is very like the “aura” that often warns epileptics of the onset of a seizure. The trances that he had thought were mild epileptic fits were in fact only flashes of illumination over which he had no reason to worry. Had it been in Tennyson’s nature to rejoice, he could have done so at this time, for there was no longer any reason for him to fear marriage, paternity, or the transmission of disease to his offspring. The habits of a lifetime, however, were too ingrained for him to shake them off at once. The real measure of his relief at being rid of his old fear of epilepsy is that he soon set about writing further sections to be inserted into new editions of The Princess, in which the hero is said to be the victim of “weird seizures” inherited from his family; at first he is terrified when he falls into trances, but he is at last released from the malady when he falls in love with Princess Ida. Not only this poem, but his three other major long works, In Memoriam, Maud, and Idylls of the King (1859), all deal in part with the meaning of trances, which are at first frightening but then are revealed to be pathways to the extrasensory, to be rejoiced over rather than feared. After his death Tennyson’s wife and son burned many of his most personal letters, and in what remains there is little reference to his trances or his recovery from them; but the poems bear quiet testimony to the immense weight he must have felt lifted from his shoulders when he needed no longer worry about epilepsy.

Tennyson’s luck at last seemed to be on the upturn. At the beginning of 1849 he received a large advance from his publisher with the idea that he would assemble and polish his “elegies” on Hallam, to be published as a whole poem. Before the year was over he had resumed communication with Emily Sellwood, and by the beginning of 1850 he was speaking confidently of marrying. On June 1, In Memoriam was published, and less than two weeks later he and Emily were married quietly at Shiplake Church. Improbable as it might seem for a man to whom little but bad fortune had come, both events were total successes.

The new Mrs. Tennyson was 37 years old and in delicate health, but she was a woman of iron determination; she took over the running of the externals of her husband’s life, freeing him from the practical details at which he was so inept. Her taste was conventional, and she may have curbed his religious questioning, his mild bohemianism, and the exuberance and experimentation of his poetry, but she also brought a kind of peace to his life without which he would not have been able to write at all. There is some evidence that Tennyson occasionally chafed at the responsibilities of marriage and paternity and at the loss of the vagrant freedom he had known, but there is nothing to indicate that he ever regretted his choice. It was probably not a particularly passionate marriage, but it was full of tenderness and affection. Three sons were born, of whom two, Hallam and Lionel, survived.

After a protracted honeymoon of some four months in the Lake District, Tennyson returned to the south of England to find that the publication of In Memoriam had made him, without question, the major living poet. It had appeared anonymously, but his authorship was an open secret.

This vast poem (nearly 3,000 lines) is divided into 131 sections, with prologue and epilogue; the size is appropriate for what it undertakes, since in coming to terms with loss, grief, and the growth of consolation, it touches on most of the intellectual issues at the center of the Victorian consciousness: religion, immortality, geology, evolution, the relation of the intellect to the unconscious, the place of art in a workaday world, the individual versus society, the relation of man to nature, and as many others. The poem grew out of Tennyson’s personal grief, but it attempts to speak for all men rather than for one. The structure often seems wayward, for in T.S. Eliot’s famous phrase, it has “only the unity and continuity of a diary” instead of the clear direction of a philosophical statement. It had been composed with no regard for either chronology or continuity and was for years not intended to be published. The vacillation in mood of the finished poem, however, is neither haphazard nor capricious, for it is put together to show the wild swoops between depression and elation that grief brings, the hesitant gropings toward philosophical justification of bereavement, the tentative little darts of conviction that may precede a settled belief in a beneficent world. It is intensely personal, but one must also believe Tennyson in his reiterated assertions that it was a poem, not the record of his own grief about Hallam; in short, that his own feelings had prompted the poem but were not necessarily accurately recorded in it.

To the most perceptive of the Victorians (and to modern readers) the poem was moving for its dramatic recreation of a mind indisposed to deal with the problems of contemporary life, and for the sheer beauty of so many of its sections. To a more naive, and far larger, group of readers it was a work of real utility, to be read as a manual of consolation, and it is surely to that group that the poem owed its almost unbelievable popularity. Edition followed edition, and each brought Tennyson more fame and greater fortune.

Wordsworth, who had been poet laureate for seven years, had died in the spring of 1850. By the time Tennyson returned from his honeymoon, it must have seemed to many a foregone conclusion that he would be nominated as Wordsworth’s successor, and early the following year he was presented to the queen as her poet laureate. He wore the borrowed and too-tight court clothes that Wordsworth had worn for the same purpose on the occasion of his own presentation as an emblem of the office’s passage from the greatest of Romantic poets to the greatest of the Victorians.

At the end of November 1853 Alfred and Emily Tennyson moved into the secluded big house on the Isle of Wight known as Farringford, which has ever since been associated with his name. Emily loved the remoteness and the fact that their clocks were not even synchronized with those elsewhere, but her husband sometimes longed to be rattling around London. Most of the time, however, he was content to walk on the great chalk cliffs overlooking the sea, composing his poems as he tramped, their rhythm often deriving from his heavy tread.

It was perhaps his very isolation that made him so interested in the Crimean War, for he read the newspapers voraciously in order to keep current with world affairs. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was one result in 1854 of his fascination with the heroism of that unpopular war. Maud, in which the hero redeems his misspent life by volunteering for service in the Crimea, was published the following year. In spite of that somewhat conventional-sounding conclusion, the poem is Tennyson’s most experimental, for it tells a thoroughly dramatic narrative in self-contained lyrics; the reader must fill in the interstices of the story by inference. As always, Tennyson is not at his best in narrative, but the melodramatic content of the plot finally matters little in comparison with the startling originality of his attempt to extend the limits of lyricism in order to make it do the work of narrative and drama, to capitalize on his own apparently circumscribed gift in order to include social criticism, contemporary history, and moral comment in the lyric. In part it must have been a deliberate answer to those who complained that his art was too self-absorbed and negligent of the world around him.

The experimental quality of Maud has made it one of the most interesting of his poems to modern critics, but to Tennyson’s contemporaries it seemed so unlike what they expected from the author of In Memoriam that they could neither understand nor love it. The result was the worst critical abuse that Tennyson received after that directed at the 1832 Poems. One reviewer went so far as to say that Maud had one extra vowel in the title, and that it made no difference which was to be deleted. Tennyson’s predictable response was to become defensive about the poem and to read it aloud at every opportunity in order to show how badly misunderstood both poem and poet were. Since it was a performance that took between two and three hours, the capitulation to its beauty that he often won thereby was probably due as much to weariness on the part of the hearer as to intellectual or aesthetic persuasion.

Ever since the publication of the 1842 Poems Tennyson had been something of a lion in literary circles, but after he became poet laureate he was equally in demand with society hostesses, who were more interested in his fame than in his poetic genius. For the rest of his life Tennyson was to be caught awkwardly between being unable to resist the flattery implied by their attentions and the knowledge that their admiration of him usually sprang from the wrong reasons. It was difficult for him to refuse invitations, but he felt subconsciously impelled when he accepted them to behave gruffly, even rudely, in order to demonstrate his independence. These invitations brought out the least attractive side of a fundamentally shy man, whose paroxysms of inability to deal with social situations made him seem selfish, bad-mannered, and overly assertive. In order to smooth his ruffled feathers, his hostesses and his friends would resort to heavy flattery, which only made him appear more arrogant. One of the saddest aspects of Tennyson’s life is that his growing fame was almost in inverse ratio to his ability to maintain intimacy with others, so that by the end of his life he was a basically lonely man. All the innate charm, humor, intelligence, and liveliness were still there, but it took great understanding and patience on the part of his friends to bring them into the open.

Idylls of the King was published in 1859; it contained only four (“Enid,” “Vivien,” “Elaine,” and “Guinevere”) of the eventual 12 idylls. The matter of Arthur and Camelot had obsessed Tennyson since boyhood, and over the years it became a receptacle into which he poured his deepening feelings of the desecration of decency and of ancient English ideals by the gradual corruption of accepted morality. The decay of the Round Table came increasingly to seem to him an apt symbol of the decay of 19th-century England. It was no accident that the first full-length idyll had been “Morte d’Arthur,” which ultimately became—with small additions—the final idyll in the completed cycle. It had been written at the time of the death of Arthur Hallam, who seemed to Tennyson “Ideal manhood closed in real man,” as he wrote of King Arthur; no doubt both Hallam’s character and Tennyson’s grief at his death lent color to the entire poem.

Like The Princess, In Memoriam, and Maud, the idylls were an assembly of poetry composed over a long time—in this case nearly half a century in all, for they were not finished until 1874 and were not all published until 1885. Taken collectively, they certainly constitute Tennyson’s most ambitious poem, but not all critics would agree that the poem’s success is equal to its intentions.

For a modern reader, long accustomed to the Arthurian legend by plays, musicals, films, and popular books, it is hard to realize that the story was relatively unfamiliar when Tennyson wrote. He worked hard at his preparation, reading most of the available sources, going to Wales and the west country of England to see the actual places connected with Arthur, and even learning sufficient Welsh to read some of the original documents. “There is no grander subject in the world,” he wrote, and he meant his state of readiness to be equal to the loftiness of his themes, which explains in part why it took him so long to write the entire poem.

Although Tennyson always thought of the idylls as allegorical (his word was “parabolic”), he refused to make literal identifications between incidents, characters, or situations in the poems and what they stood for, except to indicate generally that by King Arthur he meant the soul and that the disintegration of the court and the Round Table showed the disruptive effect of the passions.

In all the time that he worked on the idylls Tennyson constantly refined their structure—by framing the main action between the coming of Arthur and his death, by repetition of verbal motifs, by making the incidents of the plot follow the course of the year from spring to winter, by making different idylls act as parallels or contrasts to each other, by trying to integrate the whole poem as closely as an extended musical composition. Considering how long he worked on the poem, the result is amazingly successful, although perhaps more so when the poem is represented schematically than in the actual experience of reading it.

As always, the imagery of the poem is superb. It is less successful in characterization and speech, which are often stilted and seem more Victorian than Arthurian. Even Arthur, who is meant to be the firm, heroic center of the poem, occasionally seems merely weak at the loss of his wife and the decay of the court rather than nobly forgiving. Individual idylls such as “The Last Tournament” and “Gareth and Lynette” have considerable narrative force, but there is an almost fatal lack of forward movement in the poem as a whole.

In spite of some adverse reviews and the reservations of many of Tennyson’s fellow poets, the sales of Idylls of the King in 1859 were enough to gladden the heart of any poet: 40,000 copies were printed initially and within a week or two more than a quarter of these were already sold; it was a pattern that was repeated with each succeeding volume as they appeared during the following decades.

The death of his admirer Prince Albert in 1861 prompted Tennyson to write a dedication to the Idylls of the King in his memory. The prince had taken an interest in Tennyson’s poetry ever since 1847, when it is believed that he called on Tennyson when the poet was ill. He had written to ask for Tennyson’s autograph in his own copy of Idylls of the King, and he had come over unannounced from Osborne, the royal residence on the Isle of Wight, to call on Tennyson at Farringford. In spite of the brevity of their acquaintance and its formality, Tennyson had been much moved by the prince’s kindness and friendliness, and he had greatly admired the way Albert behaved in the difficult role of consort.

Four months after Albert’s death the queen invited Tennyson to Osborne for an informal visit. Tennyson went with considerable trepidation, fearful that he might in some way transgress court etiquette, but his obvious shyness helped to make the visit a great success. It became the first of many occasions on which he visited the queen, and a genuine affection grew up on both sides. The queen treated Tennyson with what was great informality by her reserved standards, so that the relationship between monarch and laureate was probably more intimate than it has ever been before or since. She had an untutored and naive love of poetry, and he felt deep veneration for the throne; above all, each was a simple and unassuming person beneath a carapace of apparent arrogance, and each recognized the true simplicity of the other. It was almost certainly the queen’s feeling for Tennyson that lay behind the unprecedented offer of a baronetcy four times beginning in 1865; Tennyson each time turned it down for himself while asking that if possible it be given to Hallam, his elder son, after his own death.

His extraordinary popularity was obvious in other ways as well. He was given honorary doctorates by Oxford and Edinburgh universities; Cambridge three times invited him to accept an honorary degree, but he modestly declined. The greatest men in the country competed for the honor of meeting and entertaining him. Thomas Carlyle and his wife had been good friends of Tennyson’s since the 1840s, and Tennyson felt free to drop in on them unannounced, at last even having his own pipe kept for him in a convenient niche in the garden wall. He had met Robert Browning at about the same time as he had met Carlyle, and though the two greatest of Victorian poets always felt a certain reserve about each other’s works, their mutual generosity in acknowledging genius was exemplary. Tennyson was somewhat lukewarm in his response to the overtures of friendship made by Charles Dickens, even after he had stood as godfather for one of Dickens’s sons. It is tempting to think that some of his reserve stemmed from an uneasy recognition of the similarity of their features that occasionally led to their being confused, particularly in photographs or portraits, which can hardly have been welcome to Tennyson’s self-esteem.

Tennyson maintained a reluctant closeness with William Gladstone for nearly 60 years. It was generally accepted in London society that if a dinner was given for one of them, the other ought to be invited. Yet the truth was that they were never on an easy footing, and though they worked hard at being polite to each other, their edginess occasionally flared into unpleasantness before others. It is probable that some of their difficulties came from their friendship with Arthur Hallam when they were young men; Gladstone had been Hallam’s best friend at Eton and felt left out after Hallam met Tennyson. To the end of their days the prime minister and the poet laureate were mildly jealous of their respective places in Hallam’s affections so many years before. The feeling certainly colored Gladstone’s reactions to Tennyson’s poetry (which he occasionally reviewed), and nothing he could do ever made Tennyson trust Gladstone as a politician.

Almost as if he felt that his position as laureate and the most popular serious poet in the English-speaking world were not enough, Tennyson deliberately tried to widen his appeal by speaking more directly to the common people of the country about the primary emotions and affections that he felt he shared with them. The most immediate result of his wish to be “the people’s poet” was the 1864 volume whose title poem was “Enoch Arden” and which also contained another long narrative poem, “Aylmer’s Field.” These are full of the kinds of magnificent language and imagery that no other Victorian poet could have hoped to produce, but the sentiments occasionally seem easy and secondhand. The volume also contained a number of much more experimental translations and metrical innovations, as well as such wonderful lyrics as “In the Valley of Cauteretz,” which was written 31 years after he and Hallam had wandered through that beautiful countryside, and “Tithonus.” There was no question that Tennyson was still a very great poet, but his ambition to be more than a lyricist often blinded him to his own limitations. His hope of becoming “the people’s poet” was triumphantly realized; the volume had the largest sales of any during his lifetime. More than 40,000 copies were sold immediately after publication, and in the first year he made more than £8,000 from it, a sum equal to the income of many of the richest men in England.

Popularity of the kind he had earned had its innate disadvantages, and Tennyson was beginning to discover them as he was followed in the streets of London by admirers; at Farringford he complained of the total lack of privacy when the park walls were lined with craning tourists who sometimes even came up to the house and peered into the windows to watch the family at their meals. In 1867 he built a second house, Aldworth, on the southern slopes of Blackdown, a high hill near Haslemere, where the house was not visible except from miles away. Curiously, the house resembles a smaller version of Bayons Manor, the much-hated sham castle his uncle Charles Tennyson d’Eyncourt had built in the Lincolnshire wolds. To his contemporaries it appeared unnecessarily grand for a second house, even slightly pretentious; today it seems emblematic of the seriousness with which Tennyson had come to regard his own public position in Victorian England, which was not his most attractive aspect. For the rest of his life he was to divide his time between Farringford and Aldworth, just as he divided his work between the essentially private, intimate lyricism at which he had always excelled and the poetry in which he felt obliged to speak to his countrymen on more public matters.

In the years between 1874 and 1882 Tennyson made yet another attempt to widen his poetic horizons. As the premier poet of England, he had been compared—probably inevitably—to Shakespeare, and he determined to write for the stage as his great predecessor had done. At the age of 65 he wrote his first play as a kind of continuation of Shakespeare’s historical dramas. Queen Mary (1875) was produced in 1876 by Henry Irving, the foremost actor on the English stage; Irving himself played the main male role. It had been necessary to hack the play to a fraction of its original inordinate length in order to play it in one evening, and the result was hardly more dramatic than the original long version had been. In spite of the initial curiosity about Tennyson’s first play, the audiences soon dwindled, and it was withdrawn after 23 performances; that was, however, a more respectable run than it would be today.

His next play, Harold (1876), about the early English king of that name, failed to find a producer during Tennyson’s lifetime, although he had conscientiously worked at making it less sprawling than its predecessor. Following Harold came Becket (1884), The Falcon and The Cup (published together in 1884), The Foresters (1892), and The Promise of May (published in Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, Etc. in 1886), all of which abandoned the attempt to follow Shakespeare. On the stage only The Cup had any success, and that was in part due to the lavish settings and the acting of Irving and Ellen Terry. After the failure of The Promise of May (a rustic melodrama and the only prose work in his long career), Tennyson at last accepted the fact that nearly a decade of his life had been wasted in an experiment that had totally gone amiss. Today no one would read even the best of the plays, Queen Mary and Becket, if they were not Tennyson’s work. They betray the fact that he was not profound at understanding the characters of other persons or in writing speech that had the sound of conversation. Even the flashes of metaphor fail to redeem this reckless, admirable, but totally failed attempt to fit Tennyson’s genius to another medium.

The climax of public recognition of Tennyson’s achievement came in 1883 when Gladstone offered him a peerage. After a few days of consideration Tennyson accepted. Since he was nearly 75 when he assumed the title, he took little part in the activities of the House of Lords, but the appropriateness of his being ennobled was generally acknowledged. It was the first time in history that a man had been given a title for his services to poetry. Tennyson claimed that he took the peerage on behalf of all literature, not as personal recognition.

The rest of his life was spent in the glow of love that the public occasionally gives to a distinguished man who has reached a great age. He continued to write poetry nearly as assiduously as he had when young, and though some of it lacked the freshness of youth, there were occasional masterpieces that mocked the passing years. He had always felt what he once described as the “passion of the past,” a longing for the days that had gone, either the great ages of earlier history or the more immediate past of his own life, and his poetic genius always had something nostalgic, even elegiac, at its heart. Many of the finest poems of his old age were written in memory of his friends as they died off, leaving him increasingly alone.

Of all the blows of mortality, the cruelest was the death from “jungle fever” of his younger son, Lionel, who had fallen ill in India and was returning by ship to England. Lionel died in the Red Sea, and his body was put into the waves “Beneath a hard Arabian moon/And alien stars.” It took Tennyson two years to recover his equanimity sufficiently to write the poem from which those lines are taken: the magnificent elegy dedicated “To the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava,” who had been Lionel’s host in India. Hauntingly, the poem is written in the same meter as In Memoriam, that masterpiece of his youth celebrating the death of another beloved young man, Arthur Hallam. There were also fine elegies to his brother Charles, to FitzGerald, and to several others, indicating the love he had felt for old friends even when he was frequently unable to express it adequately in person.

Lionel’s death was the climax of Tennyson’s sense of loss, and from that time until his own death he became increasingly troubled in his search for the proofs of immortality, even experimenting with spiritualism. His poetry of this period is saturated with the desperation of the search. Yet there were moments of serenity, reflected in such beautiful poems as “Crossing the Bar,” written in a few minutes as he sailed across the narrow band of water separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland. At his request, this grave little prayer of simple faith has ever since been placed at the end of editions of his poetry.

Tennyson continued to compose poetry during the last two years of his life; when he was too weak to write it down, his son or his wife would copy it for him. When he had a good day, he was still able to take long walks or even to venture to London. The year before his death he wrote a simple and delicate little poem, “June Bracken and Heather,” as an offering of love to his faithful wife; to her he dedicated his last volume of poetry, which was not published until a fortnight after his death. His friends noticed that he was gentler than he had been for years, and he made quiet reparation to some of those whom he had offended by thoughtless brusqueness.

On October 6, 1892, an hour or so after midnight, he died at Aldworth with the moon streaming in at the window overlooking the Sussex Weald, his finger holding open a volume of Shakespeare, his family surrounding the bed. A week later he was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, near the graves of Browning and Chaucer. To most of England it seemed as if an era in poetry had passed, a divide as great as that a decade later when Queen Victoria died.

One of the most levelheaded assessments of what he had meant to his contemporaries was made by Edmund Gosse on the occasion of Tennyson’s 80th birthday: “He is wise and full of intelligence; but in mere intellectual capacity or attainment it is probable that there are many who excel him. This, then, is not the direction in which his greatness asserts itself. He has not headed a single moral reform nor inaugurated a single revolution of opinion; he has never pointed the way to undiscovered regions of thought; he has never stood on tip-toe to describe new worlds that his fellows were not tall enough to discover ahead. In all these directions he has been prompt to follow, quick to apprehend, but never himself a pioneer. Where then has his greatness lain? It has lain in the various perfections of his writing. He has written, on the whole, with more constant, unwearied, and unwearying excellence than any of his contemporaries. … He has expended the treasures of his native talent on broadening and deepening his own hold upon the English language, until that has become an instrument upon which he is able to play a greater variety of melodies to perfection than any other man.”

But this is a kind of perfection that is hard to accept for anyone who is uneasy with poetry and feels that it ought to be the servant of something more utilitarian. Like most things Victorian, Tennyson’s reputation suffered an eclipse in the early years of this century. In his case the decline was more severe than that of other Victorians because he had seemed so much the symbol of his age, so that for a time his name was nearly a joke. After two world wars had called into question most of the social values to which he had given only the most reluctant of support, readers were once more able to appreciate that he stood apart from his contemporaries. Now one can again admire without reservation one of the great lyric gifts in English literature.

When the best of his poetry is separated out from the second-rate work of the kind that any writer produces, Tennyson can be seen plainly as one of the half-dozen great poets in the English language, probably far above any other Victorian. And that is precisely what his contemporaries thought.