Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson, first Baron Tennyson (1809-92), was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined the Apostles and became acquainted with A. H. Hallam. In 1829 he won the chancellor's medal for English verse with 'Timbuctoo'. Poems by Two Brothers (1827) contains some early work as well as poems by his brothers Charles and Frederick (...). Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830, including 'Mariana') was unfavourably reviewed by Lockhart and John Wilson. In 1832 he travelled with Hallam on the Continent. Hallam died abroad in 1833, and in that year Tennyson began In Memoriam, expressive of his grief for his lost friend.
He became engaged to Emily Sellwood, to whom, however, he was not married until 1850. In Dec. 1832 he published a further volume of Poems (dated 1833), which included 'The Two Voices', 'Oenone', 'The Lotos-Eaters', and 'A Dream of Fair Women'; 'Tithonus' (1860) was composed 1833-4. In 1842 appeared a selection from the previous two volumes, many of the poems much revised, with new poems, including 'Morte D'Arthur' (the germ of the Idylls), 'Locksley Hall', 'Ulysses', and 'St Simeon Stylites'. In 1845 he published The Princess and in 1850 In Memoriam, and in the latter year he was appointed poet laureate in succession to Wordsworth. He wrote his 'Ode' on the death of Wellington in 1852 and 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in 1854, having at this time settled in Farringford on the Isle of Wight.
Tennyson's fame was by now firmly established, and Maud, and other Poems (1855) and the first four Idylls of the King (1859) sold extremely well. Among the many friends and admirers who visited Farringford were Edward Fizgerald, Edward Lear, Coventry Patmore, Arthur Hugh Clough, F. T. Palgrave, and William Allingham. Prince Albert called in 1856, but Queen Victoria never visited him, preferring to summon him to Osborne or Windsor. Enoch Arden Etc. appeared in 1864. The Holy Grail and Other Poems (including 'Lucretius') in 1869 (dated 1870). 'The Last Tournament' in the Contemporary Review in 1871, and Gareth and Lynette, etc. in 1872. His dramas Queen Mary and Harold were published in 1875 and 1876, and The Falcon, The Cup, and Becket in 1884, in which year he was made a peer. In 1880 appeared Ballads and Other Poems, including 'The Voyage of Maeldune', 'Rizpah', and 'The Revenge'. He published Tiresias, and Other Poems in 1885, and The Foresters appeared in 1892. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and a life by his son Hallam appeared in 1897.
In his later years there were already signs that the admiration Tennyson had long enjoyed was beginning to wane. Critical opinion has tended to endorse Auden's view that 'his genius was lyrical', and that he had little talent for the narrative, epic, and dramatic forms to which hedevoted such labour. More recently there has been a revival of interest in some of the longer poems, e.g. 'Locksley Hall', The Princess, and 'Enoch Arden'.
Whether or not Alfred Tennyson was the greatest of the Victorian poets, as affirmed by many critics today, there is no doubt that in his own lifetime he was the most popular of poets. On the bookshelves of almost every family of readers in England and the United States, from 1850 onward, were the works of a man who had incontestably gained the title that Walt Whitman longed for, "The Poet of the People" (Whitman, in fact, called Tennyson, colorfully, "the Boss"). Popularity inevitably provided provocation for a reaction in the decades following his death. In the course of repudiating their Victorian predecessors, the Edwardians and Georgians established the fashion of making fun of Tennyson's great achievements. Samuel Butler (1835-1902), who anticipated early twentieth-century tastes, has a characteristic entry in his Notebooks: "Talking it over, we agreed that Blake was no good because he learnt Italian at sixty in order to study Dante, and we knew Dante was no good because he was so fond of Virgil, and Virgil was no good because Tennyson ran him, and as for Tennyson—well, Tennyson goes without saying." In the second half of the twentieth century, Butler's flippant dismissal of Tennyson expresses an attitude that is no longer fashionable. The delights to be found in this superb 'lord of language'—as Tennyson himself addresses his favorite predecessor, Virgil—have been rediscovered, and Tennyson's stature as one of the major poets of any age has been reestablished.
Like his poetry, Tennyson's life and character have been reassessed in the twentieth century. To many of his contemporaries he seemed a remote wizard, secure in his laureate's robe, a man whose life had been sheltered, marred only by the loss of his best friend in youth. During much of his career Tennyson may have been isolated, but his was not a sheltered life in the real sense of the word. Although he grew up in a parsonage, it ewas not the kind of parsonage one encounters in the novels of Jane Austen. It was a household dominate by frictions and loyalties and broodings over ancestral inheritances, in which the children showed marked strains of instability and eccentricity.
Alfred was the fourth son in a family of twelve children. One of his brothers had to be confined to an insane asylum for life; another was long addicted to opium, another had violent quarrels with his father, the Reverend Dr. George Tennyson. This father, a man of considerable learning, had himself been born the eldest son of a wealthy landowner and had, therefore, expected to be the heir to his family's estates. Instead he was disinherited in favour of his younger brother and had to make his own livelihood by joining the clergy, a profession that he disliked. After George Tennyson had settled in a small rectory in Somersby, his brooding sense of dissatisfaction led to increasingly violent bouts of drunkenness, despite which he was able to serve as tutor for his sons in classical and modern languages to prepare them for entering the university.
Before leaving this strange household for Cambridge, Alfred had already demonstrated a flair for writing verse—precocious exercises in the manner of Milton or Byron or the Elizabethan dramatists. He had even published a volume in 1827, in collaboration with his brother Charles, Poems by Two Brothers. This feat drew him to the attention of a group of gifted undergraduates at Cambridge, "the Apostles," who encouraged him to devote his life to poetry. Up until that time, the young man had known scarcely anyone outside the circle of his own family. Despite his massive frame and powerful physique, he was painfully shy; and the friendships he found at Cambridge as well as the intellectual and political discussions in which he participated served to give him confidence and to widen his horizons as a poet. The most important of these frienships was with Arthur Hallam, a leader of the Apostles, who later became engaged to Tennyson's sister. Hallam's sudden death, in 1833, seemed an overwhelming calamity to his friend. Not only the long elegy In Memoriam but many of Tennyson's other poems are tributes to this early friendship.
Alfred's career at Cambriddge was interrupted and finally broken off in 1831 by family dissensions and financial need, and he returned home to study and practice the craft of poetry. His early volumes (1830 and 1832) were attacked as 'obscure' or 'affected' by some of the reviewers. Tennyson suffered acutely under hostile criticism, but he also profited from it. His volume of 1842 demonstrated a remarkable advance in taste and technical excellence, and in 1850 he at last attained fame and full critical recognition with In Memoriam. In the same year, he became poet laureate in succession to Wordsworth. The struggle during the previous twenty years had been made especially painful by the long postponement of his marriage to Emily Sellwood, whom he had loved since 1836 but could not marry, because of poverty, until 1850.
His life thereafter was a comfortable one. He was as popular as Byron had been. The earnings from his poetry (sometimes exceeding £ 10,000 a year) enabled him to purchase a house in the country and to enjoy the kind of seclusion he liked. His notoriety was enhanced, like that of Bernard Shaw and Walt Whitman, by his colorful appearance. Huge and shaggy, in cloak and broad-brimmed hat, gruff in manner as a farmer, he mpressed everyone as what is called a "character." The pioneeering photographer Julia Cameron, who took magnificent portraits of him, called him "the most beautiful old man on earth." Like Dylan Thomas in the twentieth century, he had a booming voice that electrified listeners when he read his poetry, "mouthing out his hollow o's and a's, / deep-chested music." Moreover, for many Victorian readers, he seemed not only a great poetical phrase maker and a striking individual but also a wise man whose occasional pronouncements on politics or world affairs represented the national voice itself. In 1884 he accepted a peerage. In 1892 he died and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
It is often said that success was bad for Tennyson and that after In Memoriam his poetic power seriously declined. That in his last forty-two years certain of his mannerisms became accentuated is true. One of the difficulties of his dignified blank verse was, as he said himself, that it is hard to describe commonplace objects and "at the same time to retain poetical elevation." This difficulty is evident, for example, in Enoch Arden (1864), a long blank verse narrative of everyday life in a fishing village, in which a basketful of fish is ornately described as "Enoch's ocean spoil / In ocean-smelling osier." In others of his later poems, those dealing with national affairs, there is also an increased shrillness of tone—a mannerism accentuated by Tennyson's realizing that like Dickens he had a vast public behind him to back up his pronouncements.
It is foolish, however, to try to shelve all of Tennyson's later productions. In 1855 he published his experimental monologue Maud, perhaps his finest long poem, in which he displays the bitterness and despair its alienated hero feels toward society. In 1859 he published four book of his Idylls of the King, a large-scale epic that occupied most of his energies in the second half of his career. The Idylls uses the body of Arthurian legend to construct a vision of the rise and fall of civilization. In this civilization, women at once inspire men's highest efforts and sow the seeds of their destruction. The Idylls provides Tennyson's most extensive social vision, one whose concern with medieval ideals of social community, heroism, and courtly love and whose despairing sense of the cycles of historical change typifies much social thought of the age.
W. H. Auden stated that Tennyson had "the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet." The interesting point is that Tennyson did not "have" such an ear: he developed it. Studies of the original versions of his poems in the 1830 and 1832 volumes demonstrate how hard he worked at his craftsmanship. Like Chaucer or Keats or Pope, Tennyson studied his predecessors assiduously to perfect his technique. Anyone wanting to learn the traditional craft of English verse can study with profit the various stages of revision that such poems as The Lotos-Eaters were subjected to by this painstaking and artful poet. Some lines of 1988 by the American poet Karl Shapiro effectively characterize Tennyson's accomplishments in these areas:
Long-lived, the very image of English poet,
Whose songs still break out tears in the generations,
Whose poetry for practitioners still astounds,
Who crafted his life and letters like a watch.
Tennyson's early poetry shows other skills as well. One of these was a capacity for linking scenery to states of mind. As early as 1835, J. S. Mill identified the special kind of scene painting to be found in early poems such as Mariana: "not the power of producing that rather vapid species of composition usually called descriptive poetry . . . but the power of creating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it, and to summon up the state of feeling itself, with a force not to be surpassed by anything but reality."
The state of feeling to which Tennyson was most intensely drawn was a melancholy isolation, often portrayed thorugh the consciousness of an abandoned woman, as in Mariana. Tennyson's absorption with such emotions in his early poetry evoked considerable criticism. His friend R. C. Trench warned him, "Tennyson, we cannot live in Art," and Mill urged him to "cultivate, and with no half devotion, philosophy as well as poetry." Advice of this kind Tennyson was already predisposed to heed. The death of Hallam, the religious uncertainties that he had himself experienced, together with his own extensive study of writings by geologists, astronomers, and biologists, led him to confront many of the religious issues that bewildered his and later generations. The result was In Memoriam (1850), a long elegy written over a period of seventeen years, embodying the poet's reflections on our relation to God and to nature.
Was Tennyson intellectually equipped to deal with the great questions raised in In Memoriam? The answer may depend on a reader's religious and philosophical presupppositions. Some, such as T. H. Huxley, considered Tennyson an intellectual giant, a thinker who had mastered the scientific thought of his century and fully confronted the issues it raised. Others dismissed Tennyson, in this phase, as a lightweight. Auden went so far as to call him the "stupidest" of English poets. He went on to say, "There was little about melancholia that he didn't know; there was little else that he did." Perhaps T. S. Eliot's evaluation of In memoriam is the more accurate: the poem, he wrote, is remarkable not "because of the quality of its faith but because of the quality of its doubt." Tennyson's mind was slow, ponderous, brooding; for the composition of In Memoriam such qualities of mind were assets, not liabilities. In these terms we can understand when Tennyson's poetry really fails to measure up: it is when he writes of events of the moment over which his thoughts and feelings have had no time to brood. Several of his poems are what he himself called "newspaper verse." They are letters to the editor, in effect, with the ephemeral heat and simplicity we expect of such productions. The Charge of the Light Brigade, inspired by a report in the Times of a cavalry charge at Balaclava during the Crimean War, is one of the best of his productions in this category.
Tennyson's poems of contemporary events were inevitably popular in his own day. So too were those poems in which, as in Locksley Hall, he dipped into the future. The technological changes wrought by Victorian inventors and engineers fascinated him. Sometimes they gave him an assurance of human progress as swaggeringly exltant as that of Macaulay. At other times the horrors of industrialism's by-products in the slums, the persistence of barbarity and bloodshed, the greed of the newly rich, destroyed his hopes that humanity was evolving upward. Such a late poem as The Dawn embodies an attitude that he found in Virgil: "Thou majestic in thy sadness at the doubtufl doom of human kind."
For despite Tennyson's fascination with technological developments, he was essentially a poet of the countryside, a man whose being was conditioned by the recurring rhythms of rural rather than urban life. He had the country dweller's awareness of traditional roots and a sense of the past. It is appropiate that most of his best poems are about the past, not about the present or future. Even in his childhood, Tennyson said that "the words 'far, far away' had always a strange charm for me"; he was haunted by what he called "the passion of the past." The past became his great theme, whether it be his own past (as in The Valley of Cauteretz), his country's past (as in The Idylls of the King), the past of humankind, the past of the world itself:
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
Tennyson is the first major writer to express this awareness of the vast extent of geological time that has haunted human consciousness since Victorian scientists exposed the history of the earth's crust. In his more usual vein, however, it is the recorded past of humankind that inspires him, the classical past in particular. Classical themes, as Douglas Bush has noted, "generally banished from his mind what was timid, parochial, sentimental . . . and evoked his special gifts and more authentic emotions, his rich and wistful sense of the past, his love of nature, and his power of style."
One returns, finally then, to the question of language. At the time of his death, a critic complained that Tennyson was merely "a discoverer of words rather than of ideas." The same complaint has been made by George Bernard Shaw and others—not about Tennyson but about Shakespeare.
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides, above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered an enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
'Mariana' and 'Mariana in the South', (1832), two poems by Tennyson, suggested by Shakespeare's Mariana of 'the moated grange' in Measure by Measure. Both describe women waiting hopelessly and in desolate loneliness for their lovers.
Tiresias, a dramatic monologue in blank verse by Tennyson, published in 1885, but composed in 1833. The prophet Tiresias, blinded and doomed to 'speak the truth that no man may believe' as a consequence of glimpsing Athene nake, urges Menoecceus, son of Creon, to sacrifice himself for Thebes.
Ulysses, a poem by Tennyson, composed 1833, published 1842. In a dramatic monologue Ulysses describes how he plans to set forth again from Ithaca after his safe return from his wanderings after the Trojan war, 'to sail beyond the sunset'. The episode is based on Dante (Inferno, xxvi). It expresses the poet's sense of 'the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life' after the death of A. H. Hallam.
Tithonus, a dramatic monologue in blank verse by Tennyson, published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860, then in 1864, but composed in 1833. Tithonus is granted perpetual life but not perpetual youth by Aurora, and in a dramatic monologue he longs for death; like In Memoriam, the poem reflects Tennyson's anxiety about the nature of personal immortality.
The Lady of Shalott
Locksley Hall, a poem in trochaics by Tennyson published 1842.
It consists of a monologue spoken by a disappointed lover, revisiting the desolate moorland home by the sea where he had been brought up by an unsympathetic uncle, and where he fell in love with his cousin Amy; she returned his love, but, through family pressure, accepted another suitor. The narrator proceeds to rail against the modern world of steamship and railways, and ends with an ambiguous acceptance of 'the ringing grooves of change'—a phrase that the notoriously poor-sighted Tennyson wrote while under the impression that the new railways ran in grooves, not on rails.
The Princess, A Medley, a poem by Tennyson, published 1847. Some of the well-known lyrics ('The splendour falls', 'Ask me no more: the moon may draw thesea') were added in the third edition of 1840, but others, including 'Tears, idle tears' (composed in 1834 at Tintern) and 'Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white' were included in the first.
A prince has been betrothed since childhood to Princess Ida, daughter of neighbouring King Gama. She becomes a devotee of women's rights, abjures marriage, and founds a university. The prince and two companions, Cyril and Florian, gain admission to the university disguised as women, and are detected by the two tutors, Lady Psyche and Lady Blanche, who from different motives conceal their knowledge. The deceit is presently detected by Ida, but not before the prince has had occasion to rescue her from drowning. Her determination is unshaken, and a combat ensues, between fifty warriors led by the prince and fifty warriors led by Gama's son, during which the three comrades are wounded. The university is turned into a hospital, the prince urges his suit, and he wins Ida, envisaging a future in which 'The man [may] be more of woman, she of man'. It formed the basis of the satirical Gilbert and Sullivan opera Princess Ida.
In Memoriam A. H. H., a poem by Tennyson, written between 1833 and 1850 and published anonymously in the latter year. The poem was written in memory of A. H. Hallam. It is written in stanzas of four octosyllabic lines rhyming a b b a, and is divided into 132 sections of varying length.
It is not so much a single elegy as a series of poems written over a considerable period, inspired by the changing moods of the author's regret for his lost friend, and expressing his own anxieties about change, evolution, and immortality, the last a subject which continued to perturb him deeply. The epilogue is a marriage-song on the occasion of the wedding of the poet's sister Cecilia to Edward Lushington; Hallam had himself been engaged to his sister Emily.
Some of the early sections of the poem resemble traditional pastoral elegies, including those portraying the voyage during which Hallam's body was brought to England for burial (sections 9 to 15 and 19). Other early sections portraying the speaker's loneliness, in which even Christmas festivities seem joyless (sections 28 to 30), are more distinctive. With the passage of time, indicated by anniversaries and by recurring changes of the seasons, the speaker comes to accept the loss and to assert his belief in life and in an afterlife. In particular the recurring Christmases (sections 28, 78, 104) indicate the stages of his development, yet the pattern of progress in the poem is not a simple unimpeded movement upward. Dramatic conflicts recur throughout. Thus the most intense expression of doubt occurs not at the beginning of In Memoriam but as late as sections 54, 55, and 56.
The quatrain form in which the wole poem is written is usually called the "In Memoriam stanza", although it had been occasionally used by earlier poets. So rigid a form taxed Tennyson's ingenuity in achieving variety, but it is one of several means by whihch the diverse parts of the poem are knitted together.
The introductory section, consisting of eleven stanzas, is commonly referred to as the "Prologue," although Tennyson did not assign a title to it. It was written in 1849 after the rest of the poem was complete.
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel,
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.
And was the day of my delight
As pure and perfect as I say?
The very source and fount of day
Is dashed with wandering isles of night.
If all was good and fair we met,
This earth had been the Paradise
It never looked to human eyes
Since our first sun arose and set.
And is it that the haze of grief
Makes former gladness loom so great?
The lowness of the present state,
That sets the past in this relief?
Or that the past will always win
A glory from its being far,
And orb into the perfect star
We saw not when we moved therein?
The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem by Tennyson, first published in the Examiner in 1854 only weeks after the famous charge (25 Oct. 1854) at Balaclava, near Sebastopol, during which, owing to a misunderstood order, 247 officers and men out of 637 were killed or wounded. The line 'Someone had blundered', suggested by a phrase in a report in The Times, was omitted from the version published in 1855 (Maud, and Other Poems) but later reinstated.
Maud, a poem by Tennyson, published 1855.
The poem is a monodrama in sections of different metres, in which the narrator, a man of morbid temperament, describes the progress of his emotions: first describing his father's death and his family's ruin, both contrived by the old lord of the Hall; then expressing his growing love for Maud, the old lord's daughter, and the scorn of her brother, who wishes her to marry a vapid 'new-made' lord, his triumph at winning Maud; their surprisal and her brother's death in a duel; his own flight abroad and ensuing madness; and his final re-awakening to hope in the service of his country. The poet contains several of Tennyson's best lyrics ('I have led her home', 'Come into the garden, Maud'), but some contemporary critics found it obscure or morbid.
Enoch Arden, a narrative poem by Tennyson, published 1864.
Enoch Arden, Philip Ray, and Annie Lee are children together in a little seaport town; both boys love Annie, but Enoch wins and marries her. They live happily for some years, until Enoch is compelled through temporary adversity to go as boatswain to a merchantsman. He is shipwrecked, and for more than ten years nothing is heard of him; Annie, consulting her Bible for a sign, puts her finger on the text 'Under the palm tree', which, after a dream, she interprets to mean that he is in heaven. She marries Philip, who has long watched over her. Tennyson then turns to Enoch on his desert island, which is described in a fine, clear, bright Parnassian passage, and contrasted with the 'dewy meadowy morning-breath of England' for which he yearns. He is rescued and returns home, but when he discovers that Annie has remarried does not reveal himself, resolving that she shall not know of his return until after his death.
'Rizpah', a poem by Tennyson, published in Ballads and other poems (1880), the monologue of a mother who collects the unhallowed bones of her son at night from the foot of the gallows and buries them secretly in the churchyard.
Idylls of the King, a series of 12 connected poems by Tennyson, of which Morte d'Arthur, subsequently incorporated in 'The Passing of Arthur', was composed in 1833 after A. H. Hallam's death and published in 1842. In 1855-6 he began writing the first Idyll, which was to becom 'Merlin and Vivien', which he followed with 'Enid', later divided into 'The Marriage of Geraint' and 'Geraint and Enid'. The first four were published in 1859 as 'Enid', 'Vivien', 'Elaine', and 'Guinevere' and constituted, though with many revisions, roughly half of the final version. In 1869 followed 'The Coming of Arthur', 'The Holy Grail', 'Pelleas and Ettarre', and 'The Passing of Arthur' 'The Last Tournament' was published in the Contemporary Review in 1871, then, with 'Gareth and Lynette' in 1872. 'Balin and Balan', written 1872-4, did not appear until 1885. The sequence as now printed first appeared in 1891.
The poems present the story of Arthur, from his first meeting with Guinevere to the ruin of his kingdom and his death in the 'last, dim, weird battle of the west'. The protagonists are Arthur and Guinevere, Launcelot and Elaine, but the design embraces the fates of various minor characters. The adultery of Guinevere and Launcelot is seen as one of the forces that destroys the idealism and bright hopes of the Round Table, and the scene in which the guilty Guinevere 'grovelled with her face against the floor' before Arthur to listen to his long denunciatory speech was received with great enthusiasm; his forgiveness of her ('Lo! I forgive thee, as Eternal God / Forgives') moved the poet himself to tears.
'Morte d'Arthur', a poem by Tennyson written 1833-4, published 1842, subsequently incorporated in 'The Passing of Arthur' (1869), preceded by 169 lines and followed by 29, where it formed one of the Idylls of the King. It describes the last moments of Arthur after the battle, with Mordred's forces, and includes his elegy on the Round Table, delivered to Sir Bedivere: 'The old order changeth, yielding place to new . . .'
Becket, a tragedy by Tennyson, published 1884, based on the quarrel between Henry II and Thomas Becket, interwoven with the story of Henry's love for Fair Rosamund.
ALL along the valley, stream that flashest white,
Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,
All along the valley, where thy waters flow,
I walked with one I loved two and thirty years ago.
All along the valley while I walked to-day,
The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;
For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,
Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,
And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,
The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.