Tennyson, born in 1809, came of age during the time of heightening power for the Romantic poets, beginning with William Blake, who lived from 1757 to 1827, and ending with John Keats, who lived from 1795 to 1821. Tennyson's early poetry showed strong traces of Romantic elements that were later forged into new sentiments by personal circumstances, like the untimely death of his friend Arthur Hallam in 1833, and social circumstances, like the milieu-shifting discoveries of geology.
In his prize-winning poem "Timbuctoo," Tennyson took up the Romantic theme of imagination (inspired thought) versus reality (objectivity and logic). In "Mariana," he used nature for a symbolic representation of strong subjective feelings. With the publication of Poems (1832), which included the now much beloved "Lady of Shallot," the veneer of Romanticism showed cracks, as Tennyson dramatized the conflict between inspired imagination and social reality, influenced perhaps by the financial hardships both he and Hallam experienced as a result of family constraints.
Ten years after Poems, when grief had subsided over Hallam's untimely and shocking death in Vienna in 1833, Tennyson published "Break, Break, Break" (1842). In this poem, the Romantic idea of nature fights against itself as the break of forceful sea waves crashes over immovable rocks, symbolizing the crushing power of reality over both imagination and idyllic sentiment. In the same year, Tennyson published a two-volume collection, again called Poems (1842), which included "Locksley Hall" and "Ulysses" and which established him as the foremost post-Romantic English poet.
Tennyson's collection of elegies honoring Hallam, In Memoriam (1850), was published after long years of writing and revision. Although elements of Romantic poetry do trace throughout Tennyson's poetry, he was, after the appearance of In Memoriam, recognized as the greatest Victorian poet and named Queen Victoria's Poet Laureate, filling the vacancy left upon the death of Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850).
Sources of interest:
Introduction to Romanticism, English Department, Brooklyn College
Dr. Stephanie Forward, The Romantics
Tennyson uses two elements in his poetry that could be described as romantic.
First, romance literature goes back further than the romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, etc. It goes back to the Middle Ages or medieval period. Tennyson uses characters going back to romance literature from that period. In "The Lady of Shalott," he writes of Camelot and Sir Lancelot. These are characters from the romance tales of the Middle Ages. He hearkens back to the past.
Second, he uses classical allusions, and writes of classical characters. In "Ulysses," he imagines Ulysses twenty years after Homer's Odyssey ends, bored and cranky and tired of being a stationary ruler. Ulysses wants to get back to the sea and seek more adventure.
Of course, Tennyson puts his Victorian spin on these romantic subjects. Both the Lady of Shalott and Ulysses are thinly disguised artists. Both characters and their poems deal with the relationship between artists and their art and their reality.