Article abstract: Generally considered to be the quintessential Victorian poet, Tennyson grappled with grief in the midst of the most profound theological crisis in the history of the modern world, caused by the emergent theory of evolution. Tennyson’s poetry of spiritual struggle and affirmation captured the soul of his generation.
Alfred Tennyson was born on August 6, 1809, the fourth of George Tennyson’s twelve children. His mother, née Elizabeth Fytche, was an easy-going and indulgent woman who encouraged her children’s literary efforts. At the rectory, young Alfred had access to his father’s twenty-five-hundred-volume scholarly library, which included books on theology, philosophy, history, classical and Oriental literature, and science. Although Tennyson was educated formally first at a village school and later at a boys’ school in Louth, the majority of his preuniversity instruction was received at home under his father’s supervision. George Tennyson was an intellectually gifted and well-educated man whose intelligence and learning were undermined by his emotional instability. Alfred Tennyson’s tempestuous and insecure home life during childhood fostered periods of despondency that were severe enough to affect adversely his physical health throughout his lifetime. Yet despite having to undertake numerous water cures for a variety of ailments which were indiscriminately identified as gout, Tennyson lived a long and productive life. Although the instability of his early years contributed to his unhappiness, it also deepened his sensitivity to the spiritual turmoil of his generation.
Six months before Tennyson commenced his studies at Cambridge University in 1827, a volume entitled Poems by Two Brothers was published by a Lincolnshire bookseller. It was in fact a collection by three brothers; half of the poems it contained were written by Alfred Tennyson, while the other poems were contributed by his elder brothers Frederick and Charles. The volume received little notice, but it did allow Tennyson to enter university with some confidence in his poetic ability. His physical appearance, as it was described upon his arrival at Cambridge, communicated a greater confidence than he felt. Standing more than six feet tall, he towered above his fellows, and his broad chest and massive head were imposing. His swarthy handsomeness, deep brown eyes, and long, dark, unkempt hair gave him a mysterious, romantic air. Severe shortsightedness lent him a remote gaze which was often mistaken for aloofness. His poor eyesight also contributed to his social ineptness on occasions when he would either scrutinize his companions at an awkwardly close range or else, insecure without visual cues, withdraw from general conversation entirely.
At Cambridge, in 1829, Tennyson made the most important acquaintance of his life. Arthur Henry Hallam, who had been a fellow competitor for the Chancellor’s gold medal for English verse, which Tennyson won with his poem “Timbuctoo,” became not only his closest friend but also his literary advocate. He encouraged Tennyson to publish his first notable collection of poetry, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830 and anonymously gave it a favorable commentary in The Englishman’s Magazine in 1831. In his review, Hallam defined Tennyson’s style in terms which modern critics have described as an anticipation of Symbolist poetics. Tennyson’s enduring dislike of magazine criticism began with a scathing review of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1832. Because of his fear of poor reviews, Tennyson was hesitant to publish new poems, a tendency which remained with him throughout his career. Yet this fear also drove him to scrupulous revision, which often improved his work.
Tennyson was recalled to Somersby immediately before his father’s death in March, 1831, and he never returned to the university to complete his degree. The following...
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year, at Hallam’s urging, he assembled the manuscript of a volume entitledPoems (1832). It included a number of pieces often found in modern anthologies: “The Lady of Shalott,” “Œnone,” “The Palace of Art,” and “The Lotos-Eaters.” Poems was unfavorably received when it was first published, but in 1835, the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote a review praising Tennyson’s use of scenery to symbolize feeling. Mill’s encouragement arrived too late, however, to offer much comfort; when it appeared, Tennyson was still grieving Hallam’s untimely death in the summer of 1833.
Tennyson composed some of his finest poems in the period following his friend’s death, particularly the exquisite elegiac stanzas that were to make up the commemorative poem In Memoriam (1850). Lacking Hallam’s energetic support, the young poet failed to publish a new volume of poetry until 1842. Between Hallam’s death in 1833 and the publication of In Memoriam in 1850, only two books appeared: Poems (1842) and The Princess (1847). The 1842 volume incorporated revised versions of the best work he had published in 1833 along with some new poems including “Ulysses,” “Break, Break, Break,” and his early Arthurian piece, “Morte d’Arthur.” The Princess, a long narrative poem, presents a rather superficial treatment of the serious Victorian issue of women’s education. The conflict between a prince and a princess, whose engagement is broken when the princess decides to found a women’s university, dissolves when she sees the error of her politics and returns to fulfill her promise of marriage. The resolution is achieved principally through the songs, which focus on the personal rather than the political implications of the couple’s relationship. Despite its poetic imperfections, The Princess was a popular success.
In Memoriam established Tennyson’s growing reputation as a lyric poet. The volume’s short poems, in the distinctive abba stanza form, are arranged not by date of composition but by their place in the psychological pattern of grieving. The tone of the poems moves from frustration and anger at the indifference of Nature to man’s fate toward a celebration of human love. The publication of In Memoriam opened new opportunities in Tennyson’s personal life. The trial edition that he sent to Emily Selwood in 1849 helped to revive their broken engagement, and in 1850, after fourteen years’ delay, they were married. The success of In Memoriam also brought royal recognition; at the end of the year, Queen Victoria made Tennyson poet laureate. Shortly before his death, the monarch awarded him a barony.
After 1850, Tennyson published many short poems, which appeared first in literary magazines and later in collected volumes. He also wrote several unsuccessful plays. His major works in this period were two long poems, Maud and Other Poems (1855) and Idylls of the King (1859-1885). Tennyson’s first attempt at a narratively conceived poem since The Princess, Maud tells of a young man driven mad by thwarted love who kills his lover’s brother in a duel. His act of murder and Maud’s subsequent death plunge the hero into even greater despair until he redeems himself through self-sacrifice in a patriotic war. The story unfolds not in a conventional narrative but in a series of lyrics which express the hero’s subjective responses to external events. The innovative style perplexed the critics, whose reviews were generally hostile. Tennyson forever maintained that Maud was his favorite poem, despite its miserable reception, and he became notorious for reading it aloud to company at every opportunity.
Idylls of the King is based on Sir Thomas Malory’s medieval account of the Arthurian knights in his Le Morte D’Arthur (1485). Tennyson had first dealt with the topic in his own “Morte d’Arthur,” published in Poems. Revised and renamed “The Passing of Arthur,” it eventually appeared as the conclusion of twelve “idylls” which make up Tennyson’s complete Arthurian cycle. Idylls of the King is a complex and occasionally brilliant narrative poem which has stimulated a remarkable amount of scholarly criticism since the mid-1960’s. Although the contemporary critical response was ambivalent at best, Idylls of the King met with wide popular acclaim.
The self-absorbed lyricism of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s early poems, tempered by the conservative fears of social upheaval which preoccupied the poet later in life, evolved into a poetry which dealt with the important issues of his time by drawing them into a personal focus. What John Stuart Mill discussed in a philosophical treatise, On the Subjection of Women (1869), for example, Tennyson explored through the relations between a prince and his intellectually ambitious princess. While Tennyson’s emphasis in The Princess on an ideal of domestic harmony that ignores the complex socioeconomic forces that shape political reality may seem myopic and naïve to a modern reader, the use of an intimate focus in In Memoriam is very effective. It was in personal terms that nineteenth century individuals were best able to comprehend the chaos that scientific discovery and growing industrialization had made of their worldview.
The Princess, Tennyson’s first serious attempt to reconcile the social and didactic with the personal and emotive claims of poetry, earned for him not only popularity but also the financial security to proceed with his long-postponed marriage. The stellar success of In Memoriam three years later thrust Tennyson into a degree of fame and fortune which swelled with the interest of an increasingly literate middle-class population at home and the growing enthusiasm of his audience in the United States.
In the wake of two equally hostile poetic sensibilities (fin de siècle aestheticism, which denigrated the moral dimension of art, and early twentieth century modernism, which abhorred subjectivity), Tennyson’s reputation suffered an unfortunate reversal. Not until the middle of the twentieth century, when modern American scholars such as W. D. Paden and Edgar F. Shannon reevaluated Tennyson’s achievement, did the great Victorian begin to regain literary respectability. Since the publication of Jerome H. Buckley’s seminal study in 1960, excellent modern editions have appeared along with a host of scholarly, biographical, and critical works that have reclaimed Tennyson for the twentieth century.
Buckley, Jerome H. Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Buckley examines the external influences of the Victorian moral, social, intellectual, and scientific climate in the light of the personal details of the poet’s biography to chart the growth of Tennyson’s poetic sensibility.
Jump, John, ed. Tennyson: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1967. Reprints thirty-five reviews of Tennyson’s works. A useful documentary companion to Edgar F. Shannon’s book.
Martin, Robert Bernard. Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Martin’s readable study draws on a wealth of published Tennyson biographies and criticism as well as unpublished letters and manuscripts.
Palmer, D. J., ed. Tennyson. London: Bell and Sons, 1973. A collection of essays, three of which are particularly interesting; “Tennyson: A Reader’s Guide” gives a historical bibliographic survey of Tennyson scholarship and criticism; “Tennyson and His Public 1827-59” and “Tennyson and Victorian Social Values” provide social and literary context.
Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson. New York: Macmillan, 1972. The modern editor of Tennyson’s poems offers a critical biography that makes use of previously inaccessible manuscripts and biographical material.
Shannon, Edgar F. Tennyson and the Reviewers: A Study of His Literary Reputation and of the Influence of the Critics upon His Poetry, 1827-51. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952. An examination of the dynamic relationship between Tennyson’s poetry and the reviews.
Shaw, W. D. Tennyson’s Style. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976. An excellent study of Tennyson’s poetry in the context of literary tradition in general and of Romantic and Victorian poetic theory and practice in particular.
Tennyson, Alfred. The Poems of Tennyson. Edited by Christopher Ricks. London: Longman, 1969. The most complete and scholarly edition of Tennyson’s poems. It includes one early play, The Devil and the Lady (wr. c. 1823), but excludes the later plays. Ricks draws on the Eversley edition, which contains Tennyson’s own annotations, and on numerous unpublished manuscripts.
Tennyson, Sir Charles. Alfred Tennyson. New York: Macmillan, 1949. Written by Tennyson’s grandson, this is the first authoritative formal biography of Tennyson. In addition to Tennyson’s life and personality, the book deals with the poet’s social, political, intellectual, and religious milieu.
Tennyson, Hallam, Lord. Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1897. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. A rather biased and overprotective biography by the poet’s eldest son. Despite its lack of objectivity, it is an excellent biographical sourcebook. All subsequent biographers have relied on its materials.