An appreciation of Tennyson’s achievement as an artist requires that one understand his idea of the role of the poet. For centuries, the Aristotelian idea of the poet as maker and upholder of society’s best values had dominated Western thinking; but in the half century before Tennyson began writing, the notions of Romanticism, which celebrated art as self-expression and venerated the poet as rebel and social critic, had taken hold. Throughout his life, Tennyson was forced to choose between being the public artist, bent on confirming that which was best in his society, and the private mystic, attempting to explore the psychological dimensions of the human character as he experienced the vicissitudes of his own storm-tossed life.
It is not surprising, then, that one of the major themes of Tennyson’s poetry is the exploration of the proper role of the poet in society. In early works, such as “The Palace of Art” and “Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind,” the poet examines the alternatives that he sees for the poet: an active life struggling to right the many wrongs that he sees in the world, or a life of contemplation and the pursuit of art for art’s sake, withdrawn from the fray of everyday affairs. Emblematically, in “The Lady of Shallott” he touches on the same theme. In that poem, the Lady, confined in her room, weaving her beautiful tapestry, sees the outside world only indirectly through images in her mirror; she comes to an untimely death when she abandons her safe tower to enter the world in search of the knight whose image she first discerns in her glass. Such may be the fate of the artist, the youthful Tennyson suggests. Later in his life, in poems such as “The Ancient Sage” and “Merlin and the Gleam,” he adopts a more public stance, arguing that the poet is actually a prophet whose proper role is to discover truth and bring it to humankind.
As poet laureate for more than forty years, Tennyson was frequently asked by Queen Victoria and others to write celebratory verse, and some of his work is simply “occasional” writing: writing to commemorate events, such as the marriage of Queen Victoria’s daughter to the czar of Russia. It would be wrong to dismiss all of his public writing as simply made-to-order work, however; “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” prompted by gross errors of judgment in a bloody war of imperialism, aroused the indignation of the British public and helped lead to serious reforms in the military, and his “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” is one of the finest occasional pieces in the language.
Exceptionally well-read and always curious about discoveries in all fields of learning, Tennyson writes frequently of contemporary controversies. His works reflect the Victorians’ ongoing struggle to reconcile the advances of science, especially those involving theories of evolution, with traditional religion. While his most significant artistic work dealing with this subject is contained in the central lyrics of his great elegy In Memoriam, other works, especially the meditative monologue “Lucretius,” structure the debate between science and religion as a central theme.
A related issue concerning the advances of science is also central to Tennyson’s poetry: the value of material progress. Like many of his contemporaries, the poet was concerned with the effect of burgeoning industrialism on the quality of life for both the well-to-do and particularly the middle class and the poor. Many of his domestic idylls, narrative poems focusing on family life and often set in rural locales, explore the impact of scientific progress and advances in technology on the traditional lifestyles of farmers, laborers, and other rustics. The results are sometimes poems of exceptional pathos, such as “Dora,” “The...
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- Critical Essays