Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on June 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3999

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to right the many wrongs that he sees in the world, or a life of contemplation and the pursuit of art for art’s sake, withdrawn from the fray of everyday affairs.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 Gardener’s Daughter,” or Enoch Arden (1864), though the latter poem deals more centrally with issues of love and faithfulness. On occasion, however, Tennyson employs bitter satire to evoke in his readers a sense of horror at the evils of creeping materialism: His scathing portrait of the petty master in “The Northern Farmer” poems, both written much later in his life, are good examples of this style.

In an age that still revered the formal qualities of poetry and gave great concern to consistency in meter, rhyme scheme, and adherence to supposed rules of composition, Tennyson stands as something of a rebel. He was a great experimenter in verse forms, often combining different rhyme schemes, line lengths, and styles within the same work. His early education had given him a sound foundation in the classics, and much of his poetry is filled with allusions to Greek and Latin literature. A strong admirer of Vergil, Tennyson often fills his work with the sense of melancholy characteristic of the great Latin poet’s work. Like his classical predecessors, Tennyson is a careful observer of nature, rendering it in meticulous descriptions that evoke the sensual qualities of the world that he sees. He is equally adept at portraying psychological states, however; poems such as Maud and “St. Simeon Stylites” rival the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning in their penetrating insight into the minds of characters whose psychological equilibrium is precariously balanced between sanity and madness.

A lifelong devotee of the Arthurian story, Tennyson uses the characters from this legend as subjects of numerous poems. From his early portrayals of idealists such as the maid Elaine (the heroine of his “The Lady of Shallott”) and the warrior Galahad (celebrated in “Sir Galahad”) to his full-length treatment of the legend in Idylls of the King, the poet explores the heroic qualities of knighthood. Tennyson reveals how the virtues espoused at Arthur’s medieval court are relevant to the complex society of the nineteenth century. The Arthurian poems also serve as a warning about what can happen when people abandon ideals for easy pleasures or material comforts—a problem that Tennyson saw all around him in his own society.

In Memoriam

First published: 1850

Type of work: Poem

Tennyson explores his feeling of loss at the death of Arthur Henry Hallam and uses the occasion of Hallam’s death to explore other contemporary issues.

In Memoriam is Tennyson’s elegiac tribute to his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly in September, 1833. Hallam’s death dealt a particularly harsh blow to the poet. Almost immediately, Tennyson began attempting to capture his sense of loss and feelings of grief in brief lyrical sketches. He worked on these lyrics for seventeen years, revising and arranging them in a pattern that would give the disparate poems a central unity of purpose.

Tennyson’s work follows the traditional pattern of the elegy, first established by the Greeks and appropriated by English poets such as John Milton in “Lycidas” (1638) and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821). There is a central figure who speaks in the first person to mourn the loss of a friend; feeling that he has been left behind in a world that also is touched with this loss, the speaker examines his emotions and looks outside himself for solace. His examination of the world around him leads him to realize that, though gone, his friend is still with him in spirit; that realization gives the one who remains in the world some hope, usually for reunion in the afterlife.

Unusual among the great elegies in English, In Memoriam tells its story of loss and recovery through a series of interconnected lyrics, over 130 in all; each remains a self-contained unit, but the collection traces the feelings of a central character who experiences, in turn, grief, confusion, despair, personal resolution, and, finally, hope. Several critics have pointed out the similarities between Tennyson’s elegy and William Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, which also carries forward a single story beneath the individual lyrics.

Though the poet employs a first-person voice in almost all the lyrics, the central speaker, or “I,” of the poem should not automatically be identified with Tennyson himself. In various notes to his work, the poet cautions that he is sometimes using the speaker to represent all of humankind struggling to understand the sense of loss that has come upon it as a result of scientific discoveries that have shattered its faith in the afterlife. The speaker passes through several emotional stages: from grief and despair resulting from the immediacy and the immensity of his loss, through a period of doubt, to a state of hope based on his faith that there is a divine entity guiding humanity’s destiny. The progress of the poet’s feelings is marked by the three Christmas seasons celebrated in the work. During the first and second Christmases, the poet’s feelings are scarred by his loss; during the third, however, he is able to rejoice in the realization that his friend, though vanished from the earth, awaits their reunion in heaven, where he has gone after fulfilling his role on earth. Hallam becomes for Tennyson a symbol of an idea that the poet and his contemporaries were slowly coming to accept and investigate: the idea of progress. By the end of his elegy, Tennyson is celebrating Hallam as the precursor of a new age that will be greater and more blessed for the world; Hallam, like Christ, is a harbinger of better times, and the poet is able to take solace in having been able to share his acquaintance and love.

The note of optimism in the final stanzas of the epilogue is reached only after the poet has agonized long over doubts about both his personal future and the future of the human race. A particularly poignant series of lyrics (ones often anthologized out of the context of the entire series) deals directly with the implications of new discoveries about evolution, and in them the speaker, comparing himself to “an infant, crying in the night,” agonizes over the possibility that “nature, red in tooth and claw” is governed not by a beneficent deity but by senseless forces that serve no higher purpose.

The critic T. S. Eliot once observed that the greatness of In Memoriam lies not in its final message of hope, but in the quality of doubt that permeates the central lyrics. Nevertheless, the marriage that Tennyson describes in the epilogue is clearly intended to suggest the resiliency of humankind and the promise that life will continue, if not for individuals, then at least for the human race as a whole. Not only will life go on, Tennyson implies, but it will improve, and Hallam has been an early messenger of these better times. For this the poet is thankful, for he has been able to associate with one who symbolizes the great future that the world is to enjoy.

Idylls of the King

First published: 1859-1885

Type of work: Poem

Tennyson recounts the rise and fall of the mythical King Arthur, showing how the ruler’s high standards are embraced or rejected by his followers.

Idylls of the King is the culmination of Tennyson’s lifelong fascination with the Arthurian legend. At an early age, the poet became taken with the story of the king who had united his country and made a perfect society, only to see it fall into ruins because of the illicit affair between his queen and his greatest knight. In several poems written when he was young, Tennyson did what may be called character sketches of Arthurian figures: the Maid of Astolat, Galahad, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Shortly after the untimely death of his friend Arthur Hallam, he composed a long narrative on the death of King Arthur; the poem was incorporated as the last of the twelve idylls that now constitute Idylls of the King.

Idylls of the King was published in parts between 1859 and 1885, so there has always been a question concerning the unity of the work: Should it be read as a consistent whole, considered a nineteenth century epic? Or is it a collection, in the vein of In Memoriam, in which individual poems suggest a thematic whole but are not intended to present a coherent story? Most critics have seen sufficient unity in the assemblage to judge that Tennyson intended his work to be taken as a single long poem, and that he consciously used various epic devices to suggest parallels with works such as Vergil’s the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e., English translation, 1553). The blank verse line, the epic similes, and other devices of phrasing and description recall John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), unquestionably the most ambitious epic in English.

From his own writings about the poem, as well as from internal evidence, it is clear that Tennyson intended Idylls of the King to be both a commentary on contemporary society and a kind of allegory about the human spirit warring against the fleshly side of humanity’s nature. Arthur is described in the epilogue of the poem as a perfect Victorian gentleman—with clear parallels to Victoria’s dead husband, Prince Albert, who is celebrated by name in the dedication to Idylls of the King added by Tennyson after the Albert’s death in 1861. Throughout the Arthurian story, the poet celebrates Victorian virtues of fidelity to one’s spouse—a concept not at all in keeping with the medieval concept of courtly love, wherein a knight might be in service to (and on occasion have an illicit affair with) a woman other than his wife. Further, Idylls of the King celebrates the importance of work over fame. In a revealing passage in the sixth idyll, “Merlin and Vivien,” the aging magician, Merlin, tells the temptress that it is better to work than to seek glory, that one should revere those who perform the common duties of life. The theme is echoed by the king at the end of the eighth idyll, “The Holy Grail.” When only a few of his knights return from their quest for the cup that was supposedly used by Christ at the last supper, Arthur lectures them about the devastating impact that their vain pursuit has had on the kingdom. While they were away, many necessary chores were left unattended; the king excuses his own unwillingness to seek the Grail by noting that it has been his duty to remain at home governing the land, handling the everyday tasks that befit his position. Such an attitude would have been foreign to the medieval audiences that first heard tales of Arthur and his knights, but this sentiment would have struck a sympathetic chord with Victorian readers.

In the epilogue, Tennyson also describes his hero as “Ideal manhood closed in real man” and mentions that the poem is intended to show the struggle of “sense at war with soul.” The highly allegorical nature of Idylls of the King may be best seen in the second section, “Gareth and Lynette,” in which a young hero, imbued with the ideals that Arthur preaches, fights and defeats four challengers who represent (according to an explanation provided within the poem itself) the various stages of a person’s life. The message is clear: Those who live by the high ideals that Arthur promotes will rise above even death itself. The fairy tale quality of “Gareth and Lynette” is not sustained, however, as one by one even the greatest knights and ladies fail to uphold these high standards. Some, such as the villainous Tristan, openly scoff at the King’s naïveté; others, such as Lancelot and Guinevere, struggle to reconcile their commitment to those ideals with the very real, physical love that they feel for each other but that they know is wrong because it violates the moral code of the kingdom.

The central theme of the poem is that devotion to such high ideals is nearly impossible in a world beset with materialism. As critic James Kincaid notes in Tennyson’s Major Poems, the Comic and Ironic Patterns (1975), no outside force causes the downfall of Arthur’s perfect society; rather, it falls from within, collapsing because the knights and ladies of the realm are unable to abide by the king’s ideals. Tennyson captures the tenuous nature of Arthur’s experiment with utopian living in his image of the capital city of Camelot. Gareth, on his way to meet the king for the first time, meets Merlin outside the city and asks if the spires that he sees in the mist are those of the king’s capital. From them, he hears sweet music coming forth, and Merlin says that this is indeed Camelot, which is still being built: “the city is built/ To music,” the seer remarks, “therefore never built at all,/ And therefore built for ever” (“Gareth and Lynette”). Like a musical composition, Arthur’s kingdom relies on the harmony achieved when every player is working under the direction of a wise composer; when one chooses to play his or her own tune, the harmony is broken, and the music becomes discordant. That image, repeated throughout the remainder of the Idylls of the King, captures Tennyson’s idea about society: Unless all work in concert with one another and follow high moral standards, civilization itself is doomed to fail.


First published: 1842 (collected in Poems, 1842)

Type of work: Poem

The hero of Homer’s the Odyssey, living the quiet life at home after his twenty-year sojourn away from Ithaca, vows to set out again to seek new adventures.

“Ulysses” is ranked with several of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues as the best in the genre. Based on a passage in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the poem depicts the hero of the Trojan Wars sometime after he has returned to his native land. Ironically, the man who had lived away from his beloved wife and son for ten years before the walls of Troy, and who had then wandered the Mediterranean for ten more as a result of a curse from the gods, is now displeased with the quiet life that he finds at home. The discomfort that Ulysses feels is emblematic of the dilemma that many of Tennyson’s contemporaries faced: whether to live life quietly, fulfilling one’s domestic duties, or to pursue some bold adventure. For Tennyson, the poem had personal significance as well: Written shortly after the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam, it was the poet’s attempt to answer the question of whether to try to make a new life or to continue to wallow in his sorrow.

If one reads the poem in light of Tennyson’s personal comments, then the ending suggests a strong note of optimism. After convincing himself that he should not remain at home—his son, Telemachus, is more suited to rule a land where people have no aspirations for adventure—Ulysses summons a group of mariners to sail away with him to find new adventures. There is a recognized risk in such action: “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,” he warns them, but if he and his men are fortunate, they may “touch the Happy Isles,/ And see the great Achilles that we knew.” Whatever they do, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they have done their best in struggling against the elements (and old age) to make new reputations. The ringing final line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” becomes a battle cry for all who need support in their endeavors to make a better life.

Unfortunately, such a glib reading is not fully supported by internal evidence. The mariners whom Ulysses summons are not the same ones that sailed with him before; those men were all lost before the king returned to Ithaca. Further, his call to sail toward the west, and his remark that they may be fortunate enough to land in the Happy Isles, both suggest that this is a voyage to death. Such a reading is supported by external evidence, namely the passage from Dante on which Tennyson bases his account. Like many narrators in dramatic monologues, Tennyson’s Ulysses is not to be trusted fully. His is a seductive message, a call to adventure that simultaneously encourages a flight from responsibility. How one is to determine whether Ulysses is a hero or villain is never resolved, of course; this is attributable in part to the peculiar nature of the dramatic monologue form. Readers have no external reference point from which to judge the truthfulness or sincerity of Ulysses’ statements. Only a careful analysis of the substance of his request—the message beneath the compelling rhetoric—suggests that he may be seeking to abandon his responsibilities and cloak his escape in the guise of seeking further glory. The enigma may well be intentional, considering Tennyson’s lifelong preoccupation with characters who are psychologically complex. There are for Tennyson two sides to every issue, and commitment to one ideal may well result in abandonment of another, equally valid one. Such is the human condition as he sees it.

“Locksley Hall”

First published: 1842 (collected in Poems, 1842)

Type of work: Poem

A young man, rejected by his beloved for a more wealthy suitor, muses on the present state of society and has a vision of a different, better future.

“Locksley Hall” is typical of Tennyson’s poetry, in that the pattern of the poem follows one characteristic of much of the poet’s work. A personal experience sparks Tennyson’s creative imagination, and he uses that incident as a springboard for investigating issues of greater social concern.

The biographical germ of the poem lies in Rosa Baring’s rejection of Tennyson as a suitor in 1837; the poet’s poor financial position made him unsuitable for her as a husband, and she rejected him in favor of a man of greater means. In “Locksley Hall,” Tennyson transforms his own disappointment and grief over this rejection into a bitter analysis of the society in which materialism takes precedence over love. The speaker of the poem, a young suitor whose beloved Amy leaves him to marry a boorish man of suitable financial means, rebukes both his beloved and her new husband. His maundering attack leads him to consider the world in which true love can be dismissed so lightly, and he eventually begins to daydream about a future in which people, driven by greed, will eventually clash in world war to satisfy their insatiable materialistic appetites. In passages that border on science fiction, Tennyson describes “airy navies” engaging in battle. There is a ray of hope, however; the speaker finally sees an end to nationalistic strife, and the formation of a “Parliament of man,” a worldwide federation that will eventually bring peace to warring nations. All of this is mere reverie, of course, and in the final couplets the speaker turns away bitterly from Locksley Hall, the place where he wooed his Amy unsuccessfully, and goes off to wander the world in an attempt to suffuse his bitterness.

Written in trochaic couplets, “Locksley Hall” is an excellent example of Tennyson’s ability to sustain a complicated meter and rhyme scheme. Some critics have complained, however, that the jingling nature of the meter works against the serious message of the poem, the speaker’s indictment of modern society. Like the best of Tennyson’s poetry, “Locksley Hall” contains phrases of vivid description and lines that capture the mood of the speaker in such a way as to give his personal feelings a universal significance. The Byronic qualities of the hero of this poem, his brooding over his fate in life, and his somber portrait of the future (even when tempered by his final vision of a world at peace) suggest the darker side of Tennyson’s personality; the poet seems fascinated by characters whose life experiences drive them to the brink of madness as they face frustration and disappointment in a world where money has supplanted love as the highest of human aspirations.

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson Poetry: British Analysis