Alfred, Lord Tennyson Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

ph_0111201592-Tennyson.jpg Alfred, Lord Tennyson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s plays were an interlude in his long and distinguished career as a poet. During his lifetime, he published more than fifteen volumes of poetry, which have been collected into the nine-volume The Works of Tennyson (1907-1908), edited by his son, Hallam, Lord Tennyson. At the insistence of Sir Arthur Sullivan, Tennyson wrote a song cycle, The Window (1870), which Sullivan set to music. Several songs from The Princess (1847) were also set to music, one by Benjamin Britten in Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Opus 31. Tennyson’s letters from 1821 to 1892 have been edited by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon and have been published in three volumes.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s achievements as a dramatist are of interest primarily for the light they shed on his poetry. Tennyson was the best known and most loved poet of the Victorian period, but his fame and popularity were purchased at a high price. Honors were plentiful: his appointment as poet laureate after William Wordsworth’s death, his audiences with the Queen, his peerage, his burial in Westminster Abbey. During his last twenty years, his birthdays were solemnized almost as national holidays. Lakes in New Zealand, agricultural colonies in South Africa, and roses in England were named for him. His views on all subjects were eagerly sought and accepted. With such great expectations, it would take a most exceptional man to resist, and Tennyson, unfortunately, was not exceptional enough. He tried to be the spokesperson of his country, and he published more than he should have. Earlier in his career, he showed that he could profit from sound criticism and became a better poet, but once the criticism stopped, he lost his own critical sense.

After his death, the inevitable reaction occurred, and it became so radical a shift that “Tennysonian” became a term of mockery and contempt. Tennyson had been the symbol of his age, and the twentieth century could see nothing worthy of preserving from the Victorian era. Tennyson’s ability to inspire and console his age led later readers to denounce him for his moralizing. This “debunking period” was perhaps necessary to achieve a more balanced view of his accomplishments. Modern assessments have emphasized the division within Tennyson, who was caught between the mysticism of the Romantics and the dogmatism of the Victorians. He was a poet who wrote about the eternal tensions of withdrawal and involvement, of doubt and faith, of the fanciful and the real. His technical virtuosity, his impressionistic rendering of scenes, his dedication to the poet’s calling, and his place in a tradition all contribute to his reputation as a major poet and assure him a lasting place in the history of English literature.

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Although Alfred, Lord Tennyson (TEHN-ih-suhn), is best known today for his poetry, he wrote several dramatic works that were popular in his own day. His first play, Queen Mary, was published in 1875. From that time until his death he continued writing verse dramas: Harold (pr. 1876), The Falcon (pr. 1879), The Cup (pr. 1881), Becket (pb. 1884), and The Foresters (pr., pb. 1892). Most of these were staged very successfully. The renowned producer and actor Henry Irving starred opposite Ellen Terry in The Cup, which ran for more than 130 nights. Irving also produced Becket several times after Tennyson’s death, achieving success in both England and the United States. Generally speaking, however, his contemporaries’ judgment that Tennyson was a greater poet than a dramatist has been confirmed by modern critics. Tennyson’s only prose composition was also a play, The Promise of May (pr. 1882); it was not well received by theatergoers. Although he published no criticism in his lifetime, Tennyson, like most of his contemporaries, expressed his critical opinions of his own and others’ works in his conversations and in numerous letters. Hallam Tennyson’s two-volume Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir (1897) of his father prints many of these documents, and preserves as well many of Tennyson’s conversations and remarks about literature.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

During his lifetime Alfred, Lord Tennyson, attracted a popular following seldom achieved by any poet in any age. Although his first four volumes received little favorable attention, the publication of In Memoriam in 1850 brought him overnight fame, and his subsequent works were all best sellers. His Victorian contemporaries liked all forms of his poetry: More than sixty thousand copies of In Memoriam were sold in the first few months after publication; ten thousand copies of the Arthurian tales titled Idylls of the King sold in the first week after publication in 1859, and the remainder of the first edition shortly thereafter; and the first edition, sixty thousand copies, of his volume of narrative poems and lyrics, Enoch Arden, and Other Poems sold out shortly after it was published. His popularity continued until his death; twenty thousand copies of Demeter, and Other Poems were sold before publication. Readers found in Tennyson’s poetry excitement, sentiment, and moral solace; his works were a lighthouse in a stormy sea of social and moral uncertainty. Many turned to Tennyson as a teacher, seeing in his works a wisdom not available in churches, schools, or public institutions.

Perhaps because he was so popular in his own day, Tennyson became the primary target for scores of critics of the two generations that followed. Critics of the post-World War I era condemned Tennyson for pandering to public demands that poetry be “uplifting,” that it contain a moral for public consumption, and that it avoid controversial subjects. During the years between the World Wars, it became fashionable to speak of “the two Tennysons”; critics condemned the public poet who preached jingoism and offered moral platitudes in works such as Maud, and Other Poems and Idylls of the King, yet found much of value in the private poet, a morbid, introverted person whose achievement lay in his lyrics, with their private symbolism developed to express personal anxieties and frustrations.

Critics writing since World War II have generally been more appreciative of the entire canon of Tennyson’s poetry. Following the lead of Sir Charles Tennyson, whose sympathetic yet scholarly biography of his grandfather rekindled interest in Tennyson as a serious poet both in his public and private roles, scholars have reexamined In Memoriam, Idylls of the King, The Princess, and Maud, and Other Poems and found them to be works of considerable artistic merit. “Ulysses” is regarded as a significant short poem; Idylls of the King has been called one of the truly great long poems of the language; and In Memoriam is considered one of the world’s great elegies.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How did being named poet laureate affect the working habits of Alfred, Lord Tennyson?

What parts of In Memoriam reflect Tennyson’s awareness of scientific issues in his time?

Compare Tennyson and Robert Browning as composers of dramatic monologues.

Why is it difficult to interpret Tennyson’s “Ulysses”?

What issues of society in Tennyson’s time are present in his medieval legends?

Why will Tennyson never again be as popular as he was in his own time? Why is it likely that he will be appreciated more in the twenty-first century than he was in most of the twentieth?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Hair, Donald S. Domestic and Heroic in Tennyson’s Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981. Hair explores a central concern of all Tennyson’s poetry: the importance of the family as a center of values. In examining the major poems and several minor pieces, Hair shows how heroic qualities emerge from domestic situations and are linked to domestic values. The final section on Idylls of the King provides an extended discussion of Tennyson’s method of elevating domestic values to heroic status.

Hood, James W. Divining Desire: Tennyson and the Poetics of Transcendence. Aldershot, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Hood examines religious transcendence in the works of Tennyson. Includes bibliography and index.

Howe, Elisabeth A. The Dramatic Monoglogue. New York: Twayne, 1996. This study of dramatic monologues looks at the works of Tennyson, Robert Browning, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Includes bibliography and index.

Jordan, Elaine. Alfred Tennyson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Jordan devotes individual chapters to the English idylls, the dramatic monologues, and the major poems (The Princess, In Memoriam, Maud, and Idylls of the King) to illustrate her thesis that Tennyson was intensely interested in gender issues and was ambivalent regarding the validity of patriarchal methods of governing society.

Levi, Peter. Tennyson. London: Macmillan, 1994. This biography studies the life and work of Tennyson.

Martin, Robert Bernard. Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. This critical biography attempts to get behind the public mask created by the poet and his family in order to explore the psychological tensions out of which Tennyson’s greatest poetry came. Includes important supplementary material on the Tennyson family and an excellent select bibliography.

Ormond, Leonée. Alfred Tennyson: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A biographical study that examines Tennyson’s life as a poet and writer. Includes bibliography and index.

Potter, Lois, ed. Playing Robin Hood: The Legend as Performance in Five Centuries. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998. This study of the legend of Robin Hood examines how the story has been presented in literature, including in Tennyson’s The Foresters. Includes bibliography and index.

Shaw, W. David. Alfred Lord Tennyson: The Poet in an Age of Theory. New York: Twayne, 1996. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Tennyson. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Smith, Elton Edward. Tennyson’s “Epic Drama.” Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997. Smith examines the dramatic works of Tennyson. Includes bibliography and index.

Thorn, Michael. Tennyson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A biography of Tennyson that covers his life and works. Includes bibliography and index.

Tucker, Herbert F. Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Focusing on the poems written during the first half of the poet’s career, Tucker traces the influence of the poetic tradition, especially the Romantic poets, on Tennyson before he became his country’s laureate and in the years immediately following his rise to fame after the publication of In Memoriam. Contains an exceptionally good bibliography.

Tucker, Herbert F., ed. Critical Essays on Alfred, Lord Tennyson. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993. A collection of essays on Tennyson. Includes index and bibliography.