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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Tennyson was appointed by Queen Victoria to be England’s Poet Laureate in 1850, a year before “The Eagle” was first published, and he served in that position until his death in 1892. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices in the long period of British prosperity during Victoria’s reign, which is broadly referred to as the Victorian Age.

Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on May 24, 1819. She ascended to the throne of England and Ireland in 1837, when her uncle, William IV, died without any children. For sixty-four years she ruled Great Britain, which was the most powerful country in the world. At first, the eighteen-year-old queen upheld liberal sentiments. The early part of the nineteenth century was still marked by liberalism, which was a belief in equality and individual rights. The height of liberalism had occurred earlier marked by the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. In both cases, the old, hereditary, aristocratic order was overturned in favor of the ability of the people to govern their own affairs. Victoria’s early liberalism is considered to have been influenced by a number of things, including her own youthful idealism and the world’s lingering enthusiasm with liberal ideals.

The nineteenth century was a time of great social transformation, and the queen’s sympathies altered as both she and England changed. One of the most profound influences on her thinking came when she married Albert, her first cousin, in 1840. For the next twenty years, Victoria and Albert ruled Great Britain closely. His conservative attitude came to be hers. Albert was formal, straight-laced, and it is his prudish attitude toward public behavior that has left the Victorian Age with the reputation for being repressed about matters of social behavior.

At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was reorganizing the structure of society and raising doubts about the effectiveness of liberalism. Because mechanical efficiency was creating larger and more successful cities, there was a shift in population in Western countries (meaning, mainly, England and the Americas) away from farms and toward cities. Machines that were powered by steam that was created by burning coal were able to turn out products at a rate many times what had been possible before. Society was redefined by such technological developments as the telegraph (1844), which made long-distance communication possible; the daguerreotype (1837), which was the first workable method of photography; and the first development of the electric lamp in 1808, which eventually led to Edison’s light bulb in 1879. At the same time that these technological marvels were being introduced, though, the problems associated with the rapid growth of cities made life miserable for large masses of people.

Cities, unprepared to absorb the rapid growth that they were faced with, became crowded, squalid, dirty pockets of poverty. London, the main city of the world at that time, quadrupled in population in forty years from 598,000 in 1801 to 2.42 million in 1841. The resulting population density led to overworked and inefficient waste disposal methods, which hastened the spread of disease, particularly tuberculosis and cholera. Early industrial methods created the dense pollution that readers are most familiar with from the novels of Charles Dickens such as Bleak House or Great Expectations. In one of Dickens’ most familiar descriptions, based on an actual situation, the streetlights of London had to be lit at midday because the pollution from coal-burning industries had blocked out the sun. The liberal ideal of having government run by common people gave way quickly when faced with the increasing perception of the “common people” being a grubby crowd fighting for survival among squalid conditions, living like rats among rats. The mood among the educated toward aristocrats keeping tight control of the political process coincided with...

(The entire section is 1,968 words.)