Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666

The narrator’s concerns in “Locksley Hall” parallel those of his nineteenth century society and evolve as literature did during Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s lifetime. The personal love story at the beginning of the poem echoes the emotional and autobiographical mode of Romanticism, while the economic pressures underlying the speaker’s plight invoke social problems that would become the focus of later realist and naturalist writing.

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The Romantic tone of the opening section comes not only from its emphasis on the story of thwarted love but also from its description of nature. Locksley Hall stands near the coast, where the implied danger of ocean waves recalls the Romantic concept of sublime nature. References to birds, symbols exploited by Romantic writers as emblems of joy and freedom, surround the narrator’s early days with Amy. As their love deepens, the narrator likens Amy’s radiant face to the Northern Lights and her sighs to those of the wind. All these references follow the Romantic tradition of invoking imagery that coincides with the emotions of its characters.

The Romantic hero may be in harmony with nature, but he is also traditionally suffering. During the decade prior to the publication of “Locksley Hall,” French novelists defined the frustration of a generation of young men who lacked the opportunities for glory that Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquests had offered when he gained victories abroad for France. Stendhal, in his novel Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898), and Alfred de Musset, in Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836; Confession of a Child of This Century, 1892), depicted protagonists frustrated in a shrinking economy. For Tennyson’s hero, the British Empire plays an analogous role. His options are limited by his father’s death in India.

The personal loss of his father is not the only reason for the narrator’s despair. He is living in rapidly changing times, as Europe enters the age of industrialization. The accompanying social upheaval can be both beneficial and harmful. When he recalls his youthful optimism, the narrator evokes a vision of social and material advances. In the short term, however, he sees himself unable to succeed without the money and family support that are essential in a materialistic society.

Forty-four years after the publication of “Locksley Hall,” Tennyson continued the story of its protagonist and his attendant social criticism in “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” (1886). In this sequel, the speaker of the earlier poem has been consoled for the loss of Amy by his marriage to Edith, with whom he has had a son. Both mother and son have died, and the narrator returns again to Locksley Hall with his grandson. Like his grandfather, the grandson has been jilted by the girl he loved—Judith. Recalling his own experience, the grandfather asserts that this modern love could not be the equal of his own passion, just as society, ever more harsh and materialistic, uses its new technology to expand the atrocities of war.

In “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After,” Tennyson again alternates between hope and despair for the future, but negative ideas are more numerous because the narrator has observed so much suffering during his life. “Locksley Hall” retains more of the young man’s optimism. While he has rejected his fantasy of a simpler life at the fringes of European influence, the narrator renews his hope because of the expanding possibilities associated with advancing science.

In the final lines of “Locksley Hall,” the narrator leaves the titular estate behind as a violent storm bears down on the area. The storm suggests simultaneously the destruction of Locksley Hall and the intensity of the narrator’s passion. Furthermore, the narrator describes the wind as blowing toward the sea. Following it, he may again take the outward path that had led his country, and that may lead him, to greatness. This final triumphalism returns to the Romantic spirit of the opening of the poem but with a hope for a positive outcome at last.

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