Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387

Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" (1842) tells the story of a soldier returning to his childhood home on the moorland of Locksley Hall. During this visit, he is poignantly reminded of his experience as a child enjoying the young love of his cousin, Amy. Eventually, however, Amy marries another man, and so the memory of this relationship has permanently damaged the narrator's memory of Locksley Hall. The major themes of the poem are unrequited love and the contrast between civilization versus barbarism.

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The narrator remembers vividly his first openly romantic encounter with Amy, recalling her specific words: "I have loved thee long." The narrator explains that his beloved has since taken a new husband. The explicit reasons are not given; however, it seems to have something to do with her parents' approval ("Puppet to a father's threat, and servile to a shrewish tongue!"). Their disapproval, in turn, might have to do with the narrator's social status ("Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth!"). The narrator takes comfort exacting vengeance on Amy's current husband by calling him a "clown." Moreover, he spites Amy by averring that her current husband will degrade her by means of the "grossness of his nature" and claiming that her husband values her as little more than a pet. Because the narrator has so many memories of spending time with Amy as a child at Locksley Hall, he cannot enjoy the place any longer.

The poem also explores the relative merits of civilization and savagery. The narrator divulges more of his background during the latter half of the poem. He states that his father was killed in battle, and, with no mother, he became the ward of his uncle. As he is a solider, he admits to being attracted to the idea of "burst[ing] all links of habit" and settling in the tropics with a native wife who will bear him "dusky children." Jaded by his now loveless experience as an Englishman, he feels attracted to the idea of living beyond the reach of the "European flag." However, by the poem's end, the speaker chastens himself and admits to preferring the Christian child to the "gray barbarian." He closes by cursing Locksley Hall and resolving to leave it, along with (presumably) the memories it carries of his lost love.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

“Locksley Hall” begins as the personal expression of one young man’s feelings of anger and betrayal after a failed romance. He proclaims to his former love: “Better thou and I were lying, hidden from the heart’s disgrace,/ Roll’d in one another’s arms, and silent in a last embrace.”

Tennyson soon turns the focus of the poem from personal frustration to wider—and more universally relevant—social criticism. Blaming her family’s ambitious expectations for his cousin’s rejection of him, he complains: “Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth!/ Cursed be the social lies that warp us from the living truth!” Tennyson thus condemns the demands of society that impose artificial limitations upon the otherwise limitless possibilities of youth.

Feeling the need of some worthy pursuit to distract him from his broken-hearted state, the speaker declares, “I myself must mix with action, lest I wither by despair.” However, the “warped” world in which he finds himself offers opportunity only to the wealthy: “What is that which I should turn to, lighting upon days like these?/ Every door is barr’d with gold, and opens but to golden keys.”

Faced with an apparently empty future himself, the speaker seeks solace in his dreams of the future of humankind. Here Tennyson’s poetry reads like a science-fiction novel in verse: “For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,/ Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;// Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,/ Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales.”

Tennyson offers a vision not only of scientific progress but also of social and political progress, predicting a kind of United Nations a century before its time: “Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d/ In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.// There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,/ And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.”

While the speaker laments the plodding pace of scientific progress, which moves “but slowly, slowly, creeping on from point to point,” he nevertheless embraces the theme of progress in general, declaring: “Yet I doubt not thro’ the ages one increasing purpose runs,/ And the thoughts of men are widen’d with the process of the suns.”

The personal satisfactions of being a participant in this abstract historical progression pale in comparison to those imagined by the speaker in the exotic lands he describes as “Summer isles of Eden lying in dark-purple spheres of sea.” There, he thinks, “would be enjoyment more than in this march of mind,/ In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind.”

Ultimately, however, he rejects the temptation to retreat “Deep in yonder shining Orient” and “take some savage woman” to “rear [his] dusky race.” After contemplating this escape from the pressures and limitations of his own society, he condemns the notion with a healthy dose of imperialism, uttering: “Fool, again the dream, the fancy! but I know my words are wild,/ But I count the gray barbarian lower than the Christian child.” Despite the obstacles of Victorian society, he nevertheless sees himself as “the heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time.”

The poem is a dynamic mixture of bitterness and optimism. It concludes with the approach of a storm and the speaker’s pronouncement: “Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow.” While he abandons his former home to the approaching storm clouds, however, he does not completely abandon his flickering hope for a brighter future.

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