Victoria and Albert
Tennyson is the poet most closely associated with the reign of Queen Victoria, and this poem in particular is considered representative of the Victorian age. Victoria was born in 1819, and in 1837, not yet twenty years old, she ascended to the throne of England, beginning a reign that would last nearly sixty-five years. She was politically active and involved in the business of running the country, even from the start.
In 1840 Victoria was married to Albert, her first cousin. It was an arranged marriage, but Victoria and Albert fell deeply in love and consulted with each other on all matters. It was Albert who first read Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. and brought it to Victoria’s attention, directly influencing Tennyson’s 1850 appointment as poet laureate. Under Albert’s influence, while still in her early twenties, Victoria changed from a liberal to a conservative political attitude, which affected the way England was governed in both domestic and international affairs. Victoria and Albert were married for twenty years, until Albert’s death in 1861 from typhoid fever. After his death, Victoria remained devoted to Albert’s memory, and she never remarried. Her popularity as a monarch grew as she aged, as England exerted its dominance over world affairs, becoming the world’s most powerful country because of its strong navy and its colonization of Africa, India, and other territories that raised its financial power to ever-increasing heights.
Literary tastes changed during the time of Victoria’s reign, reflecting the queen’s tastes. The nineteenth century began with the romantic movement, which was initiated by Wordsworth and Coleridge and most frequently associated with Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Romantic poetry can be generalized as focusing on nature and on the importance of individual judgement and emotional reaction over the pressures of social institutions. Victorian literature, on the other hand, is generally concerned with how individuals fit into the social scheme, with formality and decorum. This poem, an introduction for a work written between 1833 and 1850, shows the influence of both eras. Tennyson has the romantic’s sense of self-importance in his telling of his individual experience of grief, but he also expresses concern about the proper relationship with God and his fellow humans that came to characterize most literature during Victoria’s reign.
The Industrial Age
At the same time Tennyson was writing this poem, England was undergoing a major change in basic economic structure, from agriculture to industrial production. Coal-powered machines made large-scale manufacturing possible, and this in turn created a surge in urban populations, which created a need for more jobs. London, for example, which had kept a stable population for centuries, grew fourfold between 1801 and 1841, from 598,000 to 2,420,000. New technologies made centralized industry possible: rail lines allowed manufacturers to produce items by the ton and transport them to distant points for sale; electric lighting (first invented in 1808) made it possible for workers to continue to labor beyond normal daylight hours; telegraphs allowed businesses to place orders and make arrangements in a fraction of the time it took to send representatives from one town to another.
The drawback of the industrial age was that rapid expansion caused cities to quickly became overpopulated with people, creating unsanitary conditions. Diseases such as typhus spread rapidly in crowded tenements, and the situation was made more perilous by the fact that workers, including children, worked long hours with little pay. Pollution was blinding, darkening the skies of industrial cities at midday. All of these conditions caused a crisis of faith: the benefits of industrialization turned out to be the cause of misery for millions of British citizens. Tennyson plays off this tension by contrasting knowledge with faith in this poem.
(The entire section is 1,739 words.)