Alfred Tennyson

views updated

Alfred Tennyson

The English poet Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson (1809-1892), was regarded by his contemporaries as the greatest poet of Victorian England. A superb craftsman in verse, he wrote poetry that ranged from confident assertion to black despair.

Alfred Tennyson, who is known as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was born on Aug. 6, 1809, in the rectory of the village of Somersby, Lincolnshire. His parents were the Reverend George Clayton Tennyson and Elizabeth Fytche Tennyson; he was one of eight sons—there were four daughters as well. Dr. Tennyson, the poet's father, was the elder of the two sons of a prosperous businessman who favored his younger son and thus left Dr. Tennyson embittered and relatively impoverished. He was an educated man, a country clergyman, and Alfred read widely in his father's library. As Dr. Tennyson grew older, he grew more passionate and melancholy: he took to drink, he suffered from lapses of memory, and he once even tried to kill his eldest son. Misfortune and madness, not surprisingly, haunted the whole Tennyson family. The year he died, Dr. Tennyson said of his children, "They are all strangely brought up."

Early Poetry and Cambridge

Tennyson began writing poetry as a child. At 12 he was writing a 6, 000-line epic in imitation of Sir Walter Scott. Other youthful models were Lord Byron, whose death in 1824 he particularly mourned, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. When he was 14, Tennyson wrote a play called The Devil and the Lady, a dexterous imitation of Elizabethan comic verse.

In 1827 there appeared an unpretentious volume entitled Poems by Two Brothers; the book, despite its title, included poems by three of the Tennyson brothers, a little less than half of them probably by Alfred. That same year Alfred and Charles joined their brother Frederick at Trinity College, Cambridge University. In 1829 Tennyson joined the Apostles, an undergraduate discussion group, some of whose members would over the years continue to be his closest friends. Tennyson's undergraduate days were a time of intellectual and political turmoil in England. The institutions of church and state were being challenged, and the Apostles debated the issues which led to the passage of the Reform Bill in 1832. Among the Apostles, Tennyson's closest friend was Arthur Hallam, a wonderfully gifted young man whose early tragic death in 1833 would inspire In Memoriam.

In 1830 the Apostles took up the cause of a group of Spanish revolutionaries; Tennyson and Hallam went to the Pyrenees on an unsuccessful mission to aid the rebels. Also in 1830 Tennyson published his Poems, Chiefly Lyrical; of these poems perhaps the best-known and most characteristic is "Mariana, " where melancholy is suggested by the depiction of a landscape much like that of Tennyson's native Lincolnshire. Those who knew Tennyson as a university student were impressed by his commanding physical presence and by his youthful literary achievements. In 1831 his father died, and Tennyson left the university without taking a degree.

Discovery of a Vocation

In the volume entitled Poems, which Tennyson published in 1832, a recurring theme is the conflict between a selfish love of beauty and the obligation to serve society. The collection includes "The Lady of Shalott, " a narrative set in Arthurian England in which retired estheticism is destroyed by a dangerous "real" world, and "The Palace of Art, " an allegory which finally affirms the teaching obligations of the poet. Tennyson was depressed by some of the reviews of this book, and he was cast down by Hallam's death; for the next 10 years he published nothing. In 1836 he fell in love with Emily Sellwood, whom he met at the marriage of her sister to his brother George. In 1840 he invested what money he had inherited in a scheme for woodworking machinery; by 1843 he had lost his small patrimony.

Poems, Two Volumes (1842) presaged a change in Tennyson's fortunes. Here for the first time appeared one of the several poems which would eventually make up the Idylls of the King. Other poems in this collection are "Ulysses, " a dramatic monologue in which the aging king urges his companions to undertake a final heroic journey, and "The Two Voices, " an interior debate between the death wish and the will to live. Poems, Two Volumes was well received, and Sir Robert Peel, the prime minister, who was particularly impressed by "Ulysses, " awarded Tennyson a pension which guaranteed him £200 a year.

The Princess: A Medley (1847) is Tennyson's attempt to meet the charge that he had neglected the social responsibilities of the poet. This fable, in some 3, 000 lines of blank verse, is concerned with the cause of woman's rights. The poem is a generally lighthearted work—in 1870 William S. Gilbert produced a comic stage version—and Tennyson cautiously advocates a greater appreciation of the feminine intelligence.

In Memoriam

The great year of Tennyson's life is 1850: on June 1 he published In Memoriam, the long elegy inspired by the death of Hallam; less than 2 weeks later he married Emily Sellwood, with whom he had fallen in love 14 years before; and in November he was appointed poet laureate to succeed William Wordsworth. Tennyson's years of uncertainty and financial insecurity were over; he became the greatly esteemed poetic spokesman of his age.

In Memoriam is in form a series of 129 lyrics of varying length, all composed in the same stanzaic form. The lyrics may be read individually, rather like the entries in a journal, but the poem has an overall organization. It begins with the death of Hallam, who was engaged to Tennyson's sister, and it ends with the marriage of another sister. Tennyson described it as a "kind of Divina Commedia, ending with happiness." The poem covers a period of roughly 3 years, punctuated by three celebrations of Christmas. The movement of the poem, though it is as irregular as a fever chart, is from grief through resignation to joy. The poem combines private feeling with a perplexity over the future of Christianity which was shared by many of Tennyson's contemporaries.

With his family Tennyson settled in Farringford on the Isle of Wight in a seclusion frequently interrupted by admiring tourists, many of them Americans. More welcome visitors were his friends Edward Lear, the comic poet; Charles Kingsley, the novelist; Benjamin Jowett, the master of Balliol College; and even Albert, the Prince Consort, who took away cowslips to make tea for Queen Victoria.

Although Tennyson was now settled and prosperous, his next book, Maud and Other Poems (1855), is notable for another study in melancholy. He called the title poem a "monodrama, " a form somewhere between a dramatic monologue and a verse play. We hear only one voice, that of a hysterical young man who is sometimes close to madness. Tennyson described the poem as a "little Hamlet." It almost certainly expresses some of the author's youthful anxieties as recollected in middle age. The hero furiously rejects the materialism and callousness of 19th-century society. He is preoccupied by thoughts of his father's suicide, and his reason is endangered when he accidentally kills the brother of Maud, the girl he loves. The hero then exiles himself to France, and, when he learns of Maud's death, he enlists to fight in the Crimea in the hope that the violence of war will somehow redeem him. The poem is now much admired for its metrical virtuosity and for its dramatization of neurotic states of mind. Of the other poems in the 1855 volume, the best-known are "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "The Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, " certainly the greatest of the poems written by Tennyson in his capacity as poet laureate.

The Idylls of the King

Between 1856 and 1876 Tennyson's principal concern was the composition of a series of linked narrative poems about King Arthur and the Round Table. He worked on this project for more than 20 years: one section was written as early as 1833; another part was not published until 1884. As definitively collected in 1889, The Idylls of the King consists of a dedication to the Prince Consort, 12 blank-verse narratives (the idylls) which deal with Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guenevere, and other figures in the court, and an epilogue addressed to the Queen. The individual narratives are linked by a common theme: the destructive effect of sexual passion on an honorable society. The Round Table is brought down in ruins by the illicit love of Lancelot and Guenevere. Some of Tennyson's contemporaries regretted that he had lavished so much attention on the legendary past; it is clear, however, that this myth of a dying society expressed some of his fears for 19th-century England.

Plays and Last Years

Tennyson had a long and immensely productive literary career, and a chronology shows that he did ambitious work until late in his life. In his 60s he wrote a series of historical verse plays—Queen Mary (1875), Harold (1876), and Becket (1879)—on the "making of England." The plays were intended to revive a sense of national grandeur and to remind the English of their liberation from Roman Catholicism.

Tennyson's last years were crowned with many honors. The widowed Queen Victoria ranked In Memoriam next to the Bible as a solace in her grief. In 1883 Tennyson was awarded a peerage. He died on Oct. 6, 1892, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey after a great funeral. The choir sang a musical setting for "Crossing the Bar, " the poem, written a few years earlier, which is placed at the end of all collections of his work.

Further Reading

The best edition of Tennyson's work is Christopher B. Ricks, The Poems of Tennyson (1969). Hallam Tennyson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir (2 vols., 1897), is the official biography. Important new materials are in Sir Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (1949). The most recent biography, Joanna Richardson, The Pre-eminent Victorian: A Study of Tennyson(1964), is readable but shallow. Particularly valuable critical studies are J. H. Buckley, Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet (1960), and Valerie Pitt, Tennyson Laureate (1962). Important specialized studies include Edgar Finley Shannon, Tennyson and the Reviewers (1952); John Killham, Tennyson and the Princess: Reflections of an Age (1958); and R. W. Rader, Tennyson's Maude: The Biographical Genesis (1963). The reactions of Tennyson's first readers may be studied in John D. Jump, ed., Tennyson: The Critical Heritage (1967). □