Tennyson, Alfred

views updated


TENNYSON, ALFRED (1809–1892), English poet and the leading representative of Victorian verse.

Born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a precocious child who wrote poems after the styles of John Milton (1608–1674) and the British Romantics.

In November 1827 Tennyson entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where his standing as a poet grew and in June 1829 he won the chancellor's gold medal for his poem, Timbuctoo. The death of his father in March 1831 revealed his family's deep financial indebtedness, and Tennyson left Cambridge without taking a degree.

In 1832 Tennyson published Poems, a volume that included "The Lotos-Eaters" and "The Lady of Shalott." Reviewers' attacks deeply distressed the self-critical Tennyson, but he continued to revise his old poems and compose new ones.

In September 1833, Tennyson's close Cambridge friend Arthur Hallam died suddenly. The loss of Hallam, recently engaged to marry Tennyson's sister Cecilia, dealt a serious blow to Tennyson. He soon drafted "Ulysses," "Morte d'Arthur" and "Tithonus"—three poems prompted by the death, but all with strong classical echoes that spoke to his expressly modern and personal sentiments.

Between 1832 and 1842 Tennyson published no new volumes, but he edited and wrote much during this melancholic period, initiating In Memoriam, which celebrated Hallam, "The Two Voices" (originally entitled "Thoughts of a Suicide") and his "English Idylls." In 1842 Tennyson published Poems to unfavorable reviews. The volume included "Morte d'Arthur," "Locksley Hall," and "The Vision of Sin." That same year the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), granted him a pension of £200 for life, easing his financial burden. In 1847 Tennyson published his first long poem, The Princess, a conservative view of university education for women.

On 13 June 1850, Tennyson married Emily Sellwood, after a very long and uncertain courtship, due in part to her father's early disapproval of Tennyson's unorthodox lifestyle and liberal religious views.

The year 1850 also marked a professional turning point. Tennyson anonymously published In Memoriam, which enjoyed tremendous success and won him the favor of Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901), who helped bring about his appointment as poet laureate that same year. Tennyson had finally secured his reputation and finances.

A massive poem, In Memoriam captured the public imagination, highlighting many concerns of the Victorian age as the author searched for the meaning of life and death and tried to come to terms with the loss of his friend. The poem struggles with religious doubt and faith, weighing spiritual belief in immortality against emerging scientific theories of evolution, astronomy, and modern geology. Tennyson cemented his position as national poet with his Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington (1852) and a poem about the 25 October 1855 Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava in the Crimea in Maud and Other Poems (1855).

In 1859 Tennyson published the first four parts of Idylls of the King, a series of twelve connected poems that reviewed the legend of King Arthur, in whom he held a lifelong interest. He held Arthur up as an exemplar of human spirituality, while the poems infused elements of traditional romance with middle class Victorian morality. The poems were an immediate success and thrust upon Tennyson an undesired public fame, which rose with further publications, such as Enoch Arden (1864).

In September 1883 Tennyson accepted a peer-age as First Baron and took his seat in the House of Lords in March 1884. In 1886 he published a new volume containing "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," which assaulted modern decadence and liberalism and retracted the earlier poem's belief in inevitable human progress.

In the last two decades of his life Tennyson also turned to poetic drama, though his plays proved only moderate successes, broadcasting his growing disapproval of the religious, moral, and political tendencies of the age. His poem "The Ancient Sage," published in Tiresias and Other Poems (1885), aired a more hopeful suggestion of eternal life.

Tennyson remained productive well into old age. He wrote the elegy "Crossing the Bar" in October 1889 while crossing the Isle of Wight. Despite ill health, he finished his last volume, The Death of Oenone, Akbar's Dream, and Other Poems in 1892. He died on 6 October 1892 in Aldworth, Surrey, aged eighty-four.

Tennyson's fame was challenged during his own lifetime, when poets Robert Browning (1812–1889) and Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) emerged as rivals. Early twentieth-century critics, who held aloft the modernist approaches of such poets as William Butler Yeats (1859–1939) and T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) and celebrated the rediscovery of poets John Donne (1572–1631) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), further eroded Tennyson's reputation. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, appreciation for the abundance and variety of Tennyson's sweeping lyricism reemerged, most especially for his In Memoriam, "Crossing the Bar," and "Ulysses."

See alsoCarlyle, Thomas; Romanticism.


Martin, Robert Bernard. Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. Oxford, U.K., 1980.

Ormond, Leonée. Alfred Tennyson: A Literary Life. New York, 1993.

Richardson, Joanna. Pre-eminent Victorian, A Study of Tennyson. London, 1962.

Ricks, Christopher B. Tennyson. New York, 1972.

Tennyson, Charles. Alfred Tennyson. New York, 1949.

Stephen Vella