Biography of Alfred Tennyson

Discover your
family's story.

Enter a grandparent's name to get started.

choose a state:
Start Now
Lord Tennyson
Lord Tennyson

Poet. The Victorians, as a whole, were a generation of fighters. They battled against Nature’s forces, subduing floods and mountain barriers, pestilence and the worst extremes of heat and cold; they also went forth into the market-place and battled with their fellow men for laws, for tariffs, for empire. Their triumphs, like those of the Romans, are mostly to be seen in the practical sphere. But there were others of that day who chose the contemplative life of the recluse, and who yet, by high imaginings, contributed in no less degree to enrich the fame of their age; and among these the first name is that of Alfred Tennyson, the most representative of Victorian poets.

His early environment may be said to have marked him out for such a life. He was born in one of the remotest districts of a rural county. The village of Somersby lies in a hollow among the Lincolnshire wolds, twenty miles east of Lincoln, midway between the small towns of Spilsby, Horncastle, and Louth. There are no railways to disturb its peace; no high roads or broad rivers to bring trade to its doors. The ‘cold rivulet’ that rises just above the village flows down some twenty miles to lose itself in the sea near Skegness; in the valley the alders sigh and the aspens quiver, while around are rolling hills covered by long fields of corn broken by occasional spinneys. It is not a country to draw tourists for its own sake; but Tennyson knew, as few other poets know, the charm that human association lends to the simplest English landscape, and he cherished the memory of these scenes long after he had gone to live among the richer beauties of the south. From the garners of memory he drew the familiar features of this homely land showing that he had forgotten

No grey old grange, or lonely fold,
Or low morass and whispering reed,
Or simple stile from mead to mead,
Or sheepwalk up the winding wold.

There are days when the wolds seem dreary and monotonous; but if change is wanted, a long walk or an easy drive will take us from Somersby, as it often took the Tennyson brothers, to the coast at Mablethorpe, where the long rollers of the North Sea beat upon the sand hills that guard the flat stretches of the marshland. Here the poet as a child used to lie upon the beach, his imagination conjuring up Homeric pictures of the Grecian fleet besieging Troy; and if, on his last visit before leaving Lincolnshire, he found the spell broken, he could still describe vividly what he saw with the less fanciful vision of manhood.

Grey sandbanks, and pale sunsets, dreary wind,
Dim shores, dense rains, and heavy-clouded sea!

These wide expanses of sea, sand, and sky figure many times in his poetry and furnish a background for the more tragic scenes in the Idylls of the King.

Nor does the vicarage spoil the harmony of the scene, an old-fashioned low rambling house, to which a loftier hall adjoining, with its Gothic windows, lends a touch of distinction. The garden with one towering sycamore and the wych-elms, that threw long shadows on the lawn, opened on to the parson’s field, where on summer mornings could be heard the sweep of the scythe in the dewy grass. Here Tennyson’s father had been rector for some years when his fourth child Alfred was born in August 1809, the year which also saw the birth of Darwin and Gladstone. The family was a large one; there were eight sons and four daughters, the last of whom was still alive in 1916. Alfred’s education was as irregular as a poet’s could need to be, consisting of a few years’ attendance at Louth Grammar School, where he suffered from the rod and other abuses of the past, and of a larger number spent in studying literature at home under his father’s guidance. These left him a liberal amount of leisure, which he devoted to reading at large, and roaming the countryside. His father was a man of mental cultivation far beyond the average, well fitted to expand the mind of a boy of literary tastes and to lead him on at a pace suited to his abilities. He had suffered from disappointments, which had thrown a shadow over his life, having been disinherited capriciously by his father, who was a wealthy man and a Member of Parliament. The inheritance passed to the second brother, who took the name of Tennyson d’Eyncourt; and though the Rector resented the injustice of the act, he did not allow it to embitter the relations between his own children and their cousins. His character was of the stern, dominating order, and both his parishioners and his children stood in awe of him; but the gentle nature of their mother made amends. She is described by Edward FitzGerald, the poet’s friend, as ‘one of the most innocent and tender-hearted ladies I ever met, devoted to husband and children’. In her youth she had been a noted beauty, and in her old age was not too unworldly to remember that she had received twenty-five proposals of marriage. It was from her that the family derived their beauty of feature; while in their strength of intellect they resembled rather their father. One of Alfred’s earliest literary passions was a love of Byron, and he remembered in after life how as a child he had carved on a rock the woeful tidings that his hero was dead. In this period he was already writing poetry himself, though he did not publish his first volume till after he had gone up to Cambridge.

From this home life, filled with leisurely reading, rambling, and dreaming, he was sent in 1828 to join his brother Frederick at Trinity College, Cambridge, and he came into residence in February of that year. Cambridge has been called the poets’ University. Here in early days came Spenser and Milton, Dryden and Gray; and-in the generation preceding Tennyson-Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron had followed in their steps. However little we can trace directly the development of the poetic gift to local influence, at least we can say that Tennyson gained greatly by the time he spent within its walls. He came up an unknown man without family connexions to help him, and without the hall-mark of any famous school upon him. Shy and retiring by nature as he was, he might easily have failed to win his way to notice. But there was something in his appearance, in his manner, and in the personality that lay behind, which never failed to impress observers, and gradually he attached to himself the most brilliant undergraduates of his time and became a leader among them. Thackeray and FitzGerald were in residence; but it was not till later that he came to know them well, and we hear more of Spedding (the editor of Bacon), of Alford and Merivale (deans of Canterbury and Ely), of Trench (Archbishop of Dublin), of Lushington, who married one of his sisters, and of Arthur Hallam, who was engaged to another sister at the time of his early death. Hallam came from Eton, where his greatest friend had been W. E. Gladstone, and he had not been long at Cambridge before he was led by kindred tastes and kindred nature into close friendship with Tennyson. In the judgment of all who knew him, a career of the highest usefulness and distinction was assured to him. His intellectual force and his high aspirations would have shone in the public service; and at least they won him thus early the affection of the noblest among his compeers, and a fame that is almost unique in English literature.

Much has been written about the society which these young men formed and which they called ‘the Apostles’. The name has been thought to suggest a certain complacency and mutual admiration. But enough letters and personal recollections of their talk have been preserved to show how simple and unaffected the members were in their intercourse with one another. They had their enthusiasms, but they had also their jests. Their humor was not perhaps the boisterous fun of William Morris and Rossetti, but it was lively and buoyant enough to banish all suspicion of priggishness. Just because their enthusiasm was for the best in literature and art, Tennyson was quickly at home among them. Already he had learnt at home to love Shakespeare and Milton, Coleridge and Keats, and no effort was required, in this circle of friends, to keep his reading upon this high level. Lycidas was always a special favorite of Tennyson’s, and appreciation of it seemed to him a sure ‘touchstone of poetic taste’. In conversation he did not tend to declaim or monopolize the talk. He was noted rather for short sayings and for criticisms tersely expressed. He had his moods, contemplative, genial or gay; but all his utterances were marked by independence of thought, and his silence could be richer than the speech of other men. But for display he had no liking. In fact, so reluctant was he to face an audience of strangers, that when in 1829 it was his duty to recite his prize poem in the senate-house, he obtained leave for Merivale to read it on his behalf. On the other hand, he was ready enough to impart to his real friends the poems that he wrote from time to time, and he would pass pleasant hours with them reciting old ballads and reading aloud the plays of Shakespeare. His sonorous voice, his imagination, and his feeling for all the niceties of rhythm made his reading unusually impressive, as we know from the testimony of many who heard him.

The course of his education is, in fact, more truly to be found in this free companionship than in the lecture room or the examination hall. His opinion of the teaching, which he received from the Dons, was formed and expressed in a sonnet of 1830, though he refrained from publishing it for half a century. He addresses them as ‘you that do profess to teach and teach us nothing, feeding not the heart’-and complains of their indifference to the movements of their own age and to the needs of their pupils. For, despite the ferment which was spreading in the realms of theology, of politics, and of natural science, the Dons still taught their classics in the dry pedantic manner of the past, and refused to face the problems of the nineteenth century. For Tennyson, whose mind was already capacious and deep, these problems had a constant attraction, and he had to fall back upon solitary musings and on talks with Hallam and other friends. Partly perhaps because he missed the more rigorous training of the schools, we have to wait another ten years before we see marks of his deeper thinking in his work. He was but groping and feeling his way. In the ‘Poems, chiefly Lyrical’ which he produced in 1830, rich images abound, play of fancy and beauty of expression; but there are few signs of the power of thought which he was to show in later volumes.

After three years thus spent, by no means unfruitful, though it was only by his prize poem of ‘Timbuctoo’ that he won public honors, he was called away from Cambridge by family troubles and returned to Somersby in February 1831. His father had broken down in health, and a month later he died, suddenly and peacefully, in his armchair. After the rector’s death an arrangement was made that the family should continue to inhabit the Rectory; and Tennyson, who was now his mother’s chief help and stay, settled down to a studious life at home, varied by occasional visits to London. The habit of seclusion was already forming. He was much given to solitary walking and to spending his evening in an attic reading by himself. But this was not due to moroseness or selfishness, as we can see from his intercourse with family and friends. He would willingly give hours to reading aloud to his mother, or sit listening happily while his sisters played music. From this time indeed he seems to have taken his father’s place in the home; and with Hallam and other friends he continued on the same affectionate terms. He had not Dickens’s buoyant temper and love of company, nor did he indulge in the splenetic outbursts of Carlyle. He could, when it was needed, find time to fulfill the humblest duties and then return with contentment to his solitude. But his thoughts seemed naturally to lift him above the level of others, and he was most truly himself when he was alone. Apart from his eyesight, which began to trouble him at this time, he was enjoying good health, which he maintained by a steady regime of physical exercise. His strength and his good looks were alike remarkable. As his friend Brookfield laughingly said, ‘It was not fair that he should be Hercules as well as Apollo’.

Another volume of verse appeared in 1832; and its appearance seems to have been due rather to the urgent persuasion of his friends than to his own eagerness to appear in print. Though J. S. Mill and a few other critics wrote with good judgment and praised the book, it met with a cold reception in most places, and the Quarterly Review, regardless of its blunder over Keats, spoke of it in most contemptuous terms. All can recognize today how unfair this was to the merits of a volume which contained the ‘Lotos-Eaters’, ‘Oenone’, and the ‘Lady of Shalott’; but the effect of the harsh verdict on the poet, always sensitive about the reception of his work, was unfortunate to a degree. For a time it seemed likely to chill his ardor and stifle his poetic gifts at the very age when they ought to be bearing fruit. He writes of himself at this time as ‘moping like an owl in an ivy bush, or as that one sparrow which the Hebrew mentioneth as sitting on the house-top’; and, despite his friendship with Hallam, which was closer than ever since the latter’s engagement to his sister Emily, he had thoughts of settling abroad in France or Italy, since he found, or fancied that he found, in England too unsympathetic an atmosphere.

Such a decision would have been disastrous. Residence abroad might suit the robust, many-sided genius of Robert Browning with his gift for interpreting the thoughts of other nations and other times; it would have been fatal to Tennyson, whose affections were rooted in his native soil, and who had a special call to speak to Englishmen of English scenes and English life.

The following year brought him a still severer shock in the loss of his beloved friend, Arthur Hallam, who was taken ill at Vienna and died there a few days later, to the deep sorrow of all who knew him. Many besides Tennyson have borne witness to his character and gifts; thanks to their tribute, and above all to the verses of In Memoriam, though his life was all too short to realize the promise of his youth, his name will be preserved. The gradual growth of Tennyson’s elegy can be discerned from the letters of his friends, to whom from time to time he read some of the stanzas, which he had completed. Even in the first winter after Hallam’s death, he wrote a few lines in the manuscript book which he kept by him for the purpose during the next fifteen years, and which he was within an ace of losing in 1850, just when the poem was completed and ready for publication. As a statesman turns from his private sorrow to devote himself to a public cause, so the poet’s instinct was to find comfort in the practice of his art. Under the stress of feelings aroused by this event and under the influence of a wider reading, his mind was maturing. We hear of a steady discipline of mental work, of hours given methodically to Italian and German, to theology and history, to chemistry, botany, and other branches of science. Above all, he pondered now, as he did later so constantly, on the mystery of death and life after death. Outwardly this seems the most uneventful period of his career; but, in their effect on his mind and work, these years were very far from being wasted. When next, in 1842, he emerges from seclusion to offer his verses to the public; he had enlarged the range of his subjects and deepened his powers of thought. We see less richness in the images, less freedom in the play of fancy, but there is a firmer grip of character, a surer handling of the problems affecting the life of man. Underground was flowing the hidden stream of In Memoriam, unknown save to the few; only in part were the fruits of this period to be seen in the two volumes containing ‘English Idyls’ and other new poems, along with a selection of earlier lyrics now revised and reprinted.

The distinctive quality of the book is given by the word Idyl, which was to be so closely connected with Tennyson’s fame. Here he is working in a small compass, but he breaks fresh ground in describing scenes of English village life, and shows that he has used his gifts of observation to good purpose. Better than the slight sketches of character, of girls and their lovers, of farmers and their children, are the landscapes in which they are set; and many will remember the charming passages in which he describes the morning songs of birds in a garden, or the twinkling of evening lights in the still waters of a harbor. More original and more full of lyrical fervor was ‘Locksley Hall’, where he expresses many thoughts that were stirring the younger spirits of his day. Perhaps the most perfect workmanship, in a volume where much calls for admiration, is to be found in ‘Ulysses’, which the poet’s friend Monckton Milnes gave to Sir Robert Peel to read, in order to convince him that Tennyson’s work merited official recognition. His treatment of the hero is as far from the classical spirit as anything, which William Morris wrote. He preserves little of the directness or fierce temper of the early epic. Rather does his Ulysses think and speak like some bold adventurer of the Renaissance, with the combination of ardent curiosity and reflective thought which was the mark of that age. Even so Tennyson himself, as he passed from youth to middle life, and from that to old age, was ever trying to achieve one more ‘work of noble note’, and yearning

To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

But between this and the production of his next volume comes the most unhappy period in the poet’s career, when his friends for a time despaired of his future and even of his life. At the marriage of his brother Charles in 1836, Tennyson had fallen in love with the bride’s sister, Emily Sellwood; and in the course of the next three or four years they became informally engaged to one another. But his prospects of earning enough money to support a wife seemed so remote that in 1840 her family insisted on breaking off the engagement, and the lovers ceased to write to one another. Even the volumes of 1842, while winning high favour with cultivated readers, and stirring enthusiasm at the Universities, failed to attract the larger public and to make a success in the market. So when he sustained a further blow in the loss of his small fortune owing to an unwise investment, his health gave way and he fell into a dark mood of hypochondria. His star seemed to be sinking, just as he was winning his way to fame. Thanks to medical attention, aided by his own natural strength and the affections of his friends, he was already rallying in 1845, when Peel conferred on him the timely honor of a pension; and he was able not only to continue working at In Memoriam, but also to produce in 1847 The Princess, which gives clear evidence of renewed cheerfulness and vigor. Dealing as it does, half humorously, with the question of woman’s education and her claim to a higher place in the scheme of life, it illustrates the interest which Tennyson, despite his seclusion, felt in social questions of the day. From this point of view it may be linked with Locksley Hall and Maud; but in The Princess the treatment is half humorous and the setting is more artificial. Tennyson’s lyrical power is seen at its best in the magical songs, which occur in the course of the story or interposed between the different scenes. They have deservedly won a place in all anthologies. His facility in the handling of blank verse is also remarkable. Lovers of Milton may regret the massive grandeur of an earlier style; but, as in every art, so in poetry, we pay for advance in technical accomplishment, in suppleness and melodious phrasing, by the loss of other qualities, which are difficult to recapture.

Meanwhile In Memoriam was approaching completion; and this the most central and characteristic of his poems illustrates, more truly than a narrative of outward events, the phases through which Tennyson had been passing. Desultory though the method of its production be, and loose ‘the texture of its fabric’, there is a certain sequence of thought running through the cantos. We see how from the first poignancy of grief, when he can only brood passively over his friend’s death, he was led to questioning the basis of his faith, shaken as it was by the claims of physical science-how from those doubts of his own, he was led to think of the universal trouble of the world-how at length by throwing himself into the hopes and aspiration of humanity he attained to victory and was able to put away his personal grief, believing that his friend’s soul was still working with him in the universe for the good of all. At intervals, during the three years mirrored in the poem, we get definite notes of time. We see how the poet is affected each year as the winter and the spring come round, and how the succeeding anniversaries of Hallam’s death stir the old pain in varying degree. But we must not suppose that each section was composed at the time represented in this scheme. Seventeen years went to the perfecting of the work; it is impossible to tell when each canto was first outlined and how often it was re-written; and we must be content with general notions of its development. The poet’s memory was fully charged. As he could recall so vividly the Lincolnshire landscape when he was living in the south, so he could portray the emotions of the past though he had entered on a new period of life fraught with a different spirit.

Thus many elements go to make up the whole, and readers of In Memoriam can choose what suits their mood. To some, who wish to compare the problems of different ages, chief interest will attach to that section where the active mind wakes up to the conflict between science and faith. It was a difficult age for poets and believers. The preceding generation had for a time been swept far from their bearings by the tornado of the French Revolution. Some of them found an early grave while still upholding the flag; others had won back to harbor when their youth was past and ended their days in calm-if not stagnant-waters. But the advance of scientific discoveries and the scientific spirit sapped the defenses of faith in more methodical fashion, and Tennyson’s mind was only too open to all the evidence of natural law and the stern lessons of the struggle for life. To understand the influence of Tennyson on his age it is necessary to inquire how he reconciled religion with science; but this is too large a subject for a biographical sketch, and valuable studies have been written which deal with it more or less fully, by Stopford Brooke and many others.

To Queen Victoria, and to others who had been stricken in their home affections, the human interest outweighed all others; the sorrow of those who gave little thought to systems of philosophy or religion was instinctively comforted by the note of faith in a future life and by the haunting melodies in which it found expression.

Many were content to return again and again to those passages where the beauty of nature is depicted in stanzas of wonderful felicity. No such gift of observation had yet ministered to their delight. Readers of Mrs. Gaskell will be reminded of the old farmer in Cranford reveling in the new knowledge, which he has gained of the color of ash-buds in March. So too we are taught to look afresh at larch woods in spring and beech woods in autumn, at the cedar in the garden and the yew tree in the churchyard. We are vividly conscious of the summer’s breeze, which tumbles the pears in the orchard, and the winter’s storm when the leafless ribs of the wood clang and gride. As the perfect stanza lingers in our memory, our eyes are opened and we are taught to observe the marvels of nature for ourselves. Here, more than anywhere else, is he the true successor of Wordsworth, the Wordsworth of the daisy, the daffodil, and the lesser celandine, though following a method of his own-at once a disciple and a master.

But other influences than those of nature were coming into his life. In 1837 the Tennyson family had been compelled to leave Somersby; and the poet, recluse though he was, showed that he could rouse himself to meet a practical emergency with good sense. He took charge of all arrangements and transplanted his mother successively to new homes in Essex and Kent. This brought him nearer to London and enlarged considerably his circle of friends. The list of men of letters who welcomed him there is a long one, from Samuel Rogers to the Rossettis, and includes poets, novelists, historians, scholars, and scientists. The most interesting, to him and to us, was Carlyle, then living at Chelsea, who had published his French Revolution in 1837, and had thereby become notable among literary men. Carlyle’s judgments on the poet and his poems have often been quoted. At first he was more than contemptuous over the latter, and exhorted Tennyson to leave verse and rhyme and apply himself to prose. But familiar converse, in which both men spoke their opinions without reserve, soon enlightened ‘the sage’, and he delighted in his new friend. Long after, in 1879, he confessed that ‘Alfred always from the beginning took a grip at the right side of every question’. He could not fail to appreciate the man when he saw him in the flesh, and it is he who has left us the most striking picture of Tennyson’s appearance in middle life. In 1842 he wrote to Emerson: ‘Alfred is one of the few… figures who are and remain beautiful to me; -a true human soul… one of the finest-looking men in the world. A great shock of rough dusty-dark hair, bright-laughing hazel eyes, massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate, of sallow-brown complexion, almost Indian-looking; clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy; -smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical metallic, -fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous: I do not meet, in these late decades, such company over a pipe!’ Not only were pipes smoked at home, but walks were taken in the London streets at night, with much free converse, in which art both were masters, but of which Carlyle, no doubt, had the larger share. Tennyson was a master of the art of silence, which Carlyle could praise but never practice; but when he spoke his remarks rarely failed to strike the bell.

Another comrade worthy of special notice was FitzGerald, famous today as the translator of Omar Khayyam, and also as the man whom two great authors, Tennyson and Thackeray, named as their most cherished friend. He was living a hermit’s life in Suffolk, dividing his day between his yacht, his garden, and his books; and writing, when he was in the humor, those gossipy letters that have placed him as a classic with Cowper and Lamb. From time to time he would come to London for a visit to a picture gallery or an evening with his friends; and for many years he never failed to write once a year for news of the poet, whose books he might criticize capriciously, but whose image was always fresh in his affectionate heart. Of his old Cambridge circle Tennyson honored, above all others, ‘his domeship’ James Spedding, of the massive rounded head, of the rare judgment in literature, of the unselfish and faithful discharge of all the duties which he could take upon himself. Great as was his edition of Bacon, he was by the common consent of his friends far greater than anything, which he achieved, and his memory is most worthily preserved in the letters of Tennyson, and of others who knew him. In London he was present at gatherings where Landor and Leigh Hunt represented the elder generation of poets; but he was more familiar with his contemporaries Henry Taylor and Aubrey de Vere. It is the latter who gives us an interesting account of two meetings between Wordsworth and his successor in the Laureateship. The occasions when Tennyson and Browning met one another and read their poetry aloud were also cherished in the memory of those friends who were fortunate enough to be present. Differing as they did in temperament and in tastes, they were rivals in generosity to one another and indeed to all their brethren who wielded the pen of the writer. To meet such choice spirits Tennyson would leave for a while his precious solitude and his books. London could not be his home, but it became a place of pleasant meetings and of friendships in which he found inspiration and help.

Thus it was that Tennyson spent the quiet years of meditation and study before he achieved his full renown. This was no such sensational event as Byron’s meteoric appearance in 1812; but one year, 1850, is a clear landmark in his career. This was the date of the publication of In Memoriam and of his appointment, on the death of Wordsworth, to the office of Poet Laureate. This year saw the end of his struggle with ill fortune and the end of his long courtship. In June he was married, at Shiplake on the Thames, to Emily Sellwood. Henceforth his happiness was assured and he knew no more the restlessness and melancholy which had clouded his enjoyment of life. His course was clear, and for forty years his position was hardly questioned in all lands where the English tongue was spoken. Noble companies of worshippers might worthily swear allegiance to Thackeray and Browning; but by the voice of the people Dickens and Tennyson were enthroned supreme.

To deal with all the volumes of poetry that Tennyson published between 1850 and his death would be impossible within the limits of these pages. In some cases he reverted to themes which he had treated before and he preserved for many years the same skill in craftsmanship. But in Maud, in The Idylls of the King, and in the historical dramas, unquestionably, he broke new ground.

Partly on account of the scheme of the poem, partly for the views expressed on questions of the day, Maud provoked more hostile criticism than anything, which he wrote; yet it seems to have been the poet’s favorite work. The story of its composition is curious. It was suggested by a short lyric, which Tennyson had printed privately in 1837 beginning with the words ‘Oh, that ’twere possible after long grief’. His friend, Sir John Simeon, urged him to write a poem which would lead up to and explain it; and the poet, adopting the idea, used Maud as a vehicle for much which he was feeling in the disillusionment of middle life. The form of a monodrama was unfamiliar to the public and has difficulties of its own. Tennyson has combined action, proceeding somewhat spasmodically, with a skilful study of character, showing us the exaggerated sensibility of a nature, which under the successive influence of misanthropy, hope, love, and tragic disappointment, may easily pass beyond the borderland of insanity. In the scene where love is triumphant, Tennyson touches the highest point of lyrical passion; but there are jarring notes introduced in the satirical descriptions of Maud’s brother and of the rival who aspires to her hand. And in the later cantos where, after the fatal quarrel, the hero is driven to moody thoughts and dark presages of woe, there are passages which seem to be charged with the doctrine that England was being corrupted by long peace and needed the purifying discipline of war. For this the poet was taken to task by his critics; and, though it is unfair in dramatic work to attribute to an author the words of his characters, Tennyson found it difficult to clear himself of suspicion, the more so that the Crimean War inspired at this time some of his most popular martial ballads and songs.

The Idylls of the King had a different fate and achieved instant popularity. The first four were published in 1859 and within a few months 10,000 copies were sold. Tennyson’s original design, formed early in life, had been to build a single epic on the Arthurian theme, which seemed to him to give scope, like Virgil’s Aeneid, for patriotic treatment. ‘The greatest of all poetical subjects’ he called it, and it haunted his mind perpetually. But if Virgil found such a task difficult nineteen hundred years before, it was doubly difficult for Tennyson to satisfy his generation, with scientific historians raking the ash heaps of the past, and pedants demanding local color. In shaping his poem to meet the requirements of history he was in danger of losing that breadth of treatment, which is essential for epic poetry. He fell back on the device of selecting episodes, each a complete picture in itself, and grouping them round a single hero. The story is placed in the twilight between the Roman withdrawal and the conquests of the Saxons, when the lamp of history was glimmering most faintly. In these troublous times a king is miraculously sent to be a bulwark to the people against the inroads of their foes. He founds an order of Knighthood bound by vows to fight for all just and noble causes, and upholds for a time victoriously the standard of chivalry within his realm, till through the entrance of sin and treachery the spell is broken and the heathen overrun the land. After his last battle, in the far west of our island, the king passes away to the supernatural world from which he came. This last episode had been handled many years before, and the ‘Morte d’Arthur’, which had appeared in the volume of 1842, was incorporated into the ‘Passing of Arthur’ to close the series of Idylls.

With what admixture of allegory this story was set out it is hard to say-Tennyson himself could not in later years be induced to define his purpose-but it seems certain that many of the characters are intended to symbolize higher and lower qualities. According to some interpretations King Arthur stands for the power of conscience and Queen Guinevere for the heart. Galahad represents purity; Bors rough honesty, Percivale humility, and Merlin the power of the intellect, which is too easily beguiled by treachery. So the whole story is moralized by the entrance, through Guinevere and Lancelot, of sin; by the gradual fading, through the lightness of one or the treachery of another, of the brightness of chivalry; and by the final ruin, which shatters the fair ideal.

But there is no need to darken counsel by questions about history or allegory, if we wish, first and last, to enjoy poetry, for its own sake. Here, as in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, forth go noble knights with gentle maidens through the enchanted scenes of fairyland; for their order and its vows they are ready to dare all. Lawlessness is tamed and cruelty is punished, and no perilous quest presents itself but there is a champion ready to follow it to the end. And if severe critics tell us that they find no true gift of story-telling here, let us go for a verdict to the young. They may not be good judges of style, or safe interpreters of shades of thought, but they know when a story carries them away; and the Idylls of the King, like the Waverley Novels, have captured the heart of many a lover of literature who has not yet learnt to question his instinct or to weigh his treasures in the scales of criticism. And older readers may find themselves kindled to enthusiasm by reflective passages rich in high aspiration, or charmed by descriptions of nature as beautiful as anything, which Tennyson wrote.

In the historical plays, which occupied a large part of his attention between 1874 and 1879, Tennyson undertook a yet harder task. He chose periods when national issues of high importance were at stake, such as the conflict between the Church and the Crown, between the domination of the priest and the claim of the individual to freedom of belief. He put aside all exuberance of fancy and diction as unsuited to tragedy; he handled his theme with dignity and at times with force, and attained a literary success to which Browning and other good judges bore testimony. Of Becket in particular he made a sympathetic figure, which, in the skilful hands of Henry Irving, won considerable favour upon the stage. But the times were out of joint for the poetic drama, and he had not the rich imagination of Shakespeare, nor the power to create living men and women who compel our hearts to pity, to horror, or to delight. For the absence of this no studious reading of history, no fine sentiment, no noble cadences, can make amends, and it seems doubtful whether future ages will regard the plays as anything but a literary curiosity.

On the other hand, nothing, which he wrote, has touched the human heart more genuinely than the poems of peasant life, some of them written in the broadest Lincolnshire dialect, which Tennyson produced during the years in which he was engaged on the Idylls and the plays. ‘The Grandmother’, ‘The Northern Cobbler’, and the two poems on the Lincolnshire farmers of following generations, were as popular as anything which the Victorian Age produced, and seem likely to keep their pre-eminence. The two latter illustrate, by their origin, Tennyson’s power of seizing on a single impression, and building on it a work of creative genius. It was enough for him to hear the anecdote of the dying farmer’s words, ‘God A’mighty little knows what he’s about in taking me! And Squire will be mad’; and he conceived the character of the man, and his absorption in the farm where he had lived and worked and around which he grouped his conceptions of religion and duty. The later type of farmer was evoked similarly by a quotation in the dialect of his county: ‘When I canters my herse along the ramper, I ‘ears “proputty, proputty, proputty”‘; and again Tennyson achieved a triumph of characterization. It is here perhaps that he comes nearest to the achievements of his great rival Browning in the field of dramatic lyrics.

Apart from the writing and publication of his poems, we cannot divide Tennyson’s later life into definite sections. By 1850 his habits had been formed, his friendships established, his fame assured; such landmarks as are furnished by the birth of his children, by his journeyings abroad, by the homes in which he settled, point to no essential change in the current of his life. Of the perfect happiness which marriage brought to him, of the charm and dignity which enabled Mrs. Tennyson to hold her place worthily at his side, many witnesses have spoken. Two sons were born to him, one of whom died in 1886, while the other, named after his lost friend, lived to write the Memoir which will always be the chief authority for our knowledge of the man. His homes soon became household words-so great was the spell, which Tennyson cast over the hearts of his readers. Farringford, at the western end of the Isle of Wight, was first tenanted by him in 1853, and was bought in 1856. Here the poet enjoyed perfect quiet, a genial climate and the proximity of the sea, for which his love never failed. It was a very different coast to the bleak sand hills and wide flats of Mablethorpe. Above Freshwater the noble line of the Downs rises and falls as it runs westward to the Needles, where it plunges abruptly into the sea; and here on the springy turf, a tall romantic figure in wide-brimmed hat and flowing cloak, the poet would often walk. But Farringford, lying low in the shelter of the hills, proved too hot in summer; Freshwater was discovered by tourists too often inquisitive about the great; and so, after ten or twelve years, he was searching for another home, some remoter fastness set on higher ground. This he discovered on the borders of Surrey and Sussex near Haslemere, where Black Down rises to a height of 900 feet above the sea and commands a wide prospect over the blue expanse of the weald. Here he found copses and commons haunted by the song of birds, here he raised plantations close at hand to shelter him from the rude northern winds, and here he built the stately house of Aldworth where, some thirty years later, he was to die.

To both houses came frequent guests. For, shy as he was of paying visits, he loved to see in his own house men and women who could talk to him as equals-nor was he always averse to those of reverent temper, so they were careful not to jar on his fastidious tastes. In some ways it was a pity that he did not come to closer quarters with the rougher forces that were fermenting in the industrial districts. It might have helped him to a better understanding of the classes that were pushing to the front, who were to influence so profoundly the England of the morrow. But the strain of kindly sympathy in Tennyson’s nature can be seen at its best in his intercourse with cottagers, sailors, and other humble folk who lived near his doors. The stories, which his son tells us, show how the poet was able to obtain an insight into their minds and to write poems like ‘The Grandmother’ with artistic truth. And no visitor received a heartier welcome at Farringford than Garibaldi, who was at once peasant and sailor, and who remained so none the less when he had become a hero of European fame. To Englishmen of nearly every cultured profession Tennyson’s hospitality was freely extended-we need only instance Professor Tyndall, Dean Bradley, James Anthony Froude, Aubrey de Vere, G. F. Watts, Henry Irving, Hubert Parry, Lord Dufferin, and that most constant of friends, Benjamin Jowett, pre-eminent among the Oxford celebrities of the day. Among his immediate neighbors he conceived a peculiar affection for Sir John Simeon, whose death in 1870 called forth the stanzas ‘In the Garden at Swainston’; and no one was more at home at Farringford than Julia Cameron, famous among early photographers, who has left us some of the best likenesses of the poet in middle and later life.

Tennyson was not familiar with foreign countries to the same degree as Browning, nor was he ever a great traveler. When he went abroad he needed the help of some loyal friend, like Francis Palgrave or Frederick Locker, to safeguard him against pitfalls, and to shield him from annoyance. When he was too old to stand the fatigue of railway journeys, he was willing to be taken for a cruise on a friend’s yacht; and thus he visited many parts of Scotland and the harbors of Scandinavia. Amid new surroundings he was not always easy to please; bad food or smelly streets would call forth loud protests and upset him for a day; but his friends found it worth their while to risk some anxiety in order to enjoy his keen observation and the originality of his talk. Wherever he went he took with him his stored wisdom on Homer, Dante, and the ‘Di maiores’ of literature; and when Gladstone, too, happened to be one of the party on board ship, the talk must have been well worth hearing. As in his youth, so now, Tennyson’s mind moved most naturally on a lofty plane and he was most at home with the great poets of the past; and with the exception of a few poems like ‘All along the valley’, where the torrents at Cauteretz reminded him of an early visit with Hallam to the Pyrenees, we can trace little evidence in his poetry of the journeys which he made. But we can see from his letters that he was kindled by the beauty of Italian cities and their treasures. In every picture-gallery, which he visited, he showed his preference for Titian and the rich color of the Venetian painters. He refused to be bound by the conventional English taste for Alpine scenery, and broke out into abuse of the discolored water in the Grindelwald glacier-’a filthy thing, and looking as if a thousand London seasons had passed over it’. In all places, among all people, he said what he thought and felt, with independence and conviction.

One incident connecting him with Italy is worthy of mention as showing that the poet, who ‘from out the northern island’ came at times to visit them, was known and esteemed by the people of Italy. When the Mantuans celebrated in 1885 the nineteenth centenary of the death of Virgil, the classic poet to whom Tennyson owed most, they asked him to write an ode, and nobly he rose to the occasion, attaining a felicity of phrase which is hardly excelled in the choicest lines of Virgil himself. But it is as the laureate of his own country that he is of primary interest, and it is time to inquire how he fulfilled the functions of his office, and how he rendered that office of value to the State.

When he was first appointed, Queen Victoria had let him know that he was to be excused from the obligation of writing complimentary verse to celebrate the doings of the court. Of his own accord he composed occasional odes for the marriages of her sons, and showed some of his practiced skill in dignifying such themes; but it is not here that he found his work as laureate. He achieved greater success in the poems, which he wrote to honor the exploits of our army and navy, in the past or the present. In his ballad of ‘The Revenge’, in his Balaclava poems, in the ‘Siege of Lucknow’, he struck a heroic note, which found a ready echo in the hearts of soldiers and sailors and those who love the services. Above all, in the great ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington he has stirred all the chords of national feeling as no other laureate before him, and has enriched our literature with a jewel, which is beyond price.

The Arthurian epic failed to achieve its national aim, and the historical dramas, though inspired by great principles, which have helped to shape our history, never touched those large circles to which as laureate he should appeal. Some might judge that his function was best fulfilled in the lyrics to be found scattered throughout his work, which praise the slow, ordered progress of English liberties. Passages from Maud or In Memoriam will occur to many readers, still more the three lyrics generally printed together at the end of the 1842 poems, beginning with the well-known tines, ‘Of old sat Freedom on the heights’, ‘Love thou thy land’, and ‘You ask me why though ill at ease’. Here we listen to the voice of English Liberalism uttered in very different tones from those of Byron and Shelley, expressing the mind of one who recoiled from French Revolutions and had little sympathy with their aims of universal equality. In this he represented very truly that Victorian movement which was guided by Cobden and Mill, by Peel and Gladstone, which conferred such practical benefits upon the England of their day; but it is hardly the temper that we expect of an ardent poet, at any rate in the days of his youth. The burning passion of Carlyle, Ruskin, or William Morris, however tempered by other feelings, called forth a heartier response in the breast of the toiling multitudes.

It may be that the claim of Tennyson to popular sovereignty will, in the end, rest chiefly on the pleasure which he gave to many thousands of his fellow-countrymen, a pleasure to be renewed and found again in English scenes, and in thoughts which colored grey lives and warmed cold hearts, which shed the ray of faith on those who could accept no creeds and who yet yearned for some hope of an after-life to cheer their declining days. That he gave this pleasure is certain-to men and women of all classes from Samuel Bamford, the Durham weaver, who saved his pence to buy the precious volumes of the ‘thirties, to Queen Victoria on her throne, who in the reading of In Memoriam found one of her chief consolations in the hour of widowhood.

It was given to Tennyson to live a long life, and to know more joy than sorrow-to be gladdened by the homage of two hemispheres, to lament the loss of his old friends who went before him (Spedding in 1881, FitzGerald in 1883, Robert Browning in 1889), to write his most famous lyric ‘Crossing the Bar’ at the age of 80, and to be soothed and strengthened to the end by the presence of his wife. For some weeks in the autumn of 1892 he lay in growing weakness at Aldworth taking farewell of the sights and sounds that he had loved so long. To him now it had come to hear with dying ears ‘the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds’ and to see with dying eyes ‘the casement slowly grow a glimmering square’. Early on October 5 he had an access of energy, and called to have the blinds drawn up-’I want’, he said, ‘to see the sky and the light’. The next day he died, and a week later a country wagon bore the coffin to Haslemere. Thence it passed to Westminster, where his dust was to be laid beside that of Browning, among the great men who had gone before. In what mood he faced death we can learn from his own words:

Spirit, nearing yon dark portal at the limit of thy human state,
Fear not thou the hidden purpose of that Power which alone is great,
Nor the myriad world, His shadow, nor the silent Opener of the Gate!



MLA Source Citation:

Blore, George Henry. Victorian Worthies, Sixteen Biographies. Oxford University Press, England. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 26 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-alfred-tennyson.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013


Categories:
Topics: ,
Locations: , , ,
Surnames:

Contribute to the Conversation!

Our "rules" are simple. Keep the conversation on subject and mind your manners! If this is your first time posting, we do moderate comments before we let them appear... so give us a while to get to them. Once we get to know you here, we'll remove that requirement.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Newsletter Signup

We currently provide two newsletters. Why not take both for a run?

Genealogy Update: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new, or significantly updated, collection or database on our website.

Circle of Nations: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new (or significantly updated) Native American collection or database on our website.

Once you've clicked on the Subscribe button above you'll receive an email from us requesting confirmation. You must confirm the email before you will be able to receive any newsletter.