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by Bamber Gascoigne

Alfred Tennyson 1809-1892 - 1st Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Freshwater


English author often regarded as the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry. Alfred Tennyson succeeded William Wordsworth as Poet Laureate in 1850; he was appointed by Queen Victoria and served 42 years. Tennyson's works were melancholic, and reflected the moral and intellectual values of his time.

"Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake.
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me."

(from 'The Princess')

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, the fourth of twelve children. His father, George Clayton Tennyson, was a clergyman and rector, who was notoriously absentminded and suffered from depression. His dark moods cast a shadow over the family home. Tennyson's mother, Elizabeth (née Fytche), was a reverend's daughter.

The young Alfred began to write poetry at an early age in the style of Lord Byron. His first drama in blank verse he wrote at fourteen. After four unhappy school years at Louth, where he was bullied by fellow-students, he was tutored at home.

Tennyson then studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, but he did not aim at academic excellence. He joined the literary club 'The Apostles,' where he met Arthur Hallam, who became his closest friend. The undergraduate society discussed contemporary social, religious, scientific, and literary issues.

Encouraged by 'The Apostles,' Tennyson published Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), which included the popular 'Mariana.' The well-connnected Hallam placed anonymously a review in the Englishman's Magazine, in which he said: "There is a strange earnestness in his worship of beauty which throws a charm over his impassioned song, more easily felt than described, and not to be escaped by those who have once felt it." (from 'On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson') With Hallam he travelled on the Continent. By 1830, his friend had become engaged to his sister Emily. After his father's death in 1831, Tennyson returned to Somersby without a degree.

Poems (1833), Tennyson's next book, received unfavorable reviews, and he ceased to publish for nearly ten years. Hallam died suddenly on the same year in Vienna. It was a heavy blow to Tennyson. He began to write In Memoriam for his lost friend – the work took seventeen years to finish. A revised volume of Poems, which included the 'The Lady of Shalott' and 'The Lotus-eaters'.

'Morte d'Arthur' and 'Ulysses' appeared in the two-volume Poems (1842), and established his reputation as a writer. In 'Ulysses' Tennyson portrayed the Greek after his travels, longing past days: "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!" The Grail romances did not appeal to Tennyson's imagination and he came to write of the Holy Grail in the Idylls of the King (1859) reluctantly: "As to Macaulay's suggestion of the Sangreal I doubt whether such a subject could be handled in these days, without incurring a charge of irreverence. It would be too much like playing with sacred things," he explained in a letter to the duke of Argyll in October 1859. (The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson: Volume II: 1851-1870, edited by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., 1989, p. 244)

During his later years Tennyson produced some of his best poems. After marrying in 1850  Emily Sellwood, whom Tennyson had already met in 1830 and who had been the object of his affection for a long time, the couple settled in 1853 in Farringford, a house in Freshwater on the Isle of Wright. From there the family moved in 1869 to Aldworth, Surrey.

Tennyson's life was then uneventful. Emily ran two houses, provided lavish meals, and pampered her husband, who feared what he called "the black blood of the Tennysons" – "I am black-blooded like all the Tennysons. I remember all the malignant things said against me, but little of the praise," he said of himself. (Tennyson as Seen by His Parodists by Dr J. Postma, 1966, p. 86) In London he was a regular guest of the literary and artistic salon of Mrs Prinsep at Little Holland House. Tennyson's mother died in 1865. On the funeral day he wrote in his diary: "We all of us hate the pompous funeral we have to join in, black plumes, black coaches and nonsense. We should like all to go in white and gold rather, but convention is against us." (Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir: Volume 2 by Hallam Tennyson, 2012, pp. 18-19) 

Among Tennyson's major poetic achievements the elegy mourning the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam (1850). The personal sorrow led the poet to explore his thoughts on faith, immortality, and the meaning of loss: "O life as futile, then, as frail! / O for thy voice to soothe and bless! / What hope of answer, or redress? / Behind the veil, behind the veil." Among its other passages is a symbolic voyage ending in a vision of Hallam as the poet's muse. Some critics have seen in the work ideas that anticipated Darwin's theory of natural selection: "Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation's final law – / Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek'd against his creed – ". Tennyson  was born in the same year as Darwin, but his view about natural history, however, was based on catastrophe theory, not evolution.

"Into the jaws of death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred."

(from 'The Charge of the Light Brigade')

'The Charge of the Light Brigade' was first published in The Examiner, on December 9, 1854 and included Maud (1855). At first Maud was found obscure or morbid by critics ranging from George Eliot to Gladstone, but 'The Charge' became one of Tennyson's most frequently quoted works. It also inspired Michael Curtiz's adventure movie from 1936, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Its second title card stated: "The world is indebted to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria of Great Britain, for perpetuating in an epic poem one of the most distinguished events in history conspicuous for sheer valor . . . "Curtiz's film had little to do with the actual charge. The scenes were shot in California, not in the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

Historically the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean war brough to light the incompetent organization of the English army. But the historical facts were not Tennyson's reason for writing his famous work; the stupid mistake described by the poet (it was put casually: "Some one had blunder'd") honored the soldier's courage and heroic action. Tennyson picked up the word "blunder" from a Times Leader article: "The British soldier will do his duty, even to certain death, and is not paralyzed by feeling that he is the victim of some hideous blunder." ('"The Charge of the Light Brigade": The Creation of a Poem' by Edgar Shannon and Christopher Ricks, in Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 38, 1985, pp. 1-44)

During his later years Tennyson produced some of his most acclaimed works. Enoch Arden (1864) was based on a true story of a sailor, thought to be drowned at sea but who returned home after several years obly to find that his wife had remarried. In the poem Enoch Arden, Philip Ray and Annie Lee grow up together. Enoch wins her hand. He sails abroad and is shipwrecked for 10 years on a deserted island. Meanwhile Annie has been reduced to poverty. Philip asks her to marry him. Enoch returns and witnesses their happiness, but hides that he is alive and sacrifices his happiness for theirs. An Enoch Arden has come to mean a person who truly loves someone better than himself. The poem ends simply with the lines, "So past the strong heoic soul away. / And when they buried him, the little port / Had seldom seen a costlier funeral."  Idylls of the King (1859-1885) dealt with the Arthurian legeds, and The Ancient Sage (1885) and Akbar's Dream (1892) testified the poet's faith in the redemption offered by love. Despite Tennyson pessimism about the human condition, he believed in God.

In the 1870s Tennyson wrote several plays, among them the poetic dramas  Queen Mary (1875) and Harold (1876). In 1884 he was created a baron. Tennyson died at Aldwort on October 6, 1892, and was buried in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Soon he became the favorite target of attacks of many English and American writers, who saw him as a representative of narrow patriotism and sentimentality.

Although Tennyson suffered from a reputation as "Queen Victoria's lapdog" in his own country, his poetry exerted real influence in France, and was translated into German and Italy, despite having the disadvantage of being difficult to translate to other languages. In Russia his poems containing a message of reform were most popular. Later critics have praised again Tennyson. T.S. Eliot wrote that "I do not believe for a moment that Tennyson was a man of mild feelings or weak passions. There is no evidence in his poetry that he knew the experience of violent passion for a woman; but there is plenty of evidence of emotional intensity and violence – but of emotion so deeply suppressed, even from himelf, as to tend rather towards the blackest melancholia than towards dramatic action." (Essays Ancient and Modern, 1936, p. 181)

For further reading: Tennyson: Aspects of His Life by Harold Nicholson (1923); Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son by Hallam T. Tennyson (1940); Alfred Tennyson by Sir Charles Tennyson (1949); Tennyson by Jerome H. Buckley (1960); Tennyson Laureate by Valerie Pitt (1962); The Two Voices by Elton E. Smith (1964); Tennyson by C. Ricks (1972); Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart by R.B. Martin (1980); Lady Tennyson's Journal, ed. James O. Hoge (1981); Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism by Herbert F. Tucker (1988); Anglo-American Antiphony: The Late Romanticism of Tennyson and Emerson by Richard E. Brantley (1994); Tennyson, edited by Rebecca Stott (1996); Alfred Lord Tennyson: The Poet in an Age of Theory by W. David Shaw (1997); Tennyson and His Circle by Lynne Truss (1999); Alfred Tennyson by Andrew Lang (2001); Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find by John Batchelor (2012); Tennyson and the Fabrication of Englishness by Marion Sherwood (2013); The Reception of Alfred Tennyson in Europe, edited by Leonee Ormond (2017); Alfred Tennyson: a Companion by Laurence W. Mazzeno (2020); The Crimean War in Victorian Poetry by Tai-Chun Ho (2021); Letters and Lives of the Tennyson Women by Marion Sherwood and Rosalind Boyce (2023) - See also: John Keats

Selected works:

  • Poems by Two Brothers, 1826 (with his brothers Frederick and Charles)
  • Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, 1830 (including Mariana)
  • In Memoriam, 1833-1850
  • Morte d'Arthur, Dora, and other Idyls, 1842
    - films: Dora, 1912, dir. by Frank Powell, starring Florence Barker (as Dora); Dora, 1915, dir. by Travers Vale, starring Isabel Rea, Jack Mulhall, Gretchen Hartman
  • Poems, 1842 (2 vols., including Ulysses, Locksley Hall, The Lady of Shalott)
    - 'Odysseus' (suom. Yrjö Jylhä, teoksessa Maailman kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja 3, 1933)
    - film: The Lady of Shalott, 1915, dir. by C.J. Williams, starring Flora Finch, Kate Price, William Shea, Constance Talmadge
  • The Princess, 1847
    - 'Prinsessa' (suom. Aale Tynni, teoksessa Tuhat laulujen vuotta, 1957; Anto Leikola, teoksessa Maailman runosydän, 1998)
  • Maud and Other Poems, 1855 (including The Charge of the Light Brigade)
    - 'Kevyen prikaatin hyökkäys' (suom. Yrjö Jylhä, teoksessa Maailman kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja 3, 1933); 'Maud' (suom. Elina Vaara, teoksessa Maailman kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja 3, 1933
    - films: Maud, 1911, dir. by Wilfred Noy; Naked Hearts, 1916, dir. by Rupert Julian (based on Maud); Balaclava, 1928, dir. by Maurice Elvey, Milton Rosmer,starring Cyril McLaglen, Benita Hume, Miles Mander, Alf Goddard (the story of the charge of the Light Brigade); The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936, screenplay by Michael Jacoby, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia De Haviland, Patric Knowles. Remade in 1968, dir. by Tony Richardson, starring Trevor Howard, John Gielgud, David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave
  • Idylls of the King, 1859
  • Sea Dreams, 1860
  • Enoch Arden, 1864
    - Enoch Arden (suom. Jussi Törnwall, Pekka Laiho, 2001)
    - films: After Many Years, 1908, dir. by D.W. Griffith, featuring Charles Inslee, Florence Lawrence, Harry Solter; Enoch Arden, dir by D.W. Griffith, featuring Wilfred Lucas, Linda Arvidson, Francis J. Grandon; Enoch Arden, 1914, dir. by Percy Nash, Enoch Arden / As Fate Ordained / The Fatal Marriage, 1915, dir. by Christy Cabanne, featuring Alfred Paget, Lillian Gish, Wallace Reid; My Favorite Wife, 1940, written by Bella Spewack, Sam Spewack, Leo McCarey, dir. by Garson Kanin, starring Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott
  • The Holy Grail and Other Poems, 1869 (ed. G.C. Macaulay, 1893)
  • Gareth and Lynette, 1872 (ed. G.C. Macaulay, 1892)
  • Queen Mary, 1875 (drama)
  • Harold, 1876 (drama)
  • Ballads and Other Poems, 1880
  • The Promise of May, 1882 (drama)
  • The Charge of the Heavy Brigade, 1882
  • Becket, 1884 (drama)
    - film: Becket, 1923, dir. by George Ridgwell, featuring Frank R. Benson, A.V. Bramble, Mary Clare, Sydney Folker, Sidney Paxton 
  • The Falcon, 1884 (drama)
  • The Cup, 1884 (drama)
  • The Ancient Sage, 1885
  • Rizpah, Tiresias and Other Poems, 1885
  • Lyrical Poems, 1885 (selected and annotated by F.T. Palgrave)
  • Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, 1886
  • Carmen Seculare, an Ode, 1887 (on Queen Victoria's Jubilee)
  • Crossing the Bar, 1889
  • Demeter and Other Poems, 1889
  • The Death of Oenone, Akbar's Dream, and Other Poems, 1892
  • The Foresters: Robin Hood and Marian, 1892 (a play, prod. at Daly's Theatre, New York, 1881)
  • Lyrics and Poems, 1899 (2 vols., edited by E.A. Sharp)
  • Dora, and Other Poems, 1899 (edited by A Wilson)
  • The Day-Dream, and Other Poems, 1899 (edited by A. Wilson)
  • The Early Poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1900 (edited with a critical introduction by J. C. Collins)
  • In Memoriam, The Princess and Maud, 1902 (edited by J.C. Collins)
  • Suppressed Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1830-1862: Including the Prize Poem "Timbuctoo" and the Original (1833) Version of "The lover's tale", 1904 (edited by C.J. Thomson)
  • Collected Works, 1907-08 (9 vols., edited by Hallam Tennyson)
  • Tennyson's Shorter Poems and Lyrics, 1909 (ed. B.C. Mulliner)
  • The Devil and the Lady, 1930 (edited by C.B.L. Tennyson)
  • Unpublished Early Poems, 1931 (edited by C.B.L. Tennyson)
  • The Poetical Works, including the Plays, 1953
  • The Poems of Tennyson, 1969 (edited by Christopher Ricks)
  • In Memoriam: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, 1974 (first edition; edited by Robert H. Ross)
  • The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, I:1821-1850, 1981 (edited by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr.) 
  • The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, II: 1851-1870, 1987 (edited by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr.) 
  • The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, III: 1871-1892, 1991 (edited by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr.) 
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1995 (edited by Norman Page)
  • In Memoriam: Authoritative Text: Criticism, 2003 (2nd ed., edited by Erik Gray)
  • The Major Works, 2009 (edited with an introduction and notes by Adam Roberts) 
  • The Lady of Shalott, 2013 (illustrated by Charles Keeping)
  • In Memoriam: A Norton Critical Edition, 2020 (third edition; edited by Erik Gray)
  • The Poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 2020 (publisher: Arcturus Publishing)
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 2022 (selected and edited by Michael Baron; publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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