Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Alfred Tennyson was a major English poet of the 19th century, and the most popular poet of the Victorian era. In the movement of his verse he followed in the tradition of Wordsworth and Keats, and in his self-centredness in that of Shelley and Byron (a hero of his boyhood).

Life

Tennyson was born on 6 August 1809, the third son of a violent and irascible Lincolnshire rector. He attended Cambridge University, where he was a member of the Cambridge Apostles and won the Chancellor's Gold Medal for his poem on the set subject of Timbuctoo. His friendship with Arthur Hallam began at this time. After his father's death in 1831, however, he did not continue at Cambridge, probably because he had done little studying.

His first volume to attract public attention, Poems, chiefly lyrical, came out in 1830. The second, dated 1833 but actually issued in 1832, occasioned damning reviews, though a few of the poems are among his better ones. After that he issued no publication for nearly ten years, though he published the occasional poem in magazines and did a considerable amount of writing. He had £100 a year from an aunt and later a small inheritance from his grandfather, which he lost through speculation, and lived largely (and inconsiderately) off the hospitality of friends, family and acquaintances. He was determined to be nothing but a poet, though his habits of composition at this time were sporadic rather than industrious, consistent diligence not being encouraged by his peripatetic lifestyle and his hypochondria. He became friends with Edward Fitzgerald and Thackeray, and also with Emily Sellwood, whom he later married, though none of his friends could replace Hallam, who had died in 1833.

In 1842 he published Poems in two volumes. The first volume contained poems previously published, many of them re-worked to meet criticism, to the dismay of Robert Browning among others. (Browning stuck by what he had written, regardless of critics.) The second contained some of Tennyson's best work. Reviews were largely good, and the publication soon went to a second edition. He was now well enough known for his friends to obtain a Civil List pension for him. In 1847 he published The Princess, a long poem in blank verse with interspersed lyrics. This was a commercial but not much of a critical success. 1850 was the crucial year in Tennyson's life: he got married, two weeks after he had published In Memoriam, whose resonance with critics and public went far beyond that of any previous works. The poem, originally written as fragments, was ideally suited to the emerging Victorian taste. And in the same year he was appointed Poet Laureate on Wordsworth's death. The newly married couple eventually settled at Twickenham, where their first child was stillborn.

In 1853 the Tennysons moved to the Isle of Wight (a final move, apart from the building of a second home at Haslemere). It was here, at last, that he settled down to a regular working pattern, and achieved a steady output, in which several verse plays were included. His friendship with the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron developed after her move to live nearby. Another friend Gladstone put him forward for a peerage in 1883, and he took his seat in the House of Lords in 1884. (This was the first peerage for literature.[1]) He died on 16 October 1892, survived by his wife and eldest son, Hallam. The younger son, Lionel, had died returning from India in 1886. Although his poem, "Crossing the Bar" had only been written recently, inspired by one of his crossings to the Isle of Wight, it was already well enough known for Punch to refer to it in its main picture which marked his death.

Personal appearance

Tennyson was tall. Clean-shaven in his earlier years, once his hair had begun to thin and go grey, he grew a beard and adopted a wideawake hat. Together with a cloak, these changes achieved the self-dramatisation which his shyness had previously inhibited.

Significant Works

Earlier collections of poems, 1830-42, included Œnone, a lament on the origins of the Trojan War, and Ulysses, both monologues, as well as Locksley Hall.

The Princess, a medley was a blank verse fantasy narrative around a theme of women's education, supposedly improvised by seven men in sequence, with interspersed lyrics.[2]

In Memoriam, 1850, was an extensive elegy on his friend A H Hallam, written over a long period following Hallam's death in 1833.

Maud, a monodrama, expressing a morbid pessimism, but containing some of Tennyson's best lyrics,[3] appeared in 1855. The volume in which it came out also included The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Arthurian poems: Even before the Idylls of the King, Tennyson's earlier collections of short poems included some based on the Arthurian legend, including The Lady of Shalott, Morte d'Arthur, Sir Galahad, and Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere. These were in a variety of stanzaic forms. The first four Idylls, independent tales in blank verse, appeared in 1859, the next five in 1869, with another three following.

Crossing the Bar, one of his strongest lyrics, was written shortly before his death.

Legacy

Like all the English Romantic poets, Tennyson considered that in order to make a name for himself, he needed to write narrative poetry, and, like them, he also tried his hand at drama. His great gift, however, was in lyrical poetry. Here he, in effect, made it impossible for others to continue in the lush, rich style perfected by Keats, as there was no more to do in that direction. The great lyric poets of the next generation, Hardy and Yeats, had a much sparer style.

Some sound recordings survive of Tennyson reading some of his own poems, though the sound quality is as poor as usual for that period.

Notes

  1. Lord Byron, among other lordly poets, inherited his title. Tennyson's title is also hereditary, and is held to this day by a descendant.
  2. It formed the basis for Princess Ida by Gilbert and Sullivan.
  3. including "Come into the garden, Maud", of which a well-known musical setting was composed by Michael Balfe