Tennyson, Baron Alfred
Tennyson is perhaps the last poet to achieve fame, fortune, and social standing solely through the practice of his chosen vocation. He was England’s poet laureate for forty-two years, the ethical guide and voice of stability for an age that suffered through the crisis of faith associated with Darwinism, the Oxford movement, and the political turbulence occasioned by a variety of political reform movements that threatened the established cultural and social structures that were the foundations of the Empire. At the height of his popularity, no genteel Victorian household was without a copy of his poetry.
Tennyson began writing poetry when he was five years old. At eight, he was sent to school at Louth, where the harsh methods of the master probably helped to determine his lifelong shyness. Later, he was tutored at home by his father, a dark, brooding man of shifting mood. These early experiences undoubtedly contributed to the development of his own intensely self-conscious and shy personality. In 1827, he and his brother Charles had collaborated in Poems by Two Brothers. In 1828, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, but was not a distinguished student and never took a degree. Cambridge, however, played a formative role in his development as a poet, largely through his association with a group of students who identified themselves as the “Twelve Apostles.” The Apostles were particularly appreciative of his poetry, and their recognition and influence perhaps helped him in winning the Chancellor’s medal for poetry in 1829. One of the Apostles in particular, Arthur Henry Hallam, became his closest friend, and Hallam’s untimely death was the occasion for the writing of the great elegy, In Memoriam. In 1830, Tennyson published his first volume of poems, but two years later had the misfortune of an extremely harsh review by John Gibson LOCKHART, an influential critic for the Quarterly Review. This crushing disappointment, followed soon after by the death of Hallam, threw him into a deep despair, and he published nothing for ten years. During that time, he worked on perfecting the craft of his poetry, receiving indirectly the therapeutic value of coping with the death of his friend through the writing of In Memoriam. The publication in 1842 of his two-volume Poems was critically acclaimed and Tennyson won the public respect and affection that he was to retain for the rest of his life. The year 1850 was a time of great personal triumph, filled with personal happiness and professional success. His public recognition as England’s preeminent poet was assured with the publication and popular reception of In Memoriam, he married his fiancée, Emily Sellwood, to whom he had been engaged for seventeen years, and, upon the death of William WORDSWORTH, he was appointed poet laureate. Tennyson was assured that the post was largely an honorary one, and that he would not have to spend his time writing “laudatory odes to the sovereign;” but he found great satisfaction in the poems he was called upon to write for special occasions, from his “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” (1852) published on the day of the hero of Waterloo’s funeral, to the decidedly jingoistic “Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854). Neither is an example of his finest work, although Robert Louis STEVENSON thought the Wellington ode the finest lyrical poem in the language. Generations of school children, both in England and the U.S., were required to commit to memory and taught to recognize “The Charge of the Light Brigade” not as a classic example of military bungling, but as an admirable testament to unquestioning courage and patriotic duty.
Tennyson’s critical reputation suffered somewhat during the 1920s and 1930s, when there was a generally negative reaction among critics to all things Victorian. He was found to be overly concerned with propriety, excessively sentimental, and given to shallow optimism. Subsequent analysis and evaluation of his work, however, has restored his reputation, and he is today recognized for many qualities, particularly his extraordinary skill with sound and rhythm, and his ability to evoke a dreamlike setting, qualities which combine effectively in poems such as “The Lotos-Eaters,” “Ulysses,” and “Tithonus” (1842). His ultimate reputation as a great poet rests largely on his masterpiece, In Memoriam, and the series of psychologically realistic narratives that inform the poems that make up his Idylls of the King, which he began publishing in 1859 and continued to publish until 1885.
In Memoriam is Tennyson’s spiritual AUTOBIOGRAPHY, the recounting of the spiritual struggle initiated with the death of his friend. The central question for the poet was how, in a world ruled by a loving and just God, such a man as Hallam could be cut off at the very beginning of his usefulness. Although Tennyson wrote the poem for himself, it is clear that the problem with which he contends is one which must be faced by all who lose a loved one. In the course of the poem Tennyson faces every crisis of faith that would be evident to the typically Victorian mind, and the ultimate triumph of faith proved an effective and inspirational lesson in an age of anxiety. In the course of his career, Tennyson made no single contribution as original as earlier poets of the 19th c. such as Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor COLERIDGE, Lord BYRON, Percy Bysshe SHELLEY, or John KEATS, but he had a vastly wider range than any of them. In a sense he sums up all English poetry, and in at least one form, the lyric, he is unsurpassed.
Bibliography Buckley, J. H., T. (1960); Hair, D. S., T.’s Language (1991); Priestley, F. E. L., Language and Structure in T.’s Poetry (1973); Sinfield, A., A. T. (1986)
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