Alfred, Lord Tennyson
06.08.1809 - 06.10.1892
Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland
Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, FRS (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892) was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular British poets.
Tennyson excelled at penning short lyrics, such as "Break, Break, Break", "The Charge of the Light Brigade", "Tears, Idle Tears", and "Crossing the Bar". Much of his verse was based on classical mythological themes, such as Ulysses, although "In Memoriam A.H.H." was written to commemorate his friend Arthur Hallam, a fellow poet and student at Trinity College, Cambridge, after he died of a stroke at the age of 22. Tennyson also wrote some notable blank verse including Idylls of the King, "Ulysses", and "Tithonus". During his career, Tennyson attempted drama, but his plays enjoyed little success. A number of phrases from Tennyson's work have become commonplaces of the English language, including "Nature, red in tooth and claw" (In Memoriam A.H.H.), "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all", "Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die", "My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure", "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield", "Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers", and "The old order changeth, yielding place to new". He is the ninth most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Tennyson was born on 6 August 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England. He was born into a middle-class line of Tennysons, but also had a noble and royal ancestry.
His father, George Clayton Tennyson (1778–1831), was rector of Somersby (1807–1831), also rector of Benniworth (1802–1831) and Bag Enderby, and vicar of Grimsby (1815). Rev. George Clayton Tennyson raised a large family and "was a man of superior abilities and varied attainments, who tried his hand with fair success in architecture, painting, music, and poetry. He was comfortably well off for a country clergyman and his shrewd money management enabled the family to spend summers at Mablethorpe and Skegness on the eastern coast of England". Alfred Tennyson's mother, Elizabeth Fytche (1781–1865), was the daughter of Stephen Fytche (1734–1799), vicar of St. James Church, Louth (1764) and rector of Withcall (1780), a small village between Horncastle and Louth. Tennyson's father "carefully attended to the education and training of his children".
Tennyson and two of his elder brothers were writing poetry in their teens and a collection of poems by all three was published locally when Alfred was only 17. One of those brothers, Charles Tennyson Turner, later married Louisa Sellwood, the younger sister of Alfred's future wife; the other was Frederick Tennyson. Another of Tennyson's brothers, Edward Tennyson, was institutionalised at a private asylum.
Tennyson was a student of King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth from 1816 to 1820. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827, where he joined a secret society called the Cambridge Apostles. A portrait of Tennyson by George Frederic Watts is in Trinity's collection.
At Cambridge, Tennyson met Arthur Hallam and William Henry Brookfield, who became his closest friends. His first publication was a collection of "his boyish rhymes and those of his elder brother Charles" entitled Poems by Two Brothers, published in 1827.
In 1829, Tennyson was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, "Timbuktu". Reportedly, "it was thought to be no slight honour for a young man of twenty to win the chancellor's gold medal". He published his first solo collection of poems, Poems Chiefly Lyrical in 1830. "Claribel" and "Mariana", which later took their place among Tennyson's most celebrated poems, were included in this volume. Although decried by some critics as overly sentimental, his verse soon proved popular and brought Tennyson to the attention of well-known writers of the day, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In the spring of 1831, Tennyson's father died, requiring him to leave Cambridge before taking his degree. He returned to the rectory, where he was permitted to live for another six years and shared responsibility for his widowed mother and the family. Arthur Hallam came to stay with his family during the summer and became engaged to Tennyson's sister, Emilia Tennyson.
In 1833 Tennyson published his second book of poetry, which notably included the first version of The Lady of Shalott. The volume met heavy criticism, which so discouraged Tennyson that he did not publish again for ten years, although he did continue to write. That same year, Hallam died suddenly and unexpectedly after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage while on a holiday in Vienna. Hallam's death had a profound impact on Tennyson and inspired several poems, including "In the Valley of Cauteretz" and In Memoriam A.H.H., a long poem detailing the "Way of the Soul".
Tennyson and his family were allowed to stay in the rectory for some time, but later moved to Beech Hill Park, High Beach, deep within Epping Forest, Essex, about 1837. Tennyson’s son recalled: “there was a pond in the park on which in winter my father might be seen skating, sailing about on the ice in his long blue cloak. He liked the nearness of London, whither he resorted to see his friends, but he could not stay in town even for a night, his mother being in such a nervous state that he did not like to leave her..." Tennyson befriended a Dr Allen, who ran a nearby asylum whose patients then included the poet John Clare. An unwise investment in Dr Allen's ecclesiastical wood-carving enterprise soon led to the loss of much of the family fortune, and led to a bout of serious depression. Tennyson moved to London in 1840 and lived for a time at Chapel House, Twickenham.
In 1842, while living modestly in London, Tennyson published the two volume Poems, of which the first included works already published and the second was made up almost entirely of new poems. They met with immediate success; poems from this collection, such as Locksley Hall, "Break, Break, Break", and Ulysses, and a new version of The Lady of Shalott, have met enduring fame. The Princess: A Medley, a satire on women's education that came out in 1847, was also popular for its lyrics. W. S. Gilbert later adapted and parodied the piece twice: in The Princess (1870) and in Princess Ida (1884).
It was in 1850 that Tennyson reached the pinnacle of his career, finally publishing his masterpiece, In Memoriam A.H.H., dedicated to Hallam. Later the same year, he was appointed Poet Laureate, succeeding William Wordsworth. In the same year (on 13 June), Tennyson married Emily Sellwood, whom he had known since childhood, in the village of Shiplake. They had two sons, Hallam Tennyson (b. 11 August 1852)—named after his friend—and Lionel (b. 16 March 1854).
Tennyson rented Farringford House on the Isle of Wight in 1853, eventually buying it in 1856. He eventually found that there were too many starstruck tourists who pestered him in Farringford, so he moved to Aldworth, in West Sussex in 1869. However, he retained Farringford, and regularly returned there to spend the winters.
In 1850, after William Wordsworth's death and Samuel Rogers' refusal, Tennyson was appointed to the position of Poet Laureate; Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Leigh Hunt had also been considered. He held the position until his own death in 1892, the longest tenure of any laureate before or since. Tennyson fulfilled the requirements of this position by turning out appropriate but often uninspired verse, such as a poem of greeting to Princess Alexandra of Denmark when she arrived in Britain to marry the future King Edward VII. In 1855, Tennyson produced one of his best-known works, "The Charge of the Light Brigade", a dramatic tribute to the British cavalrymen involved in an ill-advised charge on 25 October 1854, during the Crimean War. Other esteemed works written in the post of Poet Laureate include "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" and "Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition".
Tennyson initially declined a baronetcy in 1865 and 1868 (when tendered by Disraeli), finally accepting a peerage in 1883 at Gladstone's earnest solicitation. In 1884 Victoria created him Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth in the County of Sussex and of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight. He took his seat in the House of Lords on 11 March 1884.
Tennyson also wrote a substantial quantity of unofficial political verse, from the bellicose "Form, Riflemen, Form", on the French crisis of 1859 and the Creation of the Volunteer Force, to "Steersman, be not precipitate in thine act/of steering", deploring Gladstone's Home Rule Bill.
Virginia Woolf wrote a play called Freshwater, showing Tennyson as host to his friends Julia Margaret Cameron and G.F. Watts.
Tennyson was the first to be raised to a British peerage for his writing. A passionate man with some peculiarities of nature, he was never particularly comfortable as a peer, and it is widely held that he took the peerage in order to secure a future for his son Hallam.
Colonel George Edward Gouraud, Thomas Edison's European agent, made sound recordings of Tennyson reading his own poetry, late in his life. They include recordings of "The Charge of the Light Brigade", and excerpts from "The splendour falls" (from The Princess), "Come into the garden" (from Maud), "Ask me no more", "Ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington" and "Lancelot and Elaine". The sound quality is poor, as wax cylinder recordings usually are.
Towards the end of his life Tennyson revealed that his "religious beliefs also defied convention, leaning towards agnosticism and pandeism": In a characteristically Victorian manner, Tennyson combines a deep interest in contemporary science with an unorthodox, even idiosyncratic, Christian belief. Famously, he wrote in In Memoriam: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." In Maud, 1855, he wrote: "The churches have killed their Christ". In "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," Tennyson wrote: "Christian love among the churches look'd the twin of heathen hate." In his play, Becket, he wrote: "We are self-uncertain creatures, and we may, Yea, even when we know not, mix our spites and private hates with our defence of Heaven". Tennyson recorded in his Diary (p. 127): "I believe in Pantheism of a sort". His son's biography confirms that Tennyson was an unorthodox Christian, noting that Tennyson praised Giordano Bruno and Spinoza on his deathbed, saying of Bruno, "His view of God is in some ways mine", in 1892.
Tennyson continued writing into his eighties. He died on 6 October 1892 at Aldworth, aged 83. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. A memorial was erected in All Saints' Church, Freshwater. His last words were, "Oh that press will have me now!". He left an estate of £57,206. Tennyson Down and the Tennyson Trail on the Isle of Wight are named after him, and a monument to him stands on top of Tennyson Down. Lake Tennyson in New Zealand's high country, named by Frederick Weld, is assumed to be named after Lord Tennyson.
He was succeeded as 2nd Baron Tennyson by his son, Hallam, who produced an authorised biography of his father in 1897, and was later the second Governor-General of Australia.
Tennyson and the Queen
Although Prince Albert was largely responsible for Tennyson's appointment as Laureate, Queen Victoria became an ardent admirer of Tennyson's work, writing in her diary that she was "much soothed & pleased" by reading "In Memoriam A.H.H." after Albert's death.
The two met twice, first in April 1862, when Victoria wrote in her diary, "very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair & a beard, oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him."
Tennyson met her a second time just over two decades later, on 7 August 1883, and the Queen told him what a comfort "In Memoriam A.H.H." had been.
The art of Tennyson's poetry
As source material for his poetry, Tennyson used a wide range of subject matter ranging from medieval legends to classical myths and from domestic situations to observations of nature. The influence of John Keats and other Romantic poets published before and during his childhood is evident from the richness of his imagery and descriptive writing. He also handled rhythm masterfully. The insistent beat of Break, Break, Break emphasises the relentless sadness of the subject matter. Tennyson's use of the musical qualities of words to emphasise his rhythms and meanings is sensitive. The language of "I come from haunts of coot and hern" lilts and ripples like the brook in the poem and the last two lines of "Come down O maid from yonder mountain height" illustrate his telling combination of onomatopoeia, alliteration, and assonance:
The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmuring of innumerable bees.
Tennyson was a craftsman who polished and revised his manuscripts extensively, to the point where his efforts at self-editing were described by his contemporary Robert Browning as "insane", symptomatic of "mental infirmity". His complex compositional practice and frequent redrafting also demonstrates a dynamic relationship between images and text, as can be seen in the many notebooks he worked in. Few poets have used such a variety of styles with such an exact understanding of metre; like many Victorian poets, he experimented in adapting the quantitative metres of Greek and Latin poetry to English. He reflects the Victorian period of his maturity in his feeling for order and his tendency towards moralising. He also reflects a concern common among Victorian writers in being troubled by the conflict between religious faith and expanding scientific knowledge. Like many writers who write a great deal over a long time, his poetry is occasionally uninspired, but his personality rings throughout all his works. Tennyson possessed a strong poetic power, which his early readers often attributed to his "Englishness" and his masculinity. Well known among his longer works are Maud and Idylls of the King, the latter arguably the most famous Victorian adaptation of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. A common thread of grief, melancholy, and loss connects much of his poetry (including Mariana, The Lotos Eaters, Tears, Idle Tears, In Memoriam), possibly reflecting Tennyson's own lifelong struggle with debilitating depression. T. S. Eliot famously described Tennyson as "the saddest of all English poets", whose technical mastery of verse and language provided a "surface" to his poetry's "depths, to the abyss of sorrow". Other poets such as W. H. Auden maintained a more critical stance, stating that Tennyson was the "stupidest" of all the English poets, adding that: "There was little about melancholia he didn't know; there was little else that he did."
Influence on Pre-Raphaelite artists
Tennyson's early poetry, with its medievalism and powerful visual imagery, was a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt made a list of "Immortals", artistic heroes whom they admired, especially from literature, notably including Keats and Tennyson, whose work would form subjects for PRB paintings. The Lady of Shalott alone was a subject for Rossetti, Hunt, John William Waterhouse (three versions), and Elizabeth Siddall.
An heraldic achievement of Alfred, Lord Tennyson exists in an 1884 stained-glass window in the Hall of Trinity College, Cambridge, showing arms: Gules, a bend nebuly or thereon a chaplet vert between three leopard's faces jessant-de-lys of the second; Crest: A dexter arm in armour the hand in a gauntlet or grasping a broken tilting spear enfiled with a garland of laurel; Supporters: Two leopards rampant guardant gules semée de lys and ducally crowned or; Motto: Respiciens Prospiciens ("Looking backwards (is) looking forwards"). These are a difference of the arms of Thomas Tenison (1636–1715), Archbishop of Canterbury, themselves a difference of the arms of the 13th-century Denys family of Glamorgan and Siston in Gloucestershire, themselves a difference of the arms of Thomas de Cantilupe (c. 1218 – 1282), Bishop of Hereford, henceforth the arms of the See of Hereford; the name "Tennyson" signifies "Denys's son", although no connection between the two families is recorded.
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