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Life and Works

Alfred Tennyson was born just after midnight on the morning of 6th August 1809, the third surviving son of the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson, Rector of Somersby in the Lincolnshire Wolds, and his wife Elizabeth (nee Fytche). Tennyson’s father was mentally unstable and family life was anything but peaceful, with an ever-present threat of violence. Alfred was closest to his elder brother Charles and the two wrote and recited poetry together. In 1827 the local Louth printers published their first volume, Poems by Two Brothers (actually ‘Three Brothers’ since it included some work by their eldest brother, Frederick), and Alfred and Charles drove triumphantly down to Mablethorpe beach and declaimed their poetry to the sea.

In the same year Alfred followed his brothers to Cambridge. He attended Trinity College (his father had been at St John’s) and it was there, in 1829, that he made the most important friendship of his life, with Arthur Henry Hallam (1811-1833), the son of the eminent historian, Henry Hallam. They met when both entered the competition for the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English Verse, the subject of which that year was ‘Timbuctoo’. Alfred reworked an old poem, ‘Armageddon’ – and won the prize. Arthur was everything Alfred was not – confident, cosmopolitan, politically-minded, at ease in any company – and great things were expected of him. The two were made members of The Apostles, an exclusive society (which still exists) where poetry and affairs of the day were discussed. In 1830 Alfred published his first volume of poetry, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, which included ‘The Kraken’ and ‘Mariana’. Arthur’s perceptive and prophetic review of the volume, describing the poems in terms which anticipate those of the later Aesthetes, was published in The Englishman’s Magazine of 1831 and is still highly influential today.

At Christmas 1829, Arthur had made his first visit to Somersby. Within a year he was unofficially engaged to one of Tennyson’s sisters, Emily, an engagement frowned upon by Henry Hallam, who forbade the young couple to meet again until Arthur was 21. In 1830 Arthur and Alfred travelled to Spain to support the rebels against their autocratic king, Ferdinand, and on their way home they explored the French Pyrenees, a journey which Alfred always remembered and which he made the subject of a much later poem, ‘In the Valley of Cauteretz’. In the summer of 1833 Henry Hallam took his son on a Grand Tour of Europe and it was in Vienna, on 15th September 1833, that Arthur died suddenly, probably of a brain haemorrhage, at the age of 22.

Alfred’s grief was life-long. He spent the next fifteen years (having left Cambridge without a degree) living a nomadic bachelor existence. In 1833 he published a second collection of poems, including ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ and ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and in 1842 what is generally regarded as his first major volume, including ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Morte d’Arthur’. By the late 1840s sales of his poetry were growing rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic, and he began to establish a worldwide readership. In 1847 he published The Princess,ahead of its time in depicting women’s university education. During all these years he was recording his grief for Hallam in short lyrics (‘brief swallow-flights of song’). They were not originally intended for publication, but, when he had accumulated 133 lyrics, and at the instigation of his friends, he eventually collected and published them in 1850.

1850 was Tennyson’s annus mirabilis: in it he finally married his childhood sweetheart, Emily Sellwood, published his elegy for Hallam (called, following Emily’s suggestion, In Memoriam), and, on the death of William Wordsworth and at the instigation of the Prince Consort, became Poet Laureate.  

Tennyson’s married life began tragically, when he and Emily suffered the loss of their first child – a healthy son – who died at birth from strangulation by the umbilical cord, on Easter Day 1851. Later, two sons were born to them, Hallam in 1852 and Lionel in 1854. The children were indulged and made a central part of their parents’ lives in a way not typical of the times. They were tutored at home as long as possible, but eventually had to be sent away to school, much to their parents’ regret.

The Tennysons moved to Farringford, near Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, in 1853, and it was there that their children grew up. In 1868 Tennyson employed his friend James Knowles to build Aldworth, on the Sussex/Surrey border, so that he could have easier access to London. The family developed an annual routine of spending the summers in London (to avoid the tourists who invaded their privacy at Farringford) and Christmas on the Isle of Wight. It was at Farringford that Tennyson made friends with Julia Margaret Cameron and Sir John Simeon, the latter the subject of an elegiac later poem, ‘In the Garden at Swainston’.

From his early days, Tennyson had been fascinated by the figure of King Arthur and Hallam’s death gave him further impetus to work on the collection of blank verse poems he called ‘idylls’, with Arthur Hallam as the underlying inspiration for the legendary king, and he went on publishing collections of these until in 1885 he had built up twelve books on the Arthurian legends, beginning with ‘The Coming of Arthur’ and ending with ‘The Passing of Arthur’. They recount King Arthur’s establishment of the Round Table but there is a recognition from the beginning that no human endeavour (by implication, not even the British Empire) is permanent. As Arthur dies, he recognises that ‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new, /And God fulfils himself in many ways,/Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’

As Poet Laureate, Tennyson composed poems to commemorate the major public events of his times, including the Crimean War, for which he wrote in 1854 ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, with its famous line ‘someone had blundered’, suggesting his doubts, not about the courage of the ordinary soldiers, but about the competence of their officers. In 1855 he published Maud: A Monodrama, a dramatic monologue in which the hero, having killed his sweetheart’s brother, finds expiation by setting off to battle in the Crimea. When it was suggested that he was glorifying war, he pointed out that this was a dramatic monologue and that the thoughts were those of the unstable protagonist. 

The case of Governor Eyre of Jamaica, in 1865, who had ruthlessly suppressed a rebellion by putting 600 rebels to death, revealed the racism of Tennyson and his age in uncompromising and, to us, shocking terms, as he and others blamed the atrocity on the violence of ‘the natives’. Carlyle, Kingsley and Ruskin all defended Eyre. A few years later, however, Tennyson was a respectful and considerate host to the Hawaian Queen Emma of the Sandwich Isles. Politically conservative, he nonetheless always responded strongly to the plights of small countries rebelling against larger oppressive regimes and wrote sonnets to ‘Poland’ and ‘Montenegro’ to praise their courageous struggles for freedom from, respectively, Russia and Turkey. By the 1880s he was producing full-blown imperial odes, hailing Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 as celebrating ‘Fifty years of ever-widening Empire.’   

Tennyson was by now a public celebrity in a very modern sense, followed wherever he went, especially on the Isle of Wight (where he once fled, myopically, from a flock of sheep, mistaking them for tourists), and inundated by letters from the public which Emily, and later, Hallam, answered for him. Tennyson was a notoriously reluctant letter-writer, observing that he would ‘rather stick a pig as write a letter’ and the total correspondence of his 82 years occupies only three volumes. (See Lang and Shannon, Letters.) In contrast, Dickens, who died at the age of 58, left behind twelve volumes of letters.   

In the 1860s, Tennyson inspired the founding, by his friend James Knowles, of the Metaphysical Society which brought together Christians and Agnostics to discuss openly issues of belief raised by the Evolutionary debates of the time. James Martineau, the Unitarian theologian and Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, were the debaters Tennyson himself found most impressive. In ‘The Higher Pantheon’ and ‘Lucretius’, both written at this time, he explores the links between the material and the spiritual worlds. Influenced by Benjamin Jowett, Tennyson became increasingly interested later in life in Eastern religions and in religious toleration and explored these subjects in ‘The Ancient Sage’ (1885), based on the philosophy of Laot-ze, and ‘Akbar’s Dream’(1892), which depicts the sixteenth-century Moghul Emperor who tried to reconcile the warring religious factions in his realm.

In 1883, having four times refused a baronetcy, Tennyson finally accepted William Gladstone’s offer of an hereditary peerage and became Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Farringford. His later life was one of continuous success and fame, darkened only by the tragedy of Lionel’s death on his voyage home from India in 1886.    

Tennyson’s friendships inspired some of his best poems, elegy being a genre in which he excelled. They include ‘To J.S.’ (James Spedding), ‘To J.M.K’ (John Kemble), ‘To the Rev. F.D. Maurice’ and ‘To the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava’ (about Lionel Tennyson’s death). ‘To E.FitzGerald’(1885) is particularly poignant, since its recipient – much loved though not contacted by Tennyson for many years – died before he could read it. ‘To the Rev. W.H.Brookfield’(1875) recalls happy Cambridge days rich in friendship. Most of all, ‘In the Garden at Swainston’ (1874) commemorates the deaths of the three friends who had meant most to him in his life – Arthur Hallam, Henry Lushington and the newly departed Sir John Simeon: ‘Three dead men have I loved/And thou art the last of the three.’

In his mid-sixties, Tennyson turned his attention to the stage and wrote six plays: Queen Mary, Harold, The Falcon, The Cup, The Promise of May and The Foresters.   They achieved moderate success, The Cup enjoying a run of 127 performances, and are a considerable achievement, though not easy to revive today. (Harold was revived by Tennyson’s great-grandson, Hallam Tennyson, as a BBC radio play for the nineteen-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1966.)   

Tennyson’s fascination with science prompted him to accept an invitation from Thomas Edison in 1890 to have his voice recorded for posterity and we can therefore still hear directly the voice of the greatest poet of his age, born in 1809, reading ‘Blow, bugle, blow’, ‘Come into the Garden, Maud’ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’

Tennyson’s declining years produced several of his greatest poems, notably ‘Vastness’, which fights against despair at the chaos of the world and ends ’Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him for ever:/ the dead are not dead but alive’. Most famous of all is ‘Crossing the Bar’ (1889), supposedly composed as Tennyson returned across the Solent by ferry to his home on the Isle of Wight. Its simplicity and emotional truthfulness have made it a favourite poem to be read at funerals well into the twenty-first century.

Tennyson died at the age of 83, on 6th October 1892, and his doctor recorded that he died ‘in the light of the full moon’ with his hand clasping the volume of Shakespeare he had kept with him to the last. His posthumous reputation has followed the trajectory of literary criticism through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, fading during the high noon of Modernism in the 1920s and 30s, but experiencing a revival in recent years, as his aesthetic powers, in particular his musical qualities,  have been recognised afresh.            

“”No man ever got very high by pulling other people down. The intelligent merchant does not knock his competitors. The sensible worker does not knock those who work with him. Don’t knock your friends. Don’t knock your enemies. Don’t knock yourself.”