By Timko, Michael
The World and I , Vol. 26, No. 10
When one thinks about the Victorians, two figures immediately come to mind: Queen Victoria and Alfred Tennyson. The first represents the British Empire, on which the sun never set, and the second is the English poet often regarded, as many have written, as "the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry."
It was Tennyson who succeeded William Wordsworth, perhaps the "chief representative" of the earlier Romantic Period, as Poet Laureate in 1850, the year in which his most famous poem "In Memoriam" was published.
Tennyson was born on August 5, 1809, in Somersby, Lincolnshire. His father, George Clayton Tennyson, a rector, suffered greatly from depression, a condition sometimes exhibited in Tennyson himself in his later years. Called by some a "natural poet," Tennyson began writing poetry at an early age. Never happy with formal schooling, he was tutored at home, and in 1827 he entered Trinity College. At Trinity he joined the Apostles, a group of intellectuals that included Arthur Henry Hallam, who became his closest friend and whose death is mourned in Tennyson's greatest poem, "In Memoriam." Tennyson's father died in 1831, after which Tennyson left Cambridge without a degree.
Tennyson began publishing poetry at an early age. In 1827 he and his two brothers published what has been called the "mistitled" Poems by Two Brothers, and this was soon followed by two other volumes: Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and Poems (1832). Both volumes reflect the influence of the Apostles and his intense interest in the earlier Romantic poets, especially Shelley and Keats. However, as one critic has observed, "with this verse, and in contrast to it, is a strain of poetry in which Tennyson attempted deliberately to deal with the moral and social problems of the age, to assume a public role."
After these two volumes, which received unfavorable reviews, Tennyson did not publish anything until 1842, but during this ten year hiatus, which has been called the "ten years silence," many significant events occurred, both public and personal. His close friend Arthur Hallam died suddenly in 1833, and Tennyson was overwhelmed with grief. Tennyson also suffered a severe financial setback during this period. He had invested the money he had inherited from his father in Dr. Allen's wood-carving machine, and the resulting loss culminated in a period during which Tennyson fell "into so severe a hypochondria that his friends despaired of his life."
In spite of all this, and while it would seem that the poet would be unable to function, the truth seems to be that Tennyson was very active during this ten year period, both revising his earlier poems and composing new ones. In fact, he was to tell his son that it was during this time that "in silence, obscurity, and solitude he perfected his art."
As one critic has said, "In 1842 Tennyson was ready to face the world again, and in that year he published the two-volume Poems." Unlike his earlier publications, these volumes, which contained "The Lady of Shalott," "The Lotus-eaters," "Morte d'Arthur," and "Ulysses," were an immediate success. From that time on Tennyson became Queen Victoria's favorite and the most popular poet of his time. In 1850 he succeeded William Wordsworth as Poet Laureate and married Emily Sellwood, to whom he had been engaged for fourteen years. In 1853 they settled in Farringford, their house in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight; and from that time on, as Harold Bloom writes, "he became an English institution, whether he wrote well or badly."
The Tennysons had two sons, Hallam and Lionel. In 1869 the Tennyson moved from Farringford to Aldworth, Surrey. He accepted a Barony in 1884. He died in 1892 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. His later poetry includes Maud, which Tennyson called a monodrama, The Princess, which has been called a feminist poem, and Idylls of the King, the story of King Arthur and the Round Table. …