A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

18

Victorian poetry

On Wordsworth’s death in 1850 Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) was made Poet Laureate. We are apt to think of the award as officializing his identification with the spirit of the age and to consider him the literary representative of Victorianism: but his brilliance as a poetic craftsman and the readiness with which, in his finest work, he voices perturbations and aspirations of the mind and spirit that come to men in all ages, make the ‘Victorian’ tag ultimately dispensable.

The son of a Lincolnshire rector, Tennyson was educated at Cambridge and there became a member of a group of idealists who called themselves ‘Apostles’, having embraced a self-chosen prophetic mission to crusade for culture. A leading light in the group was Arthur Hallam who became Tennyson’s friend and his sister’s fiancé. Hallam’s sudden death in Vienna in 1833 at the age of twenty-two profoundly shocked Tennyson and exercised a lasting influence on his poetic career. The Poems which came out in 1833 already included work of staggering technical virtuosity, such as ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘Oenone’ and ‘The Lotos-Eaters’. In ‘The Lady of Shalott’ it is as though Keats’s sensuous richness and acute verbal sensitivity have coalesced with the haunting, incantatory magic of Coleridge; and the symbolic overtones add a mysterious dimension with a deeply felt personal implication. For the Lady, weaving her magic web and seeing only ‘shadows of the world’ outside passing by in her mirror, brings the curse of destruction upon herself (and her mirror) by leaving her loom and looking down on the real world. We recognize the underlying dilemma of the poet before the competing claims of art and the living world. And we are aware of a comparable dichotomy, and a comparable technical mastery, when we see how

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