A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1895)

By George Saintsbury | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
THE SECOND POETICAL PERIOD

THE second period of English poetry in the nineteenth century displays a variety and abundance of poetical accomplishment which must rank it very little below either its immediate predecessor, or even the great so-called Elizabethan era. But it is distinguished from both these periods, and, indeed, from almost all others by the extraordinary predominance of a single poet in excellence, in influence, and in duration. There is probably no other instance anywhere of a poet who for more than sixty years wrote better poetry than any one of his contemporaries who were not very old men when he began, and for exactly fifty of those years was recognised by the best judges as the chief poet of his country if not of his time.

Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809 at Somersby, in Lincolnshire, where his father, a member of a good county family, was rector. He was the third son, and his two elder brothers, Frederick and Charles, both possessed considerable poetical gifts, though it cannot be said that the Poems by Two Brothers (it seems that it should really have been "three"), which appeared in 1826, display much of this or anything whatever of Alfred's subsequent charm. From the Grammar School of Louth the poet went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was contemporary, and in most cases intimate, with an unusually distinguished set of undergraduates, many of whom afterwards figured in the famous Sterling Club (see chapter iv). He also did what not

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