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Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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The Lord Tennyson
Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom
In office
19 November 1850 – 6 October 1892
Preceded byWilliam Wordsworth
Succeeded byAlfred Austin
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
11 March 1884 – 6 October 1892
Hereditary Peerage
Succeeded byHallam Tennyson, 2nd Baron Tennyson
Personal details
Born6 August 1809
Somersby, Lincolnshire, England
Died6 October 1892(1892-10-06) (aged 83)
Lurgashall, Sussex, England[1]
Resting placeWestminster Abbey
(m. 1850)
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge (no degree)
OccupationPoet Laureate (1850–1892)

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, FRS (/ˈtɛnɪsən/; 6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892), was an English poet. He was the Poet Laureate during much of Queen Victoria's reign. In 1829, Tennyson was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, "Timbuktu". He published his first solo collection of poems, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830. "Claribel" and "Mariana", which remain some of Tennyson's most celebrated poems, were included in this volume. Although described 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. Tennyson's early poetry, with its medievalism and powerful visual imagery, was a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Tennyson also excelled at 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". "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.[2] 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 commonplace in 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.[3]


Early life[edit]

Tennyson was born on 6 August 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England.[4] He was born into a successful middle-class family of minor landowning status distantly descended from John Savage, 2nd Earl Rivers, and Francis Leke, 1st Earl of Scarsdale.[5]

An illustration by W. E. F. Britten showing Somersby Rectory, where Tennyson was raised and began writing

His father, George Clayton Tennyson (1778–1831), was an Anglican clergyman who served as rector of Somersby (1807–1831), also rector of Benniworth (1802–1831) and Bag Enderby, and vicar of Grimsby (1815). He 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". George Clayton Tennyson was elder son of attorney and MP George Tennyson (1749/50-1835), JP, DL, of Bayons Manor and Usselby Hall, who had also inherited the estates of his mother's family, the Claytons, and married Mary, daughter and heiress of John Turner, of Caistor, Lincolnshire. George Clayton Tennyson was however pushed into a career in the church and passed over as heir in favour of his younger brother, Charles Tennyson d'Eyncourt.[6][7][8][9][10] Alfred Tennyson's mother, Elizabeth (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.

The noted psychologist William James, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, quoted Tennyson concerning a type of experience with which Tennyson was familiar:

"A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has often come upon me through repeating my own name. All at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this was not a confused state but the clearest, the surest of the sure, utterly beyond words…"[11]

Education and first publication[edit]

Statue of Lord Tennyson in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge

Tennyson was a student of King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth from 1816 to 1820.[12] He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827, where he joined a secret society called the Cambridge Apostles.[13] A portrait of Tennyson by George Frederic Watts is in Trinity's collection.[14]

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.[12]

In 1829, Tennyson was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, "Timbuktu".[15][16] Reportedly, "it was thought to be no slight honour for a young man of twenty to win the chancellor's gold medal".[12] 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.

Return to Lincolnshire, second publication, Epping Forest[edit]

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.

John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott, 1888 (Tate Britain, London)

The May Queen

YOU must wake and call me early, call me early,
     mother dear;
To-morrow 'll be the happiest time of all the glad
     new-year, -
Of all the glad new-year, mother, the maddest,
     merriest day;
For I'm to be Queen o' the May, mother, I'm to
     be Queen o' the May.

As I came up the valley, whom think ye should
     I see
But Robin leaning on the bridge beneath the
He thought of that sharp look, mother, I gave
     him yesterday, -
But I'm to be Queen o' the May, mother, I'm to
     be Queen o' the May.

They say he's dying all for love, - but that can
     never be;
They say his heart is breaking, mother, - what
     is that to me?
There's many a bolder lad 'll woo me any sum-
     mer day;
And I'm to be Queen o' the May, mother, I'm to
     be Queen o' the May.

If I can, I'll come again, mother, from out my
Though you'll not see me, mother, I shall look
     upon your face;
Though I cannot speak a word, I shall hearken
     what you say,
And be often, often with you when you think I'm
     far away.

So now I think my time is near; I trust it is.
     I know
The blessed music went that way my soul will
     have to go.
And for myself, indeed, I care not if I go to-day;
But Effie, you must comfort her when I am past

And say to Robin a kind word, and tell him not
     to fret;
There's many worthier than I, would make him
     happy yet.
If I had lived - I cannot tell - I might have
     been his wife;
But all these things have ceased to be, with my
     desire of life.

Forever and forever, all in a blessed home,
And there to wait a little while till you and
     Effie come, -
To lie within the light of God, as I lie upon your
     breast, -
And the wicked cease from troubling, and the
     weary are at rest.

From "The May Queen" poem by Alfred Tennyson[17]

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 effect 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".[18]

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...".[18] Tennyson befriended a Dr Allen, who ran a nearby asylum whose patients then included the poet John Clare.[19] 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.[18] According to Tennyson's grandson Sir Charles Tennyson, Tennyson met Thomas Carlyle in 1839, if not earlier.[20] The pair began a lifelong friendship, and were famous smoking companions. Some of Tennyson's work even bears the influence of Carlyle and his ideas.[21] Tennyson moved to London in 1840 and lived for a time at Chapel House, Twickenham.

Third publication[edit]

On 14 May 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.[22] 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.[23] However, he retained Farringford, and regularly returned there to spend the winters.

Poet Laureate[edit]

Captioned "The Poet Laureate", caricature of Tennyson in Vanity Fair, 22 July 1871

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.[24] He held the position until his own death in 1892, the longest tenure of any laureate. Tennyson fulfilled the requirements of this position, such as by authoring 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".

Alfred Tennyson, portrait by P. Krämer

Tennyson declined a baronetcy offered him by Disraeli in 1865 and 1868, 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.[25] He took his seat in the House of Lords on 11 March 1884.[12]

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. Tennyson's family were Whigs by tradition and Tennyson's own politics fitted the Whig mould, although he would also vote for the Liberal Party after the Whigs dissolved.[26][27] Tennyson believed that society should progress through gradual and steady reform, not revolution, and this attitude was reflected in his attitude toward universal suffrage, which he did not outright reject, but recommended only after the masses had been properly educated and adjusted to self-government.[26] Upon passage of the 1832 Reform Act, Tennyson broke into a local church to ring the bells in celebration.[26]

Virginia Woolf wrote a play called Freshwater, showing Tennyson as host to his friends Julia Margaret Cameron and G. F. Watts.[28] 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.

Published one year after Tennyson's death, this sketch depicts him sitting in his favourite arbour at Farringford House, his home in the village of Freshwater, Isle of Wight.

Towards the end of his life Tennyson revealed that his "religious beliefs also defied convention, leaning towards agnosticism and pandeism":[29][30] In a characteristically Victorian manner, Tennyson combines a deep interest in contemporary science with an unorthodox, even idiosyncratic, Christian belief.[31] 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.[32]

Monument to Tennyson on Tennyson Down, Isle of Wight

Tennyson continued writing into his eighties. He died on 6 October 1892 at Aldworth, aged 83. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.[33] A memorial was erected in All Saints' Church, Freshwater. His last words were, "Oh that press will have me now!".[34] He left an estate of £57,206.[35] 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.[36]

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[edit]

Although Albert, Prince Consort, was largely responsible for Tennyson's appointment as Laureate,[24] 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.[37]

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."[38]

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.[39]

The art of Tennyson's poetry[edit]

Stained glass at Ottawa Public Library featuring Charles Dickens, Archibald Lampman, Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Tennyson, William Shakespeare, and Thomas Moore

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.[40] 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".[41] His complex compositional practice and frequent redrafting also demonstrates a dynamic relationship between images and words, as can be seen in the many notebooks he worked in.[42] 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.[43] 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.[44] Tennyson possessed a strong poetic power, which his early readers often attributed to his "Englishness" and his masculinity.[45] 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.[46] 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".[47] 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."[48]

Influence on Pre-Raphaelite artists[edit]

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.[49] The Lady of Shalott alone was a subject for Rossetti, Hunt, John William Waterhouse (three versions), and Elizabeth Siddall.

Tennyson heraldry[edit]

A 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[50] ("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.


A list of works by Tennyson follows:[51][52]

  • The Lover's Tale (Two parts published in 1833;[54] Tennyson suppressed it immediately after publication as he felt it was imperfect. A revised version comprising three parts was subsequently published in 1879 together with "The Golden Supper" as a fourth part.)[55]
  • "Rosalinde" (1833; suppressed until 1884)[56]
  • Poems (1842; with numerous subsequent editions including the 4th edition (1846) and 8th edition (1853));[57] the collection included many of the poems published in the 1833 anthology (some in revised form), and the following:


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  61. ^ Alfred Tennyson (1875). Queen Mary: A Drama. London: Henry S. King & Co. OCLC 926377946.
  62. ^ Alfred Tennyson (1877). Harold: A Drama. London: Henry S. King & Co. OCLC 1246230498.
  63. ^ Alfred Tennyson (1880). Ballads and Other Poems. London: C[harles] Kegan Paul & Co. OCLC 1086925503.
  64. ^ "Becket and other plays by Baron Alfred Tennyson Tennyson – Free Ebook". Retrieved 20 September 2014 – via Project Gutenberg.
  65. ^ Alfred Lord Tennyson (1899). Hallam Tennyson (ed.). The Life and Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Vol. 8. Macmillan. pp. 261–263.

General bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]

Digital collections of works
Institutional collections of works
Additional biographical information
Other works
Court offices
Preceded by British Poet Laureate
Succeeded by
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New title Baron Tennyson
Succeeded by