Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Major Works: "The Lady of Shalott" (1832, 1842), "The Lotus-Eaters" (1832, 1842), "Ulysses" (1842), "Locksley Hall" (1842), "Morte D'Arthur" (1842), In Memoriam (1850), Maud (1855), Idylls of the King (1859, 1869 ), "Crossing the Bar" (1889).
Biographical Notes: Tennyson was educated partly by his father, a drunken epileptic, and later at Cambridge, where he joined the elite intellectual circle, "The Apostles" (which included Arthur Hallam, the friend whose early death is mourned in In Memoriam). His branch of the Tennyson family was disinherited, and poverty forced him to leave Cambridge and to put off his intended marriage to Emily Sellwood for some 14 years. It has recently been suggested that this long engagement also stemmed from Tennyson's grave concerns about passing along the "black blood" of the Tennyson family. Tennyson's father frequently suffered fits of depression and violence, and later in life he was a severe alcoholic. "The Tennyson children . . . were all talented, but there was among them a remarkably high proportion of severe neurosis" (Houghton). By age Tennyson had completed a poem of 8000 lines, and he wrote and published poetry throughout his teens. His first adult collection of poems, published in 1832, was savaged by critics, and the sensitive Tennyson did not publish again for ten years. His 1842 publication was well received, and his fame as a poet grew steadily over the 1840s. In 1850 he succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate, and he was generally regarded as England's greatest poet through most of the mid- and late Victorian period. He was unquestionably the most popular poet of the Victorian Era; today he is often seen as the most representative Victorian writer of them all.
It has been argued that following the death from stroke at age 22 of his gifted friend Arthur Hallam in 1833, Tennyson basically "spent the rest of his creative life rewriting one poem in a dazzling variety of ways." This "one poem" finds its clearest expression in In Memoriam, and the common thread among all the post-1833 poems and many before Hallam's death involves both a sense of painful lossthemes of deprivation, loneliness, and despairand the typically Victorian sentiment that life must go on, that progress is good, that we need to strive towards the future even if just for the sake of the striving. Like Carlyle, Tennyson was a great believer in the value of action, of working, doing, pressing onward into the future.
Tennyson often seems to veer between the two diametrically opposed poles of being a "wayward lyricist," deeply personal in his poetry, and of being the "poet of the people," whose works offer significant social commentary and didactic instruction to his contemporaries. In a sense, Tennyson felt equally drawn to the opposing ideas of an individual vision of Beauty and of social responsibility. From the Romantics he inherited the notion that personal, subjective experience was important to poetry; the subjective Tennyson most often describes situations of alienation, resignation, melancholy, or despair. And from the Victorian Utilitarians he had the idea that poetry should be "practically useful"that a poet should address the moral and social situation of his or her times (as Carlyle and Elizabeth Barrett Browning both suggest).
Tennyson became the quintessential Victorian poet because he succeeded in translating his personal experience into universal significance characteristic of his era. His personal grieving for his friend, Hallam, in In Memoriam operates on a larger symbolic level as well, representing an examination of the spiritual condition of Victorians in general as they faced and tried to reconcile problems of religious faith in an age of scientific discovery and technological progress. Throughout much of his poetry Tennyson grapples with issues of capitalist materialism and the spiritual hollowness that came with a loss of absolute faith in fundamentalist Christianity.
Ultimately, Tennyson is also the quintessential Victorian optimistanother seeming contradiction. Much of his work is characteristically melancholy in tone, but Tennyson is consistently optimistic in the belief that even the most painful change was movement towards a better, brighter future.