Alfred Tennyson was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1850 until his death in 1892. His works have retained a solid popularity to this day, and his writing is frequently quoted. Some of his most famous works include “The Lady of Shalott,” “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” “Ulysses,” “Idylls of a King,” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Tennyson was born on August 5th, 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire. His father, clergyman George Tennyson, was very involved in his education. As a result, Tennyson began writing at an early age and published a collection of poetry with his older brothers before he turned 18.
In 1827, Tennyson began studying at Trinity College in Cambridge. He would not finish his degree because his father’s death in 1831 compelled him to return to Somersby and care for his mother.
Arthur Henry Hallam, a friend of Tennyson’s from Trinty College, came to visit the Tennysons over the summer. He would become engaged to Emilia, Tennyson's younger sister, before dying suddenly of a stroke at the age of 22. The death of his dear friend impacted Tennyson deeply, and his grief for Hallam would often creep into his work. One of his longest, most beloved works, "In Memoriam A.H.H.", was written to both mourn and honor Hallam.
During the 1830s, Tennyson lived modestly and quietly. In 1842, Tennyson published his work for the first time in 10 years, having been discouraged after the hostile reception to his previous publication. This seemed to jump-start his writing career. Unfortunately, he would once again need to put his writing on hold due to ailing health.
Finally, his writing hit its stride in 1850. Three things happened to Tennyson this year: The first was his publication of “In Memoriam A.H.H.” The second was his marriage to Emily Sellwood, who he had known and loved for many years prior. Sellwood was a very educated woman, and would often assist Tennyson with his writing. Finally, 1850 was also the year he became the Poet Laureate upon the death of William Wordsworth.
During his tenure as Poet Laureate, Tennyson seemed to become more self-conscious of his writing. Many of his works from this time were criticized as “uninspired.”. This would make sense, given that his position required him to produce a substantial quantity of writing under rigid Victorian constraints of propriety. Consequentially, some of his best work would be published under various pseudonyms, one example being “Charge of the Light Brigade,” written in 1855. Tennyson, for reasons unknown, feared that such a poem would not behoove a Poet Laureate.
In both 1865 and 1868 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both lovers of Tennyson’s work, offered him a baronetcy. He would decline both times before eventually accepting a third offer in 1884. Most speculate that this was to secure the future of his family, since he was never comfortable as “Lord” Tennyson.
Tennyson held the title of Poet Laureate until his death on October 6th, 1892 at the age of 83. His 40 year tenure as Poet Laureate was unprecedented, and remains the longest anyone has held the title.
Work and Themes
Tennyson was often criticized for being too sentimental and melancholy, but his lyrical verses endure to this day. His poetry has such a melodic quality to it that his wife would often compose musical accompaniments.
Throughout his long career, Tennyson's poetry covered many topics. However there are several recurring elements in his work, many of which reflected the events of his life.
Nature often played a role in his works since it was, by all accounts, a lifelong passion. He would spend his childhood playing outdoors and his adulthood quietly walking through the woods. His poems often use nature as a descriptive device.
Mythology and folklore are also prominently featured in his writing, seen in poems like "Lady of Shallot," "Ulysses," and "Idylls of the King." Tennyson's father ensured that his children all received a good education, so perhaps this would explain his thorough knowledge on the topics.
Death and grief were also frequent subjects, giving Tennyson a reputation as a melancholic author. However, it was these works that embraced and contemplated such topics that became his most popular. "In Memoriam A.H.H." and "Crossing the Bar" are prime examples of this. Both poems embrace death and grief as a universal experience and leave the reader unexpectedly consoled.
Facts About Tennyson
-While attending Trinity College, Tennyson joined the Cambridge Apostles, a secret society that meets to this day. Meetings feature a prepared lecture given by a member, and an open discussion on the topic afterward.
-He named his eldest son Hallam to honor the memory of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam.
-“In Memoriam A.H.H.” was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite poems. She wrote that it was a great comfort after Prince Albert’s death.
-Tennyson was his own worst critic, constantly editing and rewriting his own manuscripts. His contemporary Robert Browning said it was “symptomatic of mental infirmity.”
-Towards the end of his life, he tried his hand at writing plays. These efforts were not well-received.
-Tennyson also recorded four of his works on wax cylinders.
-Despite his upbringing in a rectory and frequent allusions to Christianity in his work, Tennyson himself maintained a rather agnostic worldview.
-Before his death, Tennyson requested that all published collections of his poetry end with his poem “Crossing the Bar.”