Alfred Tennyson and His Work

Alfred Tennyson and His Work
Alfred Tennyson was born on August 6th, 1809, at Somersby, Lincolnshire,
fourth of twelve children of George and Elizabeth Tennyson. Tennyson, said to
be the best poet of the Victorian era and his poetry will be discussed in this

Tennyson had a lifelong fear of mental illness, because several men in
his family had a mild form of epilepsy, which then was thought of as a shameful
disease. His father and brother Arthur made their epilepsy worse by excessive
drinking. His brother Edward had to be put in a mental institution after 1833,
and he spent a few weeks himself under doctor’s care in 1843. In the late
twenties his father’s physical and mental condition got worse, and he became
paranoid, abusive, and violent.

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In 1827 Tennyson escaped his troubled home when he followed his two
older brothers to Trinity College, Cambridge, where his teacher was William
Whewell. Because each of them had won university prizes for poetry the Tennyson
brothers became well known at Cambridge. In 1829 The Apostles, an undergraduate
club, invited him to join. The members of this group would remain Tennyson’s
friends all his life.

Arthur Hallam was the most important of these friendships. Hallam, a
brilliant Victorian young man was recognized by his peers as having unusual
promise. He and Tennyson knew each other only four years, but their intense
friendship had a major influence on the poet. On a visit to Somersby, Hallam
met and later became engaged to Emily Tennyson, and the two friends looked
forward to a life-long companionship. Hallam died from illness in 1833 at the
age of 22 and shocked Tennyson profoundly. His grief lead to most of his best
poetry, including “In Memoriam”, “The Passing of Arthur”, “Ulysses”, and

Since Tennyson was always sensitive to criticism, The bad reviews of his
1832 poems hurt him greatly. Critics in those days took great joy in the
harshness of their reviews. John Wilson Croker’s harsh criticisms of some of
the poems he wrote kept Tennyson from publishing again for another nine years.

The success of his 1842 poems made Tennyson a popular poet, and in 1845
he got a government pension of 200 pounds a year, which helped him with his
financial difficulties. The success of “The Princess” and “In Memoriam” and his
appointment as Poet Laureate in 1850 finally established him as the most popular
poet of the Victorian era.

By now Tennyson, only 41, had written some of his greatest poetry, but
he continued to write and to gain popularity. Prince Albert admired his poetry
so much that he would drop by unexpectedly to here some of Tennyson’s poetry.

This helped solidify his position as the national poet, and Tennyson returned
the favour by dedicating “The Idylls of the King” to his memory.

Tennyson suffered from extreme short-sightedness so without a monocle he
could not even see to eat. This made for difficult reading and writing, and
this is why he composed a lot of his poetry in his head. Sometimes he would
work on a single poem for many years.

Every aspect of the Victorian era were found in his poetry. His poetry
covered a large range of subjects such as moral and religious problems in his
time. His poems also discuss the events of his day – “The Charge of the Light
Brigade” and “The Death of the Duke of Wellington” are two poems of this type
that show the emotion of the nation.

Tennyson’s work is appreciated perhaps for the sheer beauty of his
writing, his descriptions of the natural world and of the landscape-most often
the Lincolnshire countryside which he grew up in:
Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
And on these dews that drench the furze,
And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold
(Culler, A. Dwight, pg. 39)
The public’ side of Tennyson’s work is now valued less than his more
personal poetry. He writes about how reality destroys the ideal world as in
“The Lady of Shalott”. Frequently, Tennyson’s personal worries were the same
as those of the time. For example, the way he describes Sir Bedivere’s reaction
to the death of King Arthur in “Morte D’Arthur”. Tennyson expresses Sir
Bedivere’s problem, caught in a changing world and with stable traditions
disappearing fast. “For now I see the true old times are dead…”(Culler, A.

Dwight, pg. 47):
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.

(Culler, A. Dwight, pg. 48)
Probably his greatest poem is “In Memoriam”, published in 1850, though
written over the previous seventeen years. He started writing it after the
youthful death of his best friend, Arthur Hallam. His death led Tennyson to
question the purpose of life and the importance of death. “In Memoriam” is
almost like a poetic diary since all events are linked to Hallam and to the
question of death. They say it’s the uncertainty of the poem that makes it so
good. The twentieth century poet T. S. Eliot said of it, “Its faith is a very
poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.” The intensity, the
doubt, the beauty: all are typical of Tennyson.

Long-lived like most of his family, no matter how unhealthy they seemed
to be, Alfred, Lord Tennyson died on October 6, 1892, at the age of 83.

1. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Knowledge (1978)
2. Culler, A. Dwight, The Poetry of Tennyson (1977)
3. Nicolson, Harold, Tennyson: Aspects of His Life, Character, and Poetry
4. Software Toolworks Multimedia Encyclopedia (1992)


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