The English poet Alfred Tennyson was born in Sommersby, England on August 6, 1809, twenty years after the start of the French Revolution and toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He was the fourth of twelve children born to George and Elizabeth Tennyson. His father, a church reverend, supervised his sons’ private education, though his heavy drinking impeded his ability to fulfill his duties. His mother was an avid supporter of the Evangelical movement, which aimed to replace nominal Christianity with a genuine, personal religion. The young Alfred demonstrated an early flair for poetry, composing a full-length verse drama at the age of fourteen. In 1827, when he was eighteen, he and his brother Charles published an anonymous collection entitled Poems by Two Brothers, receiving a few vague complimentary reviews.
That same year, Tennyson left home to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, under the supervision of William Whewell, the great nineteenth-century scientist, philosopher, and theologian. University life exposed him to the most urgent political issue in his day—the question of Parliamentary Reform, which ultimately culminated in the English Reform Bill of 1832. Although Tennyson believed that reform was long overdue, he felt that it must be undertaken cautiously and gradually; his university poems show little interest in politics.
Tennyson soon became friendly with a group of undergraduates calling themselves the “Apostles,” which met to discuss literary issues. The group was led by Arthur Henry Hallam, who soon became Tennyson’s closest friend. Tennyson and Hallam toured Europe together while still undergraduates, and Hallam later became engaged to the poet’s sister Emily. In 1830, Tennyson published Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, to Hallam’s great praise. However, within the larger critical world, this work, along with Tennyson’s 1832 volume including “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Lotos-Eaters,” met with hostile disparagement; the young poet read his reviews with dismay.
In 1833, no longer able to afford college tuition, Tennyson was living back at home with his family when he received the most devastating blow of his entire life: he learned that his dear friend Hallam had died suddenly of fever while traveling abroad. His tremendous grief at the news permeated much of Tennyson’s later poetry, including the great elegy “In Memoriam.” This poem represents the poet’s struggles not only with the news of his best friend’s death, but also with the new developments in astronomy, biology, and geology that were diminishing man’s stature on the scale of evolutionary time; although Darwin’s Origin of Species did not appear until 1859, notions of evolution were already in circulation, articulated in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33) and Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844).
Tennyson first began to achieve critical success with the publication of his Poems in 1842, a work that include “Ulysses,” “Tithonus,” and other famous short lyrics about mythical and philosophical subjects. At the time of publication, England had seen the death of Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats, and indeed all of the great Romantic poets except Wordsworth; Tennyson thus filled a lacuna in the English literary scene. In 1845, he began receiving a small government pension for his poetry. In 1850, Wordsworth, who had been Britain’s Poet Laureate, died at the age of 80; upon the publication of “In Memoriam,” Tennyson was named to succeed him in this honor. With this title he became the most popular poet in Victorian England and could finally afford to marry Emily Sellwood, whom he had loved since 1836. The marriage began sadly—the couple’s first son was stillborn in 1851—but the couple soon found happiness: in 1853 they were able to move to a secluded country house on the Isle of Wight, where they raised two sons named Hallam and Lionel.
Tennyson continued to write and to gain popularity. His later poetry primarily followed a narrative rather than lyrical style; as the novel began to emerge as the most popular literary form, poets began searching for new ways of telling stories in verse. For example, in Tennyson’s poem “Maud,” a speaker tells his story in a sequence of short lyrics in varying meters; Tennyson described the work as an experimental “monodrama.” Not only were his later verses concerned with dramatic fiction, they also examined current national political drama. As Poet Laureate, Tennyson represented the literary voice of the nation and, as such, he made occasional pronouncements on political affairs. For example, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) described a disastrous battle in the Crimean War and praised the heroism of the British soldiers there. In 1859, Tennyson published the first four Idylls of the King, a group of twelve blank-verse narrative poems tracing the story of the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This collection, dedicated to Prince Albert, enjoyed much popularity among the royal family, who saw Arthur’s lengthy reign as a representation of Queen Victoria’s 64-year rule (1837-1901).
In 1884, the Royals granted Tennyson a baronetcy; he was now known as Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He dedicated most of the last fifteen years of his life to writing a series of full-length dramas in blank verse, which, however, failed to excite any particular interest. In 1892, at the age of 83, he died of heart failure and was buried among his illustrious literary predecessors at Westminster Abbey. Although Tennyson was the most popular poet in England in his own day, he was often the target of mockery by his immediate successors, the Edwardians and Georgians of the early twentieth century. Today, however, many critics consider Tennyson to be the greatest poet of the Victorian Age; and he stands as one of the major innovators of lyric and metrical form in all of English poetry.