How did Tennyson’s poetry change after he became Poet Laureate in 1850?

Tennyson’s later poetry was primarily narrative rather than lyrical. For example, unlike “Mariana,” which described a particular emotional state through landscape, his later poem Maud took the form of a “monodrama” (in Tennyson’s own words), in which a speaker tells his story in a sequence of short lyrics in varying meters. In addition, whereas his later works considered themes from mythology, history, or personal memory, Tennyson’s later poetry dealt with issues of current national concern. As Poet Laureate, Tennyson represented the literary voice of the nation and, as such, made occasional pronouncements on political affairs. For example, in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854), he depicted a disastrous battle in the Crimean War and praised the heroism of the British soldiers. 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).

Tennyson said that as a child he was haunted by “the passion of the past.” In what ways can Tennyson be considered a poet of the past?

Most of Tennyson’s best poems ponder the past. “The Lady of Shalott” and the poems within Idylls of the King take place in medieval England and capture a world of knights in shining armor and their damsels in distress. In addition to treating the history of his nation, Tennyson also explores the mythological past, as articulated in classical works of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. His “Ulysses” and “The Lotos- Eaters” draw upon actual incidents in Homer’s Odyssey . Likewise, his ode “To Virgil” abounds with allusions to incidents in the great poet’s Aeneid , especially the fall of Troy. Tennyson thus looked both to historical and mythological pasts as repositories for his poetry. Tennyson’s personal past, too, figures prominently in his work. The sudden death of his closest friend Arthur Henry Hallam when Tennyson was just 24 dealt a great emotional blow to the young poet, who spent the next ten years writing over a hundred poems dedicated to his departed friend, later collected and published as “In Memoriam” in 1850. This lengthy work describes Tennyson’s memories of the time he spent with Hallam, including their days at Cambridge University. “In Memoriam” also reflects Tennyson’s struggle with the Victorians’ growing awareness of another sort of past: the vast expanse of geological time and evolutionary history. His treatment of the important scientific issues of his day represents an attempt to come to terms with the evolutionary past history of our species and our world. Tennyson can thus be considered a poet of the historical, mythological, personal, and evolutionary past.

How did Tennyson respond to the scientific advances of his day?

Tennyson lived through many important discoveries and developments in the fields of biology, astronomy, and geology. In 1830-33, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology extended the history of the earth back millions of years and reduced the stature of the human race in time. Astronomers presented a map of the sky overwhelming in its vastness. Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) made humans just another species within the animal kingdom. The new discoveries implied a view of humanity that much distressed many Victorians, including Tennyson. In Maud, for example, he describes the stars as “cold fires, yet with power to burn and brand / His nothingness into man”; unlike the Romantics, he possessed a painful awareness of the brutality and indifference of “Nature red in tooth and claw.” Although Tennyson associated evolution with progress, he also worried that the notion seemed to contradict the biblical story of creation and long-held assumptions about man’s place in the world. Nonetheless, in “In Memoriam,” he insists that we must keep our faith despite the latest discoveries of science: he writes, “Strong Son of God, immortal Love / Whom we, that have not seen they face, / By faith, and faith alone, embrace / Believing where we cannot prove.” At the end of the poem, he concludes that God’s eternal plan includes purposive biological development; thus he reassures his Victorian readers that the new science does not mean the end of the old faith. Tennyson thus provided the Victorians with a way of reconciling the new discoveries of science with their personal and religious convictions about man’s place and purpose.

Read more about Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.