Tennyson’s Poetry

by: Alfred Lord Tennyson

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs

Tragic Death

Early, tragic death and suicide appear throughout Tennyson’s poetry. Perhaps the most significant event of his life was the untimely death of his best friend Arthur Hallam at age twenty-two, which prompted Tennyson to write his greatest literary work, In Memoriam. This long poem uses the so-called In Memoriam stanza, or a quatrain that uses iambic tetrameter and has an abba rhyme scheme. The formal consistency expresses Tennyson’s grief and links the disparate stanzas together into an elegiac whole. The speaker of “Break, Break, Break” (1834) sees death even in sunsets, while the early “Mariana” (1830) features a woman who longs for death after her lover abandons her. Each of that poem’s seven stanzas ends with the line “I would that I were dead.” The lady in “The Lady of Shalott” brings about her own death by going out into an autumn storm dressed only in a thin white dress. Similarly, the cavalrymen in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” ride to their deaths by charging headlong into the Russian cannons. These poems lyrically mourn those who died tragically, often finding nobility in their characters or their deaths.

Scientific Language

Tennyson took a great interest in the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century, and his poetry manifests this interest in its reliance on scientific language. “The Kraken” (1830), which describes an ancient, slumbering sea beast, mentions a “cell” (8) and “polypi” (9). Section 21 of In Memoriam alludes to the 1846 discovery of Neptune. There, a traveler tells the speaker not to grieve for his friend. Rather than grieve, the traveler says, the speaker should rejoice in the marvelous possibilities of science. Section 120, in contrast, features the speaker wondering what good science might do in a world full of religious doubt and despair. Other poems praise technological discoveries and inventions, including the steamships and railways discussed in “Locksley Hall,” or mention specific plants and flowers, as does “The Lotos-Eaters” (1832, 1842). Taking metaphors and poetic diction from science allowed Tennyson to connect to his age and to modernize his sometimes antiquarian language and archaic verse forms.

The Ancient World

Like the romantic poets who preceded him, Tennyson found much inspiration in the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. In poems such as “The Lotos-Eaters” and “Ulysses,” Tennyson retells the stories of Dante and Homer, which described the characters of Ulysses, Telemachus, and Penelope and their adventures in the ancient world. However, Tennyson slightly alters these mythic stories, shifting the time frame of some of the action and often adding more descriptive imagery to the plot. For instance, “Ulysses,” a dramatic monologue spoken by Homer’s hero, urges readers to carry on and persevere rather than to give up and retire. Elsewhere Tennyson channels the voice of Tithonus, a legendary prince from Troy, in the eponymous poem “Tithonus” (1833, 1859). He praises the ancient poet Virgil in his ode “To Virgil” (1882), commenting on Virgil’s choice of subject matter and lauding his ability to chronicle human history in meter. Tennyson mined the ancient world to find stories that would simultaneously enthrall and inspire his readers.