Tennyson’s poetic output covers a breadth difficult to comprehend in a single system of thematics: his various works treat issues of political and historical concern, as well as scientific matters, classical mythology, and deeply personal thoughts and feelings. Tennyson is both a poet of penetrating introspection and a poet of the people; he plumbs the depths of his own consciousness while also giving voice to the national consciousness of Victorian society.
As a child, Tennyson was influenced profoundly by the poetry of Byron and Scott, and his earliest poems reflect the lyric intensity and meditative expressiveness of his Romantic forebears. These early poems demonstrate his ability to link external scenery to interior states of mind. However, unlike the Romantics, whose nature poems present a scene that raises an emotional or psychological problem, Tennyson uses nature as a psychological category. In “Mariana,” for example, he uses Keatsian descriptions of the natural world to describe a woman’s state of mind; he conveys via his natural setting the consciousness of a woman waiting vainly for her lover, and her increasing hopelessness.
Not only is Tennyson a poet of the natural and psychological landscape, he also attends frequently to the past, and historical events. “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 Cambridge days, when Hallam would read poetry aloud to his friends: thus Tennyson writes, “O bliss, when all in circle drawn / About him, heart and ear were fed / To hear him, as he lay and read / The Tuscan poets on the lawn!” Tennyson grapples with the tremendous grief he feels after the loss of such a dear friend, concluding famously that “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
“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. The new discoveries in biology, astronomy, and geology 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 also spoke to his Victorian contemporaries about issues of urgent social and political concern. In “The Princess” he addresses the relations between the sexes and argues for women’s rights in higher education. In “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” he speaks out in favor of a controversial diplomatic maneuver, the disastrous charge on the Russian army by British troops in the Crimean War. Thus, for all his love of the past, Tennyson also maintained a lively interest in the developments of his day, remaining deeply committed to reforming the society in which he lived and to which he gave voice.
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