Tennyson lived during a period of great scientific advancement, and he used his poetry to work out the conflict between religious faith and scientific discoveries. Notable scientific findings and theories of the Victorian period include stratigraphy, the geological study of rock layers used to date the earth, in 1811; the first sighting of an asteroid in 1801 and galaxies in the 1840s; and Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection in 1859. In the second half of the century, scientists, such as Fülöp Semmelweis, Joseph Lister, and Louis Pasteur, began the experiments and work that would eventually lead to germ theory and our modern understanding of microorganisms and diseases. These discoveries challenged traditional religious understandings of nature and natural history.
For most of his career, Tennyson was deeply interested in and troubled by these discoveries. His poem “Locksley Hall” (1842) expresses his ambivalence about technology and scientific progress. There the speaker feels tempted to abandon modern civilization and return to a savage life in the jungle. In the end, he chooses to live a civilized, modern life and enthusiastically endorses technology. In Memoriam connects the despair Tennyson felt over the loss of his friend Arthur Hallam and the despair he felt when contemplating a godless world. In the end, the poem affirms both religious faith and faith in human progress. Nevertheless, Tennyson continued to struggle with the reconciliation of science and religion, as illustrated by some of his later work. For example, “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” (1886) takes as its protagonist the speaker from the original “Locksley Hall,” but now he is an old man, who looks back on his youthful optimism and faith in progress with scorn and skepticism.
After the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, Tennyson struggled through a period of deep despair, which he eventually overcame to begin writing again. During his time of mourning, Tennyson rarely wrote and, for many years, battled alcoholism. Many of his poems are about the temptation to give up and fall prey to pessimism, but they also extol the virtues of optimism and discuss the importance of struggling on with life. The need to persevere and continue is the central theme of In Memoriam and “Ulysses” (1833), both written after Hallam’s death. Perhaps because of Tennyson’s gloomy and tragic childhood, perseverance and optimism also appear in poetry written before Hallam’s death, such as “The Lotos-Eaters” (1832, 1842). Poems such as “The Lady of Shalott” (1832, 1842) and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) also vary this theme: both poems glorify characters who embrace their destinies in life, even though those destinies end in tragic death. The Lady of Shalott leaves her seclusion to meet the outer world, determined to seek the love that is missing in her life. The cavalrymen in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” keep charging through the valley toward the Russian cannons; they persevere even as they realize that they will likely die.
Tennyson used his poetry to express his love for England. Although he expressed worry and concern about the corruption that so dominated the nineteenth century, he also wrote many poems that glorify nineteenth-century England. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” praises the fortitude and courage of English soldiers during a battle of the Crimean War in which roughly 200 men were killed. As poet laureate, Tennyson was required to write poems for specific state occasions and to dedicate verse to Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. Nevertheless, Tennyson praised England even when not specifically required to do so. In the Idylls of the King, Tennyson glorified England by encouraging a collective English cultural identity: all of England could take pride in Camelot, particularly the chivalrous and capable knights who lived there. Indeed, the modern conception of Camelot as the source of loyalty, chivalry, and romance comes, in part, from Tennyson’s descriptions of it in the Idylls of the King and “The Lady of Shalott.”
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.
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.
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.
To Tennyson, King Arthur symbolizes the ideal man, and Arthurian England was England in its best and purest form. Some of Tennyson’s earliest poems, such as “The Lady of Shalott,” were set in King Arthur’s time. Indeed, Tennyson rhymes Camelot, the name of King Arthur’s estate, with Shalott in eighteen of the poem’s twenty stanzas, thereby emphasizing the importance of the mythical place. Furthermore, our contemporary conception of Camelot as harmonious and magnificent comes from Tennyson’s poem. Idylls of the King, about King Arthur’s rise and fall, was one of the major projects of Tennyson’s late career. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert envisioned themselves as latter-day descendents of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and their praise helped popularize the long poem. But King Arthur also had a more personal representation to Tennyson: the mythic king represents a version of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, whose death at twenty-two profoundly affected Tennyson. Hallam’s death destroyed his potential and promise, which allowed Tennyson to idealize Hallam. This idealization allows Tennyson to imagine what might have been in the best possible light, much as he does when describing King Arthur and his court.
The imprisoned woman appears throughout Tennyson’s work. In “Mariana,” a woman abandoned by her lover lives alone in her house in the middle of desolate country; her isolation imprisons her, as does the way she waits for her lover to return. Her waiting limits her ability and desire to do anything else. “The Lady of Shalott” is likewise about a woman imprisoned, this time in a tower. Should she leave her prison, a curse would fall upon her. Tennyson, like many other Victorian poets, used female characters to symbolize the artistic and sensitive aspects of the human condition. Imprisoned women, such as these Tennyson characters, act as symbols for the isolation experienced by the artist and other sensitive, deep-feeling people. Although society might force creative, sensitive types to become outcasts, in Tennyson’s poems, the women themselves create their own isolation and imprisonment. These women seem unable or unwilling to deal with the outside world.