Erin Lafford, a DPhil student, introduces the life and work of the Victorian poet and Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson in this guest blog post.
Tennyson was born on 6th August, 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, to a large family that experienced many financial and emotional problems. His father’s ongoing rivalry with his brother, who was favoured in his receipt of the family inheritance, combined with a complex family medical history of epilepsy and mental disorder posed various threats; the notorious “black blood” of the Tennysons circulated around many of the Tennyson children, Alfred included. Many of his poems are marked by a sense of loss, depression, and despair (‘Mariana’ (1830), ‘The Lotos-Eaters’’ (1832), and ‘Ulysses’ (1842)) whilst some (‘The Princess’ (1847), In Memoriam A. H. H (1850), and ‘Maud’ (1854) ), were composed during his own period of emotional breakdown from 1844-45.
Despite this turbulent context, Tennyson’s early years were marked by his fledgling experiments with poetry, and he published a small volume, Poems by Two Brothers (1827), with his brothers Charles and Frederick. This early poetic success continued whilst Tennyson was studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his poem Timbuctoo was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal in 1829. During his time there, Tennyson became involved with the Apostles, a young intellectual society. As a result, he forged a strong personal connection with Arthur Hallam (1811-1833), whose sudden death from a stroke whilst travelling in Vienna devastated the young Tennyson, and became the subject of his greatest known poem, In Memoriam A.H.H
Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) was Tennyson’s first major volume of poetry. It contains such key works as ‘Mariana’, ‘The Kraken’, his pair of lyrics ‘The Mermaid’ and ‘The Merman’, ‘Supposed Confessions of a Second Rate Sensitive Mind’ as well as many other works in ode or sonnet form. His subsequent publication, Poems (1832), contains the well-known ‘The Lady of Shalott’, as well as ‘Enone’, ‘The Palace of Art’ and ‘The Lotos-Eaters’. Arthur Hallam’s review of these volumes did much for recognition of Tennyson as a poet, as he dubbed him the ‘poet of sensation’ for his ability to capture states of emotion and feeling through his lyrically affective language and rhythm. His 1842 volume Poems contains ‘Ulysses’, Tennyson’s famous and moving dramatic monologue written from the perspective of the aged king coming to the end of his role and contemplating the meaning of his life’s achievements, as well as anticipating the end of life with courage and resolve: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. This adoption of a well-known historic, literary or mythical persona in order to contemplate ideas of ageing, station, death, and religion is a frequent technique of Tennyson’s, and his 1842 volume contains other important dramatic monologues such as ‘Saint Simeon Stylites’, ‘Tithonus’ and ‘Tiresias’. Use of the dramatic monologue allows Tennyson to adopt the tone and expression of his persona in order to emphasise the themes and questions he explores in these poems. St Simeon Stylites’ repetitive, exclamatory religious proclamations, “O Jesus, if thou wilt not save my soul, / Who may be saved? Who is it may be saved”, for example, convey a personal state of pain and religious anxiety as Tennyson simultaneously questions the Saint’s sacrificial self-harm as a route to experiencing God through his violent depiction of bodily injury: “And both my thighs are rotted with the dew; / Yet cease I not to clamor and to cry, / While my stiff spine can hold my weary head, / Till all my limbs drop piecemeal from the stone”. Tennyson’s most well-received poetic persona by his Victorian readership is his portrayal of King Arthur and the other knights of the Round Table in his epic ‘Idylls of the King’. Not only did this subject material appeal to Victorian readers who would have been well-acquainted with these tales, it also permitted Tennyson, through the fall of Arthur, a Christ-like figure, to explore the religious crisis that developed during the nineteenth-century: “The old order changeth yielding place to new, / And God fulfils himself in many ways, / Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. / Comfort thyself; what comfort is in me?” (‘The Passing of Arthur’).
This profound sense of loss, change, and religious anxiety runs through In Memoriam. T.S Eliot described Tennyson’s famous elegy as “the concentrated diary of a man confessing himself. It is a diary of which we have to read every word”. Through his journal-like series of elegiac stanzas, Tennyson skilfully moves from his private grief to public issues, providing a personal elegy that is capable of speaking to all who have experienced loss: “That loss is common would not make / My own less bitter, rather more: / Too common! Never morning wore / To evening, but some heart did break”. His ABBA stanza structure and steady, iambic rhythm that pervades through each section provides a comforting framework from which Tennyson represents many fragmentary and jarring states and experiences. His reaction to the geological and evolutionary scientific progressions occurring around him are vividly expressed in section 56, as Tennyson rails against a nature revealed as “red in tooth and claw” and careless of the “type” of a human life that valued the existence of God. The elegy has also become known as one of Tennyson’s most thoughtful considerations on the ‘use’ of poetry and how effective it is an conveying such strong emotional states as grief and loss: “I sometimes hold it half a sin / To put in words the grief I feel; / For words, like Nature, half reveal / And half conceal the Soul within”. It is this ability to bring these multiple themes and ideas into one affective whole that marks In Memoriam as one of Tennyson’s greatest works. It even earned him the position of Poet Laureate in 1850, a testament to the significance of his poetry during his own lifetime and a marker of its potential to resonate with us still.