He's a Poet Laureate, a master wordsmith and the originator of quotes you probably think came from Shakespeare. Check out our lesson on Alfred, Lord Tennyson, possibly the most important English poet of the Victorian era!
These days, it's rare for critical and popular success to go hand-in-hand together. It happens; it's not that common. (You know, like really high-quality popular works like The Da Vinci Code and Twilight. They're of such 'high literary merit' we'll probably do videos on them at some point.) But if that were to happen, and also if that kind of success was to be mixed with state-sanctioned success, it would be like if Obama were to say that The Avengers was the next 'official movie of America' or that Twilight was the next 'official book' (which would be a horrifying thing). That's kind of what happened to the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He was super successful, he was super popular, critics loved him and he was England's Poet Laureate for an awfully long time. So he had all three: state support, critical 'thumbs up' and also people liked him. He kind of had it all; he was a lucky man.
The Beginnings: Tennyson Struggles
So how does a middle-class rector's son from rural England come to attain all this honor? Basically, he did lots of publishing and lots of great writing. But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. We're going to say a bit about his background. He was born in Lincolnshire in England in 1809. He was the fourth of 12 children (which is a lot). From a pretty early age, he showed that he was good at poetry. When he was 17, he published his first work with some family members. Two years later, he enrolled at Trinity College in Cambridge, and he got a Chancellor's Gold Medal for his poem 'Timbuctoo,' which is about the city in Africa. It shows his Romantic influence to a certain extent; poets like Keats had a big effect on him.
Tennyson wasn't able to finish college due to family issues, but he did publish his first solo collection in 1830 when he was 20 (so he was doing pretty well). This was called Poems Chiefly Lyrical, which is a wonderfully English name. The collection includes a few Tennyson classics, like 'The Kraken' ('Release the Kraken!'), which shows Tennyson's fascination with mythology - something that's going to come up over and over again - and 'Mariana,' which explores Tennyson's interest in isolation (which again, comes up over and over again). Mythology, isolation - important things for Tennyson.
In 1833, he publishes again. This one is just called Poems. It doesn't really get good reviews at the time, but we think it's good now. It includes poems like 'The Lady of Shalott,' which is really quite a famous one. That's the ballad based on Arthurian legends; again, that mythology thing is coming back. 'The Lotos-Eaters' (more mythology) is based a little bit on 'The Odyssey.' Odysseus' men ate a lot of lotuses, got high, fell asleep. Again, mythology and isolation are rearing their heads. 'Lotos-Eaters' is also worth mentioning because it was inspired by a vacation that Tennyson took with his friend Arthur Hallam, who is going to come up later in more detail. I guess it was some vacation. I don't know if they were eating lotuses or what they were doing, maybe opium, who knows. They all did opium back then.
In 1842, Tennyson is not doing that well financially, but then he publishes again. This time, he's got a lot of success. He's got two more volumes that are both called Poems. It's the material that's edited from that 1833 work and some new stuff. He doesn't really use creative titles, which sort of bothers me, but I guess it didn't bother the critics because they liked it. And he gets a lot of public success from this; it's popular, he makes some money, he's doing well. Some of the more famous ones from this are a poem called 'Locksley Hall,' which is about a soldier who returns to his childhood home (again, isolation, becoming 'not isolation' in this case), as well as 'Ulysses,' which is a similarly themed work (someone coming home) about the mythological hero Odysseus returning to his kingdom, Ithaca, after the events of 'The Odyssey'. 'Ulysses' is often cited as a key example of dramatic monologue poetry, and it's one of Tennyson's most famous works. Not to be confused with James Joyce's Ulysses, which is not a poem, but is another work in this long tradition of things based on 'The Odyssey.'
After the success of the 1842 book of poetry, Tennyson returns to publishing. He publishes his first long-form work in 1847, called 'The Princess,' which is supposed to be about women's education but also gender roles in society in general. It was actually adapted by Gilbert and Sullivan into Princess Ida in 1884, so that's kind of the lasting legacy of the work.
So 1850 is definitely the watershed year for Tennyson. There are three major events that change his life. First, he finally stabilizes his finances, so he's able to marry his longtime love interest Emily Sellwood. Second, he publishes the landmark poem 'In Memoriam A.H.H.'
In Memoriam A.H.H. was dedicated to Arthur Hallam
It's dedicated to his friend, Arthur Hallam (that's the one he went on the lotus-eating vacation with). This massive poem - it's 131 sections - is written over 17 years. It's really personal, and it's really an incredible reflection of mortality in Victorian society (this is, again, in memory of his friend who died): what place religious conceptions of life, death and the afterlife have in a culture that's getting more and more scientifically dominated. It really explores these ideas. Besides cementing his reputation as a poet, 'In Memoriam' also gets the attention of Queen Victoria, who appoints him Poet Laureate later that year.
Now he's an official representative of the state; he's the state poet. He's going to write England stuff. So he starts producing work that we're a bit more familiar with. He's got, in 1854, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade,' which is about the Crimean War and includes the famous lines 'Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do or die.'
That's where we get 'do or die' essentially. He also continued to do private work during this period. In 1855, he wrote a poem called 'Maud,' which was very controversial and racy. Throughout this period, he also released 'Idylls of the King,' which is a cycle of 12 narrative poems, again focusing on Arthurian legend and myth. In 1874, he starts trying to work on drama, which doesn't really work that well. It didn't take off quite like his poetry.
He writes through the remainder of his life and passes away at the age of 83 in 1892. He's buried at Westminster Abbey along with lots of other luminaries. His legacy is a quality poetic output across a number of forms and styles. I mentioned a ton of poems; they're all pretty famous and successful. He wrote a bunch. And even if we don't know it, we've all been exposed to Tennyson. We've all taken solace in the famous line from 'In Memoriam' (which a lot of people incorrectly say is from Shakespeare): 'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all'.
That's Tennyson. I think we've all heard that or at least been told it in some form or another. So that's his legacy, and that's Tennyson in a nutshell.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Summarize Tennyson's early life and works
- Name and discuss Tennyson's significant works