Introduction to Alfred Lord Tennyson: Life and Major Poetic Works

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 1:06 The Beginnings:…
  • 3:31 Favor Found
  • 5:09 Success Cemented
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

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.

Favor Found

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.'

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