. Giovanni, 19th Century
Portrait of Alfred Lord Tennyson
Portrait of Alfred Lord Tennyson

"Alfred tennyson from Life Devon 1891"

oil on canvas
93 x 71 cm. (36.3/4 x 28 in.)


Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl Balfour


Tennyson, Alfred, first Baron Tennyson (1809–1892), poet, was born on 6 August 1809 at Somersby rectory, Lincolnshire, the fourth child (there were to be eight sons and four daughters in fourteen years) of the Revd Dr George Clayton Tennyson (1778–1831), rector of Somersby, and his wife, Elizabeth (bap. 1780, d. 1865), daughter of the Revd Stephen Fytche, vicar of Louth, Lincolnshire.

The family

Tennyson's father, though not strictly disinherited, had been reduced in favour and fortune much below his younger brother, and Tennyson's youth was overshadowed by this family feud between the Tennysons of Somersby and the grandparents, of Bayons Manor (16 miles away), with their favoured son (later Charles Tennyson-D'Eyncourt; 1784–1861). Tennyson's wife, Emily, was to write, in her reminiscences for her two sons, of this ‘caprice on the part of your great-grandfather’, whereby Dr Tennyson
was deprived of a station which he would so greatly have adorned and put into the Church for whose duties he felt no call. This preyed upon his nerves and his health and caused much sorrow in his house. Many a time has your father [the poet] gone out in the dark and cast himself on a grave in the little churchyard near wishing to be beneath it.(Lincoln MS; compare H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.15)
The black blood of the Tennysons was all too familiar. The oldest surviving brother (George had died in infancy) was Frederick Tennyson (1807–1898); irascible, he was to live, mostly in Italy, in expatriate eccentricity. The next senior was Charles (later, from 1835, as the condition of an uncle's bequest, Charles Turner, often known as Charles Tennyson Turner (1808–1879), an exquisite poet, praised by Coleridge); he was for many years addicted to opium and vulnerable to alcohol (it was long before he arrived at his serenity). A younger brother, Edward, succumbed in 1832 to insanity, which proved incurable throughout his long life (he died in 1890, only two years before his famous brother). Arthur for a while in the 1840s collapsed into alcoholism. Then there was the brother who rose from the hearthrug and introduced himself, ‘I am Septimus, the most morbid of the Tennysons’ (C. Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, 199). Of him, Tennyson wrote to his uncle Charles in 1834:
At present his symptoms are not unlike those with which poor Edward's unhappy derangement began—he is subject to fits of the most gloomy despondency accompanied with tears—or rather, he spends whole days in this manner, complaining that he is neglected by all his relations, and blindly resigning himself to every morbid influence. (Received 15 Jan 1834, Letters, 1.106)
Morbid influence, not blindly resigned to but contemplated with creative courage, informs much of Tennyson's deepest work, unhappiness current or unforgettable, misery unutterable that yet found itself uttered.
In my youth I knew much greater unhappiness than I have known in later life. When I was about twenty, I used to feel moods of misery unutterable! I remember once in London the realization coming over me, of the whole of its inhabitants lying horizontal a hundred years hence. The smallness and emptiness of life sometimes overwhelmed me.(Lincoln MS, ‘Talks and Walks’; H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.40)

Schooling, juvenilia, and Lincolnshire

In 1815 Tennyson left the village school and—staying with his grandmother in Louth—became a pupil at Louth grammar school, where his elder brothers Frederick and Charles had started in 1814. Tennyson: ‘How I did hate that school! The only good I ever got from it was the memory of the words, “sonus desilientis aquae”, and of an old wall covered with wild weeds opposite the school windows’ (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.7). In 1820 he left Louth, to be educated at home by his learned, violent, and often drunken father—who believed in him. ‘My father who was a sort of Poet himself thought so highly of my first essay that he prophesied I should be the greatest Poet of the Time’ (Trinity Notebook, 34).

Tennyson was to recall ruefully his youthful ambitions and poetical models. It was the mouthability of poetry, the urge to roll it aloud, that drew him.
The first poetry that moved me was my own at five years old. When I was eight, I remember making a line I thought grander than Campbell, or Byron, or Scott. I rolled it out, it was this: ‘With slaughterous sons of thunder rolled the flood’—great nonsense of course, but I thought it fine. (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 2.93)
He was much moved by the death of Byron in 1824: ‘I was fourteen when I heard of his death. It seemed an awful calamity; I remember I rushed out of doors, sat down by myself, shouted aloud, and wrote on the sandstone: “Byron is dead!”’ (ibid., 69).
Before I could read, I was in the habit on a stormy day of spreading my arms to the wind, and crying out ‘I hear a voice that's speaking in the wind’, and the words ‘far, far away’ had always a strange charm for me.
Tennyson spoke of the three-book epic (‘à la Scott’) written in his ‘very earliest teens’. ‘I never felt so inspired—I used to compose 60 or 70 lines in a breath. I used to shout them about the silent fields, leaping over the hedges in my excitement’ (Trinity Notebook, 34; H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.11–12).

Tennyson's prodigious excitement is evidenced in the play he wrote (1823–4) in imitation of Elizabethan comedy, The Devil and the Lady, a wondrous pastiche, alive in its ambivalent erotic deploring, its vistas of space, its anatomizing of old age, and its grim humour. Duller, placatingly conventional, there was published in April 1827, by J. and J. Jackson, booksellers of Louth, Poems by Two Brothers (three brothers, since Frederick supplied four poems for this volume by Charles and Alfred); it earned them £20 (more than half in books) and courteous flat notices in the Literary Chronicle (19 May 1827) and the Gentleman's Magazine (June). Tennyson's unoriginal contributions were written ‘between 15 and 17’ (1893 reissue of 1827, quoting Tennyson). Wisely, he did not include any of them in later editions of his works.

But the Lincolnshire of Tennyson's young days was alive in his late poems, notably those in dialect, ‘wonderful studies in English vernacular life’ as Richard Holt Hutton called them (Hutton, 380). Tennyson's gruff gnarled humour here found its local habitation and intonation, audible in his own recorded reading of the best of them, ‘Northern Farmer: New Style’, ‘founded’, as Tennyson said, on a single sentence: ‘When I canters my 'erse along the ramper [highway] I 'ears “proputty, proputty, proputty”’ (Poems, 2.688).

Cambridge, Arthur Hallam, and early accomplishments

In November 1827 Tennyson entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where Charles had just joined Frederick. He was unhappy there at first (and often subsequently—see the bitter sonnet that he chose not to publish, ‘Lines on Cambridge of 1830’): ‘The country is so disgustingly level, the revelry of the place so monotonous, the studies of the University so uninteresting, so much matter of fact—none but dryheaded calculating angular little gentlemen can take much delight’ in algebraic formulae (18 April 1828, Letters, 1.23). But fortunately he came to know some well-rounded larger gentlemen, foremost among them Arthur Henry Hallam (1811–1833) [see under Hallam, Henry (1777–1859)], whom Tennyson met about April 1829. Hallam had entered Trinity College the previous October. The friendship, deepening into love, of Hallam and Tennyson was to be one of the most important experiences of Hallam's short life and of Tennyson's long one.

A further flowering at Cambridge: in October 1829 Tennyson was elected a member of the Apostles, an informal debating society to which most of his Cambridge friends belonged (such eminent, though not pre-eminent, Victorians as John Kemble, Richard Chenevix Trench, Richard Monckton Milnes, and James Spedding). Then in June 1829 he won the chancellor's gold medal with his prize poem on the set subject Timbuctoo. Reworking an earlier poem (as he was so often to do with consummate re-creative imagination), this on Armageddon, ‘altering the beginning and the end’ to bend it on Timbuctoo, ‘I was never so surprised as when I got the prize’ (Lincoln MS, ‘Materials for a Life of A. T.’; H. Tennyson,Memoir, 2.355). The surprise was the greater in that the winning poem was, unprecedentedly, not in heroic couplets but in blank verse. At the heart of the poem is a mystical trance such as fascinated Tennyson lifelong. Hallam, happily worsted, wrote with characteristic generosity and acumen: ‘The splendid imaginative power that pervades it will be seen through all hindrances. I consider Tennyson as promising fair to be the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of our century’ (A. H. Hallam to Gladstone, 14 Sept 1829, Letters of Arthur Henry Hallam, 319).

Then in December 1829 (or, it may be, April 1830), Hallam met Tennyson's sister Emily, with whom he was soon to fall in love. In the summer of 1830 Tennyson visited the Pyrenees with Hallam. (More than thirty years later, in June 1861, Tennyson was to return there with his family and to write ‘In the Valley of Cauteretz’, in lasting love of Hallam.) Hallam and Tennyson were to visit the Rhine country in the summer of 1832. In the autumn of 1832 the engagement of Hallam to Tennyson's sister was to be reluctantly recognized by Hallam's family.

Poems, Chiefly Lyrical was published by Effingham Wilson in June 1830; some of Tennyson's most enduring notes, elegiacally lyrical, with his riven sensibility (‘Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind Not at Unity with Itself’), are especially manifest in the volume's most remarkable achievements, ‘Mariana’, ‘A spirit haunts the year's last hours’, and ‘The Kraken’.

Tennyson's father, after marital separation and then a return to protracted illness and weakness, died in March 1831. Tennyson left Cambridge without taking a degree. His choice of life? His uncle Charles wrote on 18 May 1831 to Tennyson's grandfather, the Old Man of the Wolds:
We discussed what was to be done with the Children. Alfred is at home, but wishes to return to Cambridge to take a degree. I told him it was a useless expense unless he meant to go into the Church. He said he would. I did not think he seemed much to like it. I then suggested Physic or some other Profession. He seemed to think the Church the best and has I think finally made up his mind to it. The Tealby Living was mentioned and understood to be intended for him.
Then, reverting to the matter: ‘Alfred seems quite ready to go into the Church although I think his mind is fixed on the idea of deriving his great distinction and greatest means from the exercise of his poetic talents’ (Letters, 1.59–61).

Poetic talents needed the support of financial talents. Fortunately, from his aunt Russell he received £100 a year (this continued into the 1850s), and when his grandfather died in 1835, there came to Tennyson about £6000. Even though most of this was lost in a bad investment, there was to be the civil-list pension of £200 a year that began in 1845 (he drew it until he died), and his straits were never as dire as he liked to maintain.

The poetic talents were Arthur Hallam's focus in the Englishman's Magazine, in August 1831: ‘On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson’. W. B. Yeats was to praise this essay as
criticism which is of the best and rarest sort. If one set aside Shelley's essay on poetry and Browning's essay on Shelley, one does not know where to turn in modern English criticism for anything so philosophic—anything so fundamental and radical—as the first half
of Hallam's piece (The Speaker, 22 July 1893; Yeats, 277). Of Tennyson's art, Hallam's essay remains the most compactly telling evocation, prescient too. Hallam limned five characteristics:
First, his luxuriance of imagination, and at the same time his control over it. Secondly his power of embodying himself in ideal characters, or rather moods of character, with such extreme accuracy of adjustment, that the circumstances of the narration seem to have a natural correspondence with the predominant feeling, and, as it were, to be evolved from it by assimilative force. Thirdly his vivid, picturesque delineation of objects, and the peculiar skill with which he holds all of them fused, to borrow a metaphor from science, in a medium of strong emotion. Fourthly, the variety of his lyrical measures, and exquisite modulation of harmonious words and cadences to the swell and fall of the feelings expressed. Fifthly, the elevated habits of thought, implied in these compositions, and imparting a mellow soberness of tone, more impressive, to our minds, than if the author had drawn up a set of opinions in verse, and sought to instruct the understanding rather than to communicate the love of beauty to the heart. (Jump, 42)
Hallam's acute praise was welcome but not to everybody—Tennyson was already becoming ‘the Pet of a Coterie’, according to Christopher North (John Wilson) in Blackwood's Magazine in May 1832 (Jump, 50). In February 1832 the notoriously scathing Christopher North had praised Tennyson highly, albeit with caveats, in Blackwood's, but then in May he followed this with a wittily severe—not indiscriminate—review of the 1830 volume, this to ‘save him from his worst enemies, his friends’ (Jump, 51). Tennyson, pricked though not bridled by such reviewers, was exacerbatedly thin-skinned and always self-critical, often revising talent into genius—or expunging: the volume of 1830 included twenty-three poems that he did not subsequently reprint, as well as seven not collected in his two-volume Poems (1842) though reprinted later. The poems of 1830 that he did reprint, he—unusually—grouped as ‘Juvenilia’, justly in some cases, unjustly (protectively) for such a great poem as ‘Mariana’.

Fertile, Tennyson issued in December 1832 Poems (published by Edward Moxon, the title-page dated 1833). Among its feats were ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘Mariana in the South’, ‘Œnone’, ‘The Palace of Art’, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, and ‘A Dream of Fair Women’. There were some failures subsequently acknowledged: seven poems never reprinted, and seven not collected in Poems (1842) though reprinted later. A venomous review by J. W. Croker (Quarterly Review, April 1833) drew blood but was a spur: the best of the poems were to be made even better, duly revised for republication, ten years later, but the painful rewording process began at once. As his Cambridge friend Edward FitzGerald wrote on 25 October 1833:
Tennyson has been in town for some time: he has been making fresh poems, which are finer, they say, than any he has done. But I believe he is chiefly meditating on the purging and subliming of what he has already done: and repents that he has published at all yet. It is fine to see how in each succeeding poem the smaller ornaments and fancies drop away, and leave the grand ideas single. (Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 1.140)
It is heartening that in October 1833 Tennyson could be so actively creative in new and newly improved poems. For it was on 1 October that there was sent to him the news of the sudden death of Arthur Hallam, stricken on 15 September by apoplexy while visiting Vienna. His body was brought back by sea to Clevedon, on the Bristol Channel, ‘Among familiar names to rest’, ‘And in the hearing of the wave’ (In Memoriam, XVIII and XIX).

The blow, not to Tennyson alone, but to his sister Emily, to both families, and to Hallam's many friends and admirers, was profound, ‘a loud and terrible stroke’ (reported the Cambridge friend Charles Merivale) ‘from the reality of things upon the faery building of our youth’ (from H. Alford, 11 Nov 1833, Merivale, 135). The sense of the Tennyson family loss is audible in a letter by Frederick of 18 December 1833:
We all looked forward to his society and support through life in sorrow and in joy, with the fondest hopes, for never was there a human being better calculated to sympathize with and make allowance for those peculiarities of temperament and those failings to which we are liable. (Letters, 1.104)
Yet in the first stricken month, Tennyson set to write poems that later became some of the finest sections of In Memoriam (the earliest is dated 6 October 1833, none being published until seventeen years after Hallam's death), as well as soon drafting ‘Ulysses’, ‘Morte d'Arthur’, and ‘Tithonus’ (this last not published until 1860, the other two 1842)—three great poems prompted by the death of his Arthur, and all finding extraordinarily compelling correlatives, in ancient worlds, for his feelings personal and universal, ancient and modern.

‘The Two Voices’ belongs to 1833, and was said by Tennyson's son to have been ‘begun under the cloud of this overwhelming sorrow, which, as my father told me, for a while blotted out all joy from his life, and made him long for death’ (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.109). But Tennyson had longed for death before Hallam died, and a draft of ‘The Two Voices’ was in existence three months earlier, in June 1833, when his friend J. M. Kemble wrote to W. B. Donne:
Next Sir are some superb meditations on Self destruction called Thoughts of a Suicide wherein he argues the point with his soul and is thoroughly floored. These are amazingly fine and deep, and show a mighty stride in intellect since the Second-Rate Sensitive Mind. (Poems, 1.570)
Suicide appears, often enacted and sometimes discussed, in an extraordinary number of Tennyson's poems over the years, where it is complemented not only by suicidal risks but by martyrs and by the military (as in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’). Mary Gladstone was to record ‘a plan he had of writing a satire called “A suicide supper”’, and that Tennyson ‘would commit suicide’ if he believed that death were annihilation (Mary Gladstone, 8 June 1879, 160).

On 14 February 1834 Tennyson replied to a request from Hallam's father to contribute to a memorial volume:
I attempted to draw up a memoir of his life and character, but I failed to do him justice. I failed even to please myself. I could scarcely have pleased you. I hope to be able at a future period to concentrate whatever powers I may possess on the construction of some tribute to those high speculative endowments and comprehensive sympathies which I ever loved to contemplate; but at present, though somewhat ashamed at my own weakness, I find the object yet is too near me to permit of any very accurate delineation. You, with your clear insight into human nature, may perhaps not wonder that in the dearest service I could have been employed in, I should be found most deficient. (Letters, 1.108)
In Memoriam A.H.H. (1850) was duly to render such dearest service—to Hallam, to Tennyson himself, and to all his readers then and since, to all those who, like Queen Victoria and whatever their beliefs, have found, in its mourning and in its recovery, lasting consolation.

Tennyson, afraid (with good cause) of the spite which—like Keats before him, and similarly with some class animus—he precipitated in reviewers, tried in 1834 to placate Christopher North, and tried in early March 1835 to discourage John Stuart Mill from writing about the poems.
I do not wish to be dragged forward again in any shape before the reading public at present, particularly on the score of my old poems most of which I have so corrected (particularly Œnone) as to make them much less imperfect. (To James Spedding, Letters, 1.130)
Fortunately, Mill went ahead, and discerningly praised in Tennyson
the power of creating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling; so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it, and to summon up the state of feeling itself, with a force not to be surpassed by anything but reality.(London Review, July 1835; Jump, 86)

Love, marriage, and lifelong faith

It was in 1834 that Tennyson fell in love with Rosa Baring, of Harington Hall, 2 miles from Somersby. It was to be a brief and frustrated love (she was rich, she was a Baring, she was—it seems—a coquette), but it was never to fade from his memory. It was less the joys of this young romance than the pains of disillusionment, following promptly in 1835–6, that had a lastingly valuable presence within his writing, for the pressures of social snobbery—long known from the Tennyson v. Tennyson-D'Eyncourt feud—and of ‘The rentroll Cupid of our rainy isles’ (‘Edwin Morris’), ‘This filthy marriage-hindering Mammon’ (‘Aylmer's Field’), are acidly etched in ‘Locksley Hall’, ‘Edwin Morris’, and Maud, all written or inaugurated between 1837 and 1839. Tennyson was the better able to gauge this amatory excitement of his because of his soon coming to love, deeply, Emily Sellwood [see Tennyson, Emily Sarah (1813–1896)]. He had first met her in 1830, the daughter of a solicitor in Horncastle (5 miles from Somersby). In May 1836 Emily's sister Louisa married Tennyson's older brother Charles (now curate of Tealby in Lincolnshire), and Tennyson was to date his love for Emily from this wedding, where he glimpsed the happy bridesmaid as his future happy bride. In 1838 the engagement was recognized by her family and his, but was broken off in 1840, partly because of financial insecurity (‘owing to want of funds’, their son was to write (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.150)), but also because of Tennyson's religious unorthodoxy and spiritual perturbation. It was not until 1849 that his correspondence with Emily was renewed. Then the honest faith and the honest doubt evinced within In Memoriam (to be published in May 1850) played a large part in overcoming Emily's doubts, and she and the poet were wed on 13 June 1850. The service was at Shiplake-on-Thames where Tennyson's friend Drummond Rawnsley was vicar.

This was to be a happy marriage, clearly seen in ‘The Daisy’, about Tennyson's visit to Italy with Emily in 1851 (a delayed honeymoon), and in the lovely late tribute, ‘June Bracken and Heather’, written in 1891, the year before he died, and constituting the dedication of his final and posthumous volume. Equably hierarchical and reciprocally loving, warmly embracing the double duty of family claims and the claims of art, their life together was a joy. It was sadly darkened by the stillbirth of their first child on 20 April 1851, and by the grievous loss of their son Lionel (b. 16 March 1854), dead in his thirties (April 1886), but it was blessed with the lifelong self-abnegating dedication of their son Hallam Tennyson (1852–1928). Their home was at first Chapel House, Montpelier Row, Twickenham. In November 1853 they moved to Farringford (Freshwater, Isle of Wight), which Tennyson bought in 1856. Among the many notable visitors to Farringford was Garibaldi, in April 1864. In April 1868 the foundation stone was laid of Tennyson's second home, Aldworth, near Haslemere.

Emily Tennyson was judged incomparable by Edward Lear:
I should think, computing moderately, that 15 angels, several hundreds of ordinary women, many philosophers, a heap of truly wise & kind mothers, 3 or 4 minor prophets, & a lot of doctors and school-mistresses, might all be boiled down, & yet their combined essence fall short of what Emily Tennyson really is. (2 June 1859, Noakes, 167)
More two-edgedly, FitzGerald granted that she was
a Lady of a Shakespearian type, as I think AT once said of her: that is, of the Imogen sort, far more agreeable to me than the sharp-witted Beatrices, Rosalinds, etc. I do not think she has been (on this very account perhaps) as good a helpmate to AT's Poetry as to himself. (7 Dec 1869, Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 3.177)
Benjamin Jowett praised her: ‘overflowing with kindness—but also in a certain way very strong’, ‘his friend, his servant, his guide, his critic’. ‘It was a wonderful life—an effaced life like that of so many women’ (Harvard MS, Catalogue, 19–20). ‘One of the most beautiful, the purest, the most innocent, the most disinterested persons whom I have ever known’: ‘she was probably her husband's best critic, and certainly the one whose authority he would most willingly have recognized’ (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 2.466–7).

His wife was of unique importance to Tennyson's religious self. She trusted Charles Kingsley, who in September 1850 described In Memoriam as
altogether rivalling the sonnets of Shakespeare.—Why should we not say boldly, surpassing—for the sake of the superior faith into which it rises, for the sake of the proem at the opening of the volume—in our eyes, the noblest English Christian poem which several centuries have seen?(Fraser's Magazine; Jump, 183)
Aubrey de Vere characterized Emily, a few months after the marriage:
Her great and constant desire is to make her husband more religious, or at least to conduce, as far as she may, to his growth in the spiritual life. In this she will doubtless succeed, for piety like hers is infectious, especially where there is an atmosphere of affection to serve as a conducting medium. Indeed I already observe a great improvement in Alfred. His nature is a religious one, and he is remarkably free from vanity and sciolism. Such a nature gravitates towards Christianity, especially when it is in harmony with itself. (14 Oct 1850, Ward, 158–9)
Gruffer, there are Tennyson's words to Gladstone's daughter Mary (4 June 1879): ‘We shall all turn into pigs if we lose Christianity and God’ (Mary Gladstone, 157). ‘T. loves the spirit of Christianity, hates many of the dogmas’, reported William Allingham in January 1867 (Allingham, 149). He respected the breadth and latitude of F. D. Maurice. In October 1853 Maurice was forced to resign from his professorship in London for arguing that the popular belief in the endlessness of future punishment was superstitious. Tennyson abominated the belief in eternal torment, and he had recently asked Maurice (who had agreed) to be godfather to Hallam Tennyson. ‘To the Rev. F. D. Maurice’ is a verse invitation that glowingly revives the Horatian epistle, and bears comparison with such classics of the kind as Ben Jonson's ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’.

In April 1869 Tennyson attended the meeting to organize the Metaphysical Society, which he joined and which flourished until 1879. In his seventies he said to Allingham, in July 1884: ‘You're not orthodox, and I can't call myself orthodox. Two things however I have always been firmly convinced of—God,—and that death will not end my existence’ (Allingham, 329). The very late poems, ‘The Ancient Sage’ (1885), on Lao-Tse, and ‘Akbar's Dream’ (1892), on what was then called Mohammedanism, seek to realize—under the influence of Benjamin Jowett—‘The religions of all good men’, in support of the conviction that ‘All religions are one’.

Two months before he died, Tennyson talked with John Addington Symonds:
He told me he was going to write a poem on Bruno, and asked what I thought about his [Bruno's] attitude toward Christianity. I tried to express my views, and Hallam got up and showed me that they were reading up the chapter of my ‘Renaissance in Italy’ on Bruno. Tennyson observed that the great thing in Bruno was his perception of an Infinite Universe, filled with solar systems like our own, and all penetrated with the Soul of God. ‘That conception must react destructively on Christianity—I mean its creed and dogma—its morality will always remain.’ Somebody had told him that astronomers could count 550 million solar systems. He observed that there was no reason why each should not have planets peopled with living and intelligent beings. ‘Then,’ he added, ‘see what becomes of the second person of the Deity, and the sacrifice of a God for fallen man upon this little earth!’ (29 Aug 1892, Letters of John Addington Symonds, 3.744)

From Poems (1842) to The Princess (1847)

Between 1832 and 1842 Tennyson published no volume-length work. The span has been mildly melodramatized into ‘the ten years' silence’, but he wrote much during this period, founding and building In Memoriam, creating his exquisite ‘English Idyls’ (most notably, ‘Edwin Morris’ and ‘The Golden Year’), and he rewrote with depth and passion. At the urging of his friend Richard Monckton Milnes, he reluctantly sent to The Tribute (September 1837) a true though as yet unperfected poem, ‘Oh! that 'twere possible’, which was to be ‘the germ’ of the amazing monodrama of madness, Maud (1855).

Life was taxing. On the death of Dr Tennyson in 1831 the family had been allowed by the incoming rector to continue to live in the rectory at Somersby, but then, in 1837, they had to move to High Beech, Epping Forest. ‘His two elder brothers being away’ (Frederick in Corfu and then Florence—for good; and Charles settled at Grasby, Lincolnshire), it was on Alfred that there ‘devolved the care of the family and of choosing a new home’ (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.149–50; ‘My mother is afraid if I go to town even for a night; how could they get on without me for months?’, to Emily Sellwood, 10 July 1839, Letters, 1.171). Then in 1840 they had to move to Tunbridge Wells, and in 1841 to Boxley, near Maidstone. The engagement to Emily Sellwood was broken off in 1840. Then there was the investing by Tennyson in 1840–41 of his invaluable small fortune (about £3000) in a scheme for wood-carving by machinery, which had collapsed by 1843. These were among the things that made much of life a misery. ‘I have drunk one of those most bitter draughts out of the cup of life, which go near to make men hate the world they move in’ (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.221). FitzGerald reported of Tennyson, to Tennyson's brother Frederick, on 10 December 1843 that he had ‘never seen him so hopeless’ (Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 1.408). In 1843–4 Tennyson received treatment.
The perpetual panic and horror of the last two years has steeped my nerves in poison: now I am left a beggar but I am or shall be shortly somewhat better off in nerves. I am in a Hydropathy Establishment near Cheltenham (the only one in England conducted on pure Priessnitzan principles) … Much poison has come out of me, which no physic ever would have brought to light. (To FitzGerald, 2 Feb 1844, Letters, 1.222–3)
The hydropathy was endured near Cheltenham; Tennyson then lived, first, at 6 Bellevue Place, and then at 10 St James's Square, Cheltenham.

In an unpublished poem (‘Wherefore, in these dark ages of the Press’), Tennyson spoke of ‘this Art-Conscience’, a surety which, along with courage, steadied and secured him. This, with more than a little help from his friends, who encouraged him, pressed him. On 3 March 1838: ‘Do you ever see Tennyson? and if so, could you not urge him to take the field?’ (R. C. Trench to R. M. Milnes, Reid, 1.208). ‘Tennyson composes every day, but nothing will persuade him to print, or even write it down’ (Milnes, 1838, Reid, 1.220). Another Cambridge friend, G. S. Venables, urged him in August/September 1838:
Do not continue to be so careless of fame and of influence. You have abundant materials ready for a new publication, and you start as a well-known man with the certainty that you can not be overlooked, and that by many you will be appreciated. If you do not publish now when will you publish? (Letters, 1.163–4)
On 25 November 1839 FitzGerald all but gave up:
I want A. T. to publish another volume: as all his friends do: especially Moxon, who has been calling on him for the last two years for a new edition of his old volume: but he is too lazy and wayward to put his hand to the business. (Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 1.239)
Then there was the American threat. To the importunate FitzGerald Tennyson wrote c.22 February 1841: ‘You bore me about my book: so does a letter just received from America, threatening, though in the civilest terms that if I will not publish in England they will do it for me in that land of freemen’ (Letters, 1.188). Long after, to Allingham, Tennyson recalled this provocation:
I hate publishing! The Americans forced me into it again. I had my things nice and right, but when I found they were going to publish the old forms I said, By Jove, that won't do!—My whole living is from the sale of my books. (Allingham, 168, 27 Dec 1867)
So at last, in May 1842, Tennyson issued Poems (Moxon). The first volume selected the best of 1830 and 1832, together with a few poems written c.1833; the second volume consisted of new poems, some soon famous, such as ‘Locksley Hall’, and some among his greatest: ‘Morte d'Arthur’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘Break, break, break’, and ‘St Simeon Stylites’.

By June 1845 Tennyson had set to work on his long poem about university education for women, The Princess. The plan had formed in 1839, at a time when there was in Cambridge and elsewhere a renewed sympathy with women's claims, one that remembered Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and gained a new impetus from Anna Jameson's Characteristics of Women (1832), later known as Shakespeare's Heroines. Jameson herself acknowledged many of the old ideals of womanhood. What marriage would be, once women's intellectual rights were respected: this was then the central woman question. Tennyson's poem, ever apt, is a vivid reflection of the age's humanely troubled concern. Like Tennyson himself, it is liberal in spirit, conservative in upshot. Progressive, perhaps, for as T. S. Eliot said of Whitman and Tennyson, ‘Both were conservative, rather than reactionary or revolutionary; that is to say, they believed explicitly in progress, and believed implicitly that progress consists in things remaining much as they are’ (T. S. Eliot, ‘Whitman and Tennyson’).

FitzGerald divined that this new poem was both a symptom and a cause of Tennyson's improved state of mind. In September 1845, through the good offices of (among others) Henry Hallam, Tennyson was granted by Sir Robert Peel a civil-list pension of £200 a year, for life. The following year, with his publisher Edward Moxon, he visited Switzerland (August 1846), ‘the stateliest bits of landskip I ever saw’ (A. Tennyson to FitzGerald, 12 Nov 1846, Letters, 1.264). The mountainscape was soon to rise within The Princess (published December 1847).

FitzGerald thought The Princess ‘a wretched waste of power at a time of life when a man ought to be doing his best’ (FitzGerald to Frederick Tennyson, 4 May 1848, Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 1.604). Carlyle was even less sympathetic: ‘very gorgeous, fervid, luxuriant, but indolent, somnolent, almost imbecil’ (25 Dec 1847, Collected Letters, 22.183). Yet here are three of Tennyson's finest lyrics—‘Tears, idle tears’, ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white’, and ‘Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height’. The Prologue presents a group of young friends at a country-house fête; they speak of women's rights, and then tell, each in turn (‘a sevenfold story’; ‘Prologue’, 198), the tale of a princess who founds a university for women; her plans are broken by an irruption of men and then by an eruption of love. Tennyson's subtitle, ‘A Medley’, is truthful, and defensive. The poem, locally fine, is happy not to have to be a whole, whether politically or personally. It was for the poet a relief and a release from the pains of his 1840s. He duly felt obliged to recast it more substantially than any other of his long poems.

In 1848 Tennyson visited Ireland and Cornwall, taking up again a projected Arthurian enterprise, and in 1849 the correspondence with Emily Sellwood was renewed. Tennyson now was granted his annus mirabilis. For 1850 was to see, first, the publication of In Memoriam (anonymously, in the last week of May); next, his wedding, in June; and then in November his appointment as poet laureate.

Hereafter Tennyson was to be, though he enjoyed denying it, secure. Secure in reputation, though the passing judgements were sometimes harsh—‘that fierce light which beats upon a throne’ (Dedication to Idylls of the King) beats too upon the poet's throne. Secure, too, in finances: with strong sales and with publishers of integrity (Moxon through to Macmillan, with Ticknor doing the distinctly unusual thing for an American publisher of the time and honourably paying up), he stayed the course and stayed in print. In the last year of his life he earned more than £10,000, and he left an estate worth more than £57,000 (Martin, 578).

In Memoriam (1850)

In 1842 Tennyson's sister Emily, after eight years of quasi-widowed fidelity to Arthur Hallam, had married Captain Richard Jesse RN. Comments on this were harshly unjust, but Tennyson was not, and he gave his sister in marriage. He must, though, have been aware that the changed relation of the Tennysons to the Hallams might cast a shadow on the poem that was becoming In Memoriam, which he chose not to publish until 1850, when it closed with the wedding of a different sister of Tennyson's (Cecilia) to a family friend (Edmund Lushington) who could not but call up Arthur Hallam.

Tennyson had written what became sections of In Memoriam within a month of Hallam's death (September 1833).
The sections were written at many different places, and as the phases of our intercourse came to my memory and suggested them. I did not write them with any view of weaving them into a whole, or for publication, until I found that I had written so many. (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.304)
On 30 November 1844 Tennyson wrote to his aunt Russell:
With respect to the non-publication of those poems which you mention, it is partly occasioned by the considerations you speak of, and partly by my sense of their present imperfectness: perhaps they will not see the light till I have ceased to be. I cannot tell, but I have no wish to send them out yet. (Letters, 1.231)
On 29 January 1845 FitzGerald wrote to W. B. Donne:
A. T. has near a volume of poems—elegiac—in memory of Arthur Hallam. Don't you think the world wants other notes than elegiac now? Lycidas is the utmost length an elegiac should reach. But Spedding [their Cambridge friend] praises: and I suppose the elegiacs will see daylight—public daylight—one day. (Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 1.478)
The day dawned: it was in part the loving respect in which the poem (passed on to her, in manuscript or in proof, by her cousin) was held by Emily Sellwood, soon to be Emily Tennyson, in April 1850 that fortified Tennyson's confidence in the poem that he published (anonymously) next month, and that was to win him, immediately and despite the mild fiction of anonymity, the laureateship and incontestable fame.

Tennyson had used the octosyllabic quatrain rhyming abba in his patriotic poems of 1832–3.
As for the metre of In Memoriam I had no notion till 1880 that Lord Herbert of Cherbury had written his occasional verses in the same metre. I believed myself the originator of the metre, until after In Memoriam came out, when some one told me that Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sidney had used it. (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 1.305–6)
(For 1880, read 1870; see letter of 8 August 1870, Letters, 2.553–4.)
It is rather the cry of the whole human race than mine. In the poem altogether private grief swells out into thought of, and hope for, the whole world. It begins with a funeral and ends with a marriage—begins with death and ends in promise of a new life—a sort of Divine Comedy, cheerful at the close. It is a very impersonal poem as well as personal. (Knowles, 182)
George Eliot saw the poem under a different aspect: ‘Whatever was the immediate prompting of In Memoriam, whatever the form under which the author represented his aim to himself, the deepest significance of the poem is the sanctification of human love as a religion’ (Westminster Review, Oct 1855; G. Eliot, 191).

Both human love and divine love faced the challenge not only of the ages but of the aeons. In ‘Parnassus’, written three years before he died, Tennyson was to imagine the two powers that were now seen to tower over all poetic aspirations: ‘These are Astronomy and Geology, terrible Muses!’ In Memoriam did not stand in need of or in dread of Darwin's Origin of Species, for the poem preceded the work of science by nine years. Moreover Tennyson owed much not only to Charles Lyell and his Principles of Geology (1830–33), which he mentioned to Milnes in 1836 (c.1 Nov, Letters, 1.145), but to William Buckland and his school of thought. Yet In Memoriam became imaginatively central to the Darwinian evolutionary controversy, in a world where the Victorians feared that the ape in the zoo might suddenly ask ‘Am I my keeper's brother?’ Tennyson threw off epigrams that he did not publish, one being ‘Darwin's Gemmule’, and another ‘By a Darwinian’ (both 1868), and he published ‘By an Evolutionist’ in 1889.

By January 1851 In Memoriam was already in its fourth edition. Tennyson never issued an edition with his name on the title-page, but from 1870 it appeared in collected editions of his works. The poem was to be on everyone's lips and in most hearts, validating not only honest doubt but honest faith, a consolation of philosophy for the age. In March 1889 F. W. H. Myers acknowledged what the poem had effected:
It is hardly too much to say that In Memoriam is the only speculative book of that epoch—epoch of the ‘Tractarian movement’, and much similar ‘up-in-the-air balloon-work’—which retains a serious interest now. Its brief cantos contain the germs of many a subsequent treatise, the indication of channels along which many a wave of opinion has flowed, down to that last ‘Philosophie der Erlösung’, or Gospel of a sad Redemption—‘To drop head foremost in the jaws / Of vacant darkness, and to cease’—which tacitly or openly is possessing itself of so many a modern mind.(Nineteenth Century; Jump, 399)

Queen Victoria's poet laureate

In November 1850 Tennyson was appointed poet laureate, Wordsworth having died in April (and Samuel Rogers having declined).
The night before I was asked to take the Laureateship, which was offered to me through Prince Albert's liking for my In Memoriam, I dreamed that he came to me and kissed me on the cheek. I said, in my dream, ‘Very kind, but very German’. In the morning the letter about the Laureateship was brought to me and laid upon my bed. I thought about it through the day, but could not make up my mind whether to take it or refuse it, and at the last I wrote two letters, one accepting and one declining, and threw them on the table, and settled to decide which I would send after my dinner and bottle of port. (Knowles, 167)
Tennyson's character and his convictions (political and national), as well as his versatility, enabled him to be imaginatively duteous in the exercise of his responsibilities, the most felicitous of the poets laureate. The next year, there followed his first such publication (dated March 1851), his deftly loving dedication, ‘To the Queen’, heading the seventh edition of his Poems.

Aware that the poet laureate should express his convictions but should also be careful not to harness his office to his own party political judgements, Tennyson on occasion published pseudonymously—for instance a run of patriotic poems during the invasion scare from France in early 1852. ‘Among the most enthusiastic national defenders are Alfred Tennyson and Mrs. A. T.’, wrote their friend Franklin Lushington on 8 February 1852:
At least they have been induced by Coventry Patmore to subscribe five pounds apiece for the purchase of rifles to teach the world to shoot—which appears to me a rather exaggerated quota for the laureate to contribute out of his official income, his duty being clearly confined to the howling of patriotic staves. (Letters, 2.26)
Tennyson differentiated such staves from his first independent publication as laureate later the same year: his Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington (published on the day of the funeral, 18 November 1852) is a noble four-square paean, much called on in later years when a great national loss has been felt, as at the death of Winston Churchill. Written, Tennyson insisted, from genuine admiration of the man, it was a true laureate ode, though not requested by the queen.

In January 1862 Tennyson published the verse dedication to open a new edition of Idylls of the King, in memory of Albert, prince consort, who had died in December 1861. (Tennyson was to conclude Idylls of the King, in the Imperial Library edition of 1873, with a complementary or married tribute, ‘To the Queen’, beginning ‘O loyal to the royal in thyself’.) There followed, in April 1862, his first audience with Queen Victoria, at Osborne, Isle of Wight:
I went down to see Tennyson who is very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair and a beard—oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him. I told him how much I admired his glorious lines to my precious Albert and how much comfort I found in his ‘In Memoriam’. He was full of unbounded appreciation of beloved Albert. When he spoke of my own loss, of that to the Nation, his eyes quite filled with tears. (Queen Victoria's journal, 14 April 1862, Dyson and Tennyson, 69)
There was humour, too, in their relation. ‘She was praising my poetry; I said “Every one writes verses now. I daresay Your Majesty does.” She smiled and said, “No! I never could bring two lines together!”’ (Allingham, 150, 18 Feb 1867). A later audience, in August 1883 when Tennyson was in his seventies, was movingly set down by the queen:
After luncheon saw the great Poet Tennyson in dearest Albert's room for nearly an hour;—and most interesting it was. He is grown very old—his eyesight much impairedand he is very shaky on his legs. But he was very kind. Asked him to sit down … When I took leave of him, I thanked him for his kindness and said I needed it, for I had gone through so much—and he said you are so alone on that ‘terrible height, it is Terrible. I've only a year or two to live but I'll be happy to do anything for you I can. Send for me whenever you like.’ I thanked him warmly. (Queen Victoria's journal, 7 Aug 1883, Dyson and Tennyson, 102)
‘Asked him to sit down’: for a sardonic rendering of such an audience, see Max Beerbohm's caricature, Mr. Tennyson reading ‘In Memoriam’ to his Sovereign (Beerbohm). There, it is less the poet's vigorous left arm than his splayed legs that should establish his taking his liberty. But two royal profiles face his singular one.

Maud (1855), and Idylls of the King (1859–1885)

In July 1855 Tennyson published Maud, and Other Poems. Notable among the other poems was ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. The charge, at Balaklava in the Crimea, had taken place on 25 October. Tennyson's periodical publication in The Examiner (9 Dec 1854) had stirred not only the nation but the troops to whom copies were sent.

‘This poem of Maud or the Madness is a little Hamlet, the history of a morbid, poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a recklessly speculative age’; ‘The peculiarity of this poem is that different phases of passion in one person take the place of different characters’ (Poems, 2.517–18).

Tennyson's acquaintance with Dr Matthew Allen, the wood-carving financial speculator who was also a mad-doctor (the poet John Clare was in his care for a while), was one experiential base for the poem—Tennyson visited his asylum near High Beech. What also courses through the poem is the black blood of the Tennysons. The poem aroused controversy, some of it low: ‘Sir, I used to worship you, but now I hate you. I loathe and detest you. You beast! So you've taken to imitating Longfellow. Yours in aversion’ (reported in letter of 8 Jan 1856, Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1.281–2). George Eliot reviewed it anonymously: ‘its tone is throughout morbid; it opens to us the self revelations of a morbid mind, and what it presents as the cure for this mental disease is itself only a morbid conception of human relations’ (Westminster Review, Oct 1855; G. Eliot, 192). The poem was accused of craving war (the protagonist leaves at the end for the Crimea) and of fomenting sin. ‘If an author pipe of adultery, fornication, murder and suicide, set him down as the practiser of those crimes’. Tennyson: ‘Adulterer I may be, fornicator I may be, murderer I may be, suicide I am not yet’ (Lincoln MS, draft ‘Materials for a Life of A. T.’; C. Tennyson,Alfred Tennyson, 286). It remained one of the poems that Tennyson was most moved to read aloud. Its sense of all that may impede marriage, or darken it, lived on in the two long narrative poems, of sombre power, that Tennyson published together in 1864: ‘Enoch Arden’ and ‘Aylmer's Field’.

Tennyson's Arthurian interests were lifelong: from the early lyrical poems, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘Sir Galahad’, and ‘Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere’, through the deeply contemplative ‘Morte d'Arthur’, to the elongated linking of narratives that became Idylls of the King. (A long I in Idylls; no article, not ‘The Idylls of the King’; and an intimation that the series did not, though Hallam Tennyson uses the word, constitute an epic.)
From his earliest years he had written out in prose various histories of Arthur … On Malory, on Layamon's Brut, on Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the Mabinogion, on the old Chronicles, on old French Romance, on Celtic folklore, and largely on his own imagination, my father founded his epic. (Poems, 3.255)
In 1848 Tennyson visited Ireland and Cornwall, taking up again his projected Arthurian enterprise. It was not until 1855 that he decided the shaping, and in 1859 the first four Idyllswere published, Enid (later The Marriage of Geraint and Geraint and Enid), Vivien (later Merlin and Vivien), Elaine (later Lancelot and Elaine), and Guinevere. A revision and expansion of Morte d'Arthur, as The Passing of Arthur, was published in 1869, with a note: ‘This last, the earliest written of the Poems, is here connected with the rest in accordance with an early project of the author's’ (The Holy Grail and Other Poems, ‘1870’). Gareth and Lynette was published in October 1872, and the Imperial Library edition of Tennyson'sWorks (1872–3) then brought together the series (with a new epilogue: ‘To the Queen’), virtually complete except for Balin and Balan (written 1874, published 1885).

Victorian Arthurianism was sometimes moral, sometimes romantic, sometimes both. In The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman, Mark Girouard noted that after the 1830s Tennyson's dealings with Arthurian material changed. ‘The 1850s were, indeed, studded with Arthurian projects’, and Tennyson more and more shaped inspiring models for ‘modern members of the ruling class’ (Girouard, 180, 184). But Tennyson had aspirations larger than the political, the passing. ‘As for the many meanings of the poem my father would affirm “Poetry is like shot-silk with many glancing colours”’. On his eightieth birthday, he said: ‘My meaning … was spiritual. I took the legendary stories of the Round Table as illustrations. I intended Arthur to represent the Ideal Soul of Man coming into contact with the warring elements of the flesh’ (Poems, 3.258–9).

Deaths in the family, honours, and the peerage

Tennyson's mother died in February 1865. There is no recovering just what she meant to her son, though she is to be glimpsed, as a gracious silence, in the record of early life, her piety being praised in ‘Isabel’: ‘The queen of marriage, a most perfect wife’. Then in April 1879 came the death of Charles, the brother whom Tennyson loved best (‘altogether loveable, a second George Herbert in his utter faith’, Tennyson wrote to James Russell Lowell, on 18 November 1880; Letters, 3.199), and whom he hauntingly commemorated in ‘Frater Ave atque Vale’ and in ‘Prefatory Poem to My Brother's Sonnets’ (1879, opening Charles's Collected Sonnets, 1880).

But the immitigable grief was the grievous loss of Tennyson's son Lionel (b. 1854). In February 1878 Lionel had married Eleanor Locker. As is clear from a notebook of Lionel's, of 1874–6, in which he set down epigrams, observations, squibs, and light verse, he had a levity light-years away from the gravity of his elder brother, Hallam. Lionel made fretful his protective parents, with his dashing ways, his nattiness of garb, and his very unTennysonian stammer or stutter.

Lionel Tennyson's work for the India Office took him to India in 1885, where he contracted fever, ‘hung between life and death for three months and a half’ (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 2.323), and then, in April 1886, died in the Red Sea on his way home. Tennyson was desolate, but he strove to share his wife's Christian fortitude—in her words, ‘The loss to us is indeed unspeakable but infinite Love and Wisdom have ordained it’ (26 Oct 1886, Letters, 3.343). Tennyson was to realize such family tragedy, both personal and everywhere, in one of his finest poems of saddened gratitude: ‘To the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava’. His love of Lionel lived on in his love of his grandsons: first, Eleanor's and Lionel's Alfred B. S. Tennyson (b. 1878—see the endearing playfulness of the dedication to Ballads and Other Poems, 1880, and ‘To Alfred Tennyson My Grandson’); and then their Charles Tennyson (b. 1879) who lived to a great age, nearly 100, to honour his grandfather in works biographical and editorial.

Honours came to Tennyson with and following the laureateship. In June 1855 he received an honorary DCL at Oxford; the occasion was graced by the affectionate impudence of the cry (adapting the opening of ‘The May Queen’), ‘Did your mother call you early, dear?’ In 1869 he became an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge (where neither he in the past nor his son Hallam in the immediate future proceeded to a degree). In March 1880 he was invited to stand for the lord rectorship of Glasgow University, but withdrew when he learned that the election was conducted along party lines. He had in 1865 refused the offer of a baronetcy, and again in 1873, 1874, and 1880. Then in September 1883 he accepted a barony, acknowledging to the queen ‘This public mark of your Majesty's esteem which recognizes in my person the power of literature in this age of the world’ (c.1 Oct 1883, Letters, 3.265).

As well as the honour to literature and to Tennyson, and the affectionate respect in which he held the queen, he would have been moved by this chance to score, with dignity, off the rival branch of the family, who—half a century earlier—had elevated themselves to the name Tennyson-D'Eyncourt. ‘I am very glad we have changed our name, as it gives us a good position’, had written Edwin Tennyson-D'Eyncourt: ‘Besides which it will keep us in a great measure clear of the Somersby Family who really are quite hogs’ (1 Aug 1835, Letters, 1.135).

Closer to home, Tennyson and his wife justly saw the peerage as a bequest to their self-abnegating son. In 1873 and again in 1880, Tennyson had even put to Gladstone a proposal (as to the baronetcy then offered) that breached all precedent:
I am still much of the same mind—except that many of my friends having reproached me as for a wrong done to my family in declining the Baronetcy for myself, I feel still more than I did that I would fain see it bestowed on my son Hallam during my lifetime, if that could be done without embarrassment to you. (3 Nov 1880, Letters, 3.198)
In 1883 Emily said of the accepted barony: ‘That Hallam should inherit the duties belonging to this distinction is a cause of deep thankfulness to me’ (27 Sept 1883, ibid., 3.264). She declared herself thankful ‘that he should have an honourable career marked out for him when his work for his father has ceased’ (C. Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, 472). It would be to underrate Hallam Tennyson to say that he owed his becoming governor-general of Australia to his father's peerage, but presumably the title was no hindrance. Three months after his father took his seat in the House of Lords (March 1884), Hallam married Audrey Boyle; the couple duly lived with his parents, and continued the life of loving service.


Tennyson and Edward FitzGerald had been friends since their Cambridge days, and the two rather enjoyed their amiable friction. ‘He spoke of Edward FitzGerald—had not seen him for years before his death; FitzGerald could not be got to visit. “But no sort of quarrel?” “O no! fancy my quarrelling with dear old Fitz!”’ (Allingham, 320, 1883). One of Tennyson's finest late poems, ‘To E. FitzGerald’, alive throughout its 56-line single sentence, recalls the last visit by Tennyson and his son Hallam to FitzGerald in 1876. The poem breathes friendship, and it generously delights in FitzGerald's great translation imitation, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald's affectionate scepticism had its bracing side. Of the elegies that became In Memoriam, he wrote to W. B. Donne on 27 February 1845:
We have surely had enough of men reporting their sorrows: especially when one is aware all the time that the poet wilfully protracts what he complains of, magnifies it in the Imagination, puts it into all the shapes of Fancy: and yet we are to condole with him, and be taught to ruminate our losses and sorrows in the same way. I felt that if Tennyson had got on a horse and ridden twenty miles, instead of moaning over his pipe, he would have been cured of his sorrows in half the time. As it is, it is about three years before the Poetic Soul walks itself out of darkness and Despair into Common Sense. (Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 1.486)
Tennyson's exquisite verse epistle ‘To E. L., on His Travels in Greece’ (published 1853) is a tribute to Edward Lear's artistic pencil and writer's pen. Lear set Tennyson's poems to music, and he worked lifelong on illustrations of the poems; on 19 February 1886, two years before he died, he wrote to Ruskin that although ‘nearly always in bed’ he could ‘even go on working at my 200 Tennyson illustrations begun in 1849’ (Lear, 276). These appeared posthumously in Poems by Tennyson Illustrated by Lear (1889). In person, there had been increasing tensions. ‘AT was most disagreeably querulous and irritating and would return, chiefly because he saw people approaching’, Lear wrote in his diary of June 1860, but Frank Lushington
would not go back, and led zigzagwise toward the sea—AT snubby & cross always. After a time he would not go on—but led me back by muddy paths (over our shoes,) a short cut home—hardly, even at last avoiding his horror,—the villagers coming from church … I … believe that this is my last visit to Farringford:—nor can I wish it otherwise all things considered. (Noakes, 176)
It was Emily Tennyson in whom Lear delighted.

Tennyson's friendship with F. T. Palgrave, with whom he visited Portugal in August 1859 (and Derbyshire and Yorkshire in 1862), led to his assisting Palgrave in selecting poems for the most famous, most influential, and best of anthologies, The Golden Treasury (1861). Palgrave dedicated it to Tennyson, and—faced with Tennyson's refusal to have his own poems in it—included no living poets. The particular advice and recommendations of Tennyson survive and are of enduring interest—not least because, of the great English poets, Tennyson is the one who was least willing to expatiate as a literary critic. His summary judgements are shrewdly content to remain pith and gist: ‘One plods over Wordsworth's long dreary plains of prose—one knows there's a mountain somewhere’ (Allingham, 294, 2 Sept 1880).

W. E. Gladstone had played a part in securing a pension for Tennyson in 1845: ‘it appears established that, though a true and even a great poet, he can hardly become a popular, and is much more likely to be a starving one’ (24 Feb 1845, Parker, 3.441). Gladstone showed his historical and critical acumen in 1859:
Mr. Tennyson is too intimately and essentially the poet of the nineteenth century to separate himself from its leading characteristics, the progress of physical science and a vast commercial, mechanical, and industrial development. Whatever he may say or do in an occasional fit, he cannot long either cross or lose its sympathies.(Quarterly Review, Oct 1859; Jump, 248)
Gladstone published in the Nineteenth Century (January 1887) an important reply to Tennyson's onslaught (dramatized, but …) on the age in ‘Locksley Hall Sixty Years After’. Tennyson and Gladstone had long enjoyed a wary but genuine friendship. They agreed in loving Arthur Hallam and his memory; they agreed that Tennyson was a true poet; and they agreed to a cruise together to Norway and Denmark in September 1883, during which the offer of a barony was prompted and precipitated. But they disagreed about Gladstone's politics, which were both Liberal and liberal, and particularly about Ireland. Four months before Tennyson died, he sent someone a letter: ‘Sir, I love Mr. Gladstone but hate his present Irish policy’ (28 June 1892, Letters, 3.446). Nor was it only Ireland, for the Franchise Bill of 1884 seemed to Tennyson a grave mistake. He fired a warning sonnet across Gladstone's bows. ‘Statesman, be not precipitate in thine act’, he boomed, or so the first unauthorized printing ran—and then perhaps decided that he had himself been precipitate in according to Gladstone the tribute of the word Statesman, for the poem as printed in the Memoir reads ‘Steersman …’, which better fits not only the navigating metaphor of the poem but Tennyson's reservations as to Gladstone's statesmanship.

Tennyson's admiration for Benjamin Jowett is best articulated in ‘To the Master of Balliol’ (written 1890, published 1892). Jowett had long been a close friend of the family. Both men were robust; the anecdote that is either Benjamin Jowett or ben trovato has Jowett saying of a new poem that Tennyson recited, ‘I think I wouldn't publish that, if I were you, Tennyson’; whereupon the poet retorted, ‘If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at luncheon was beastly’ (Martin, 433). Jowett's ‘Notes on Characteristics of Tennyson’ cannot be bettered for their sympathetic acumen (Ricks, Tennyson and His Friends, 186–7):

Absolute truthfulness, absolutely himself, never played tricks.

Never got himself puffed in the newspapers.

A friend of liberty and truth.

Extraordinary vitality.

Great common sense and a strong will.

The instinct of common sense at the bottom of all he did.

Not a man of the world (in the ordinary sense) but a man who had the greatest insight into the world, and often in a word or a sentence would flash a light.

Intensely needed sympathy.

A great and deep strength.

He mastered circumstances, but he was also partly mastered by them, e.g. the old calamity of the disinheritance of his father and his treatment by rogues [Dr Allen and the wood-carving scheme] in the days of his youth.

Very fair towards other poets, including those who were not popular, such as Crabbe.

He had the high-bred manners not only of a gentleman but of a great man.

He would have wished that, like Shakespeare, his life might be unknown to posterity.

In the commonest conversation he showed himself a man of genius. He had abundance of fire, never talked poorly, never for effect. As Socrates described Plato, ‘Like no one whom I ever knew before’.

The three subjects of which he most often spoke were ‘God,’ ‘Free-Will,’ and ‘Immortality,’ yet always seeming to find an (apparent) contradiction between the ‘imperfect world,’ and ‘the perfect attributes of God.’

Great charm of his ordinary conversation, sitting by a very ordinary person and telling stories with the most high-bred courtesy, endless stories, not too high or too low for ordinary conversation.

The persons and incidents of his childhood very vivid to him, and the Lincolnshire dialect and the ways of life.

Loved telling a good story, which he did admirably, and also hearing one.

He told very accurately, almost in the same words, his old stories, though, having a powerful memory, he was impatient of a friend who told him a twice-repeated tale.

His jests were very amusing.

At good things he would sit laughing away—laughter often interrupted by fits of sadness.

His absolute sincerity, or habit of saying all things to all kinds of persons.

Tennyson's voice, character, and appearance

Thackeray stated, in the early summer of 1841: ‘Perhaps it is Alfred Tennyson's great big yellow face and growling voice that has had an impression on me. Manliness and simplicity of manner go a great way with me, I fancy’ (Letters and Private Papers, 2.26). In his readings, the poet himself evoked ‘the poet’ who ‘Read, mouthing out his hollow oes and aes, / Deep-chested music’ (‘The Epic’). Thrillingly chanting Maud, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, ‘Northern Farmer: New Style’, a song from Idylls of the King, and other verses, Tennyson's voice has been preserved for posterity thanks to an emissary of Thomas Edison's in May 1890. Allingham relished Tennyson and ‘his own sonorous manner, lingering with solemn sweetness on every vowel sound—a peculiar incomplete cadence at the end. He modulates his cadences with notable subtlety’ (Allingham, 158, 25 Aug 1867). FitzGerald exulted in the harsher music, reporting of ‘St Simeon Stylites’: ‘this is one of the Poems A. T. would read with grotesque Grimness, especially at such passages as “Coughs, Aches, Stitches, etc.”, laughing aloud at times’ (FitzGerald's notes at Trinity College, Cambridge).

Tennyson's eminent contemporaries paid affectionate tribute not only to his voice but to his character, appearance, and garb. FitzGerald noted on 23 May 1835: ‘I will say no more of Tennyson than that the more I have seen of him, the more cause I have to think him great. His little humours and grumpinesses were so droll, that I was always laughing’ (Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 1.162).

Carlyle described Tennyson to Emerson in August 1844, as
One of the finest looking men in the world. A great shock of rough dusty-dark hair; bright-laughing hazel eyes; massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate, of sallow-brown complexion, almost Indian-looking; clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy;—smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical metallic,—fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous: I do not meet, in these late decades, such company over a pipe! (Collected Letters, 18.169)
Six months later Jane Welsh Carlyle remarked that
Alfred is dreadfully embarrassed with women alone—for he entertains at one and the same moment a feeling of almost adoration for them and an ineffable contempt! Adoration I suppose for what they might be—contempt for what they are! The only chance of my getting any right good of him was to make him forget my womanness … he smoked on all the same—for three mortal hours!—talking like an angel—only exactly as if he were talking with a clever man—which—being a thing I am not used to—men always adapting their conversation to what they take to be a womans taste—strained me to a terrible pitch of intellectuality. (31 Jan 1845, Collected Letters, 19.16–17)
Arthur Hugh Clough said: ‘I like him personally better than I do his manner in his verses; personally he is the most unmannerly simple big child of a man that you can find’ (13 Nov 1856, Correspondence of Arthur Hugh Clough, 2.522).

Nathaniel Hawthorne gave a detailed account of his impressions of the poet on 30 July 1857:
Tennyson is the most picturesque figure, without affectation, that I ever saw; of middle-size, rather slouching, dressed entirely in black, and with nothing white about him except the collar of his shirt, which methought might have been clean the day before. He had on a black wide-awake hat, with round crown and wide, irregular brim, beneath which came down his long black hair, looking terribly tangled; he had a long, pointed beard, too, a little browner than the hair, and not so abundant as to encumber any of the expression of his face. His frock coat was buttoned across the breast, though the afternoon was warm. His face was very dark, and not exactly a smooth face, but worn, and expressing great sensitiveness, though not, at that moment, the pain and sorrow which is seen in his bust … I heard his voice; a bass voice, but not of a resounding depth; a voice rather broken, as it were, and ragged about the edges, but pleasant to the ear. His manner, while conversing with these people, was not in the least that of an awkward man, unaccustomed to society; but he shook hands and parted with them, evidently as soon as he courteously could, and shuffled away quicker than before. He betrayed his shy and secluded habits more in this, than in anything else that I observed; though, indeed in his whole presence, I was indescribably sensible of a morbid painfulness in him, a something not to be meddled with. Very soon, he left the saloon, shuffling along the floor with short irregular steps, a very queer gait, as if he were walking in slippers too loose for him. (Hawthorne, 351–3)
Julia Margaret Cameron, in 1862, caught Tennyson's prescience as well as the comedy of his so loathing celebrity-invading, a loathing strong in such poems as ‘To —, After Reading a Life and Letters’ and ‘The Dead Prophet’ (1885), pieces dealing with what Tennyson saw as the invasion of the Carlyles' privacy by the biographer James Anthony Froude.
He was very violent with the girls on the subject of the rage for autographs. He said he believed every crime and every vice in the world were connected with the passion for autographs and anecdotes and records,—that the desiring anecdotes and acquaintance with the lives of great men was treating them like pigs to be ripped open for the public; that he knew he himself should be ripped open like a pig; that he thanked God Almighty with his whole heart and soul that he knew nothing, and that the world knew nothing, of Shakespeare but his writings; and that he thanked God Almighty that he knew nothing of Jane Austen, and that there were no letters preserved either of Shakespeare's or of Jane Austen's, that they had not been ripped open like pigs. Then he said that the post for two days had brought him no letters, and that he thought there was a sort of syncope in the world as to him and to his fame. (J. M. Cameron letter, Taylor, 2.193)
Henry James described Tennyson for William James some seventeen years later, on 29 March 1877:
He is very swarthy & scraggy & strikes one at first as much less handsome than his photos.: but gradually you see that it's a face of genius. He had I know not what simplicity, speaks with a strange rustic accent & seemed altogether like a creature of some primordial English stock, a 1000 miles away from American manufacture. (James and James, 1.283)
And finally, Thomas Hardy, in 1880,
often said that he was surprised to find such an expression of humour in the Poet-Laureate's face, the corners of his mouth twitching with that mood when he talked; ‘it was a genial human face, which all his portraits belied’; and it was enhanced by a beard and hair straggling like briars, a shirt with a large loose collar, and old steel spectacles. (Hardy, 178)
Tennyson had the good fortune to be the neighbour on the Isle of Wight, and then the friend, of the greatest of Victorian portrait photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron. He valued her photographs of him, liking best the one he dubbed ‘The Dirty Monk’ (1865). As to portraits: FitzGerald, on 5 June 1871, wrote to Emily Tennyson, of Samuel Laurence's, painted about 1840:
Very imperfect as it is, it is nevertheless the best painted Portrait I have seen; and certainly the only one of old Days. ‘Blubber-lipt’ I remember Alfred once called it; so it is; but still the only one of old Days, and still—the best of all, to my thinking. I like to go back to Days before the Beard, which makes rather a Dickens of A. T. in the Photographs—to my mind. (Letters of Edward FitzGerald, 3.290–91)
On this portrait see Letters, 3.290n. For the representations by Cameron (photographs), by Thomas Woolner (medallion and busts), by James Spedding and D. G. Rossetti (drawings), by G. F. Watts (paintings), and the statue by Hamo Thornycroft, see David Piper, The Image of the Poet: British Poets and their Portraits (pp. 166–80).

Tennyson's plays and final years

Tennyson wrote to Allingham on 29 July 1865: ‘To own a ship, a large steam-yacht … and go round the world—that's my notion of glory’ (Allingham, 118–19). In his old age he enjoyed a series of cruises delightful and calmative: in 1883, a fortnight on the Pembroke Castle (Scotland, Norway, and Denmark); in 1887, to Devon and Cornwall; in 1888, on Lord Brassey's yacht in and about the channel; and in the last two years of his life, 1891 and 1892, to Jersey. He had travelled in 1880 to Venice, Bavaria, and the Tyrol, with Hallam Tennyson. The sacred elegiac poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ was written in October 1889 while crossing the Solent. According to his son, when Tennyson showed him this poem, ‘I said “That is the crown of your life's work.” He answered, “It came in a moment”’. A few days before his death Tennyson said to his son, ‘Mind you put my “Crossing the Bar” at the end of all editions of my poems’ (H. Tennyson, Memoir, 2.366–7).

Extraordinary fecundity, energy, and variety continued to characterize Tennyson. He returned to earlier accomplishments: nearing seventy, in May 1879 he published, after repeated piracies, The Lover's Tale, which had been omitted from Poems (1832) despite Arthur Hallam's protests: ‘You must be pointblank mad … Pray—pray—pray—change your mind again’ (20 Nov 1832, Letters of Arthur Henry Hallam, 688). He also created anew: in December 1880, Ballads and Other Poems; in November 1885, Tiresias, and Other Poems; in December 1886, Locksley Hall Sixty Years After; and in December 1889, Demeter and Other Poems.

Tennyson's youthful dramatic extravaganza, The Devil and the Lady, and his mature masterpiece in monodrama, Maud, had given no notice that he would embark as a playwright during the last two decades of his life. Back in the 1830s his art in the dramatic monologue had been assuredly inaugurative and diverse, with the impassioned utterances of Ulysses, Tithonus, and St Simeon Stylites rivalling the simultaneous feats of Browning in different veins—but the stage, the Victorian stage?

It was in June 1875 that Tennyson published Queen Mary, initiating this new misguided phase. Henry James, no great hand at the stage himself, noted that
Great surprise, great hopes, and great fears had been called into being by the announcement that the author of so many finely musical lyrics and finished, chiselled specimens of narrative verse, had tempted fortune in the perilous field of the drama.
James saw that Tennyson ‘has not so much refuted as evaded the charge that he is not a dramatic poet. To produce his drama he has had to cease to be himself’ (The Galaxy, Sept 1875; H. James, 165–6). A production followed in April 1876, and then in December 1876 (‘1877’) the publication of his second historical drama, Harold. Henry Irving and Ellen Terry did their best for The Cup in July 1881. The Promise of May, his only published work in prose, was produced in November 1882. As though anticipating T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, he wrote Becket. ‘I gave Irving my Thomas à Becket’, Tennyson said in 1880, and he meant ‘gave’:
He said it was magnificent, but it would cost £3000 to mount it,—he couldn't afford the risk. If well put on the stage, it would act for a time, and it would bring me credit—but it wouldn't pay. The success of a piece doesn't depend on its literary merit or even on its stage effect, but on its hitting somehow. (Allingham, 287, 5 Aug 1880)
Irving procrastinated for years, but six months before Tennyson's death he agreed to produce it, and did so in February 1893.

Strong of constitution, Tennyson lived to a great age. In his nerve-shattered thirties (the 1840s) he had despairingly resorted to water cures, and intermittently throughout his life he had a fear of blindness, but it was not until a few years before he died that ill health came upon him. In 1888 he suffered severe rheumatic illness, from which he did not recover until May 1889; in 1890–91 there was perilous influenza; and then in July 1892 he entered what was to be his last illness, bronchitis, influenza, neuralgia.

Death and posthumous reputation

On 6 October 1892, having recently reached his eighty-fourth year, Tennyson died at Aldworth. That day, Queen Victoria recorded:
A fine morning—I heard that dear old Ld Tennyson had breathed his last, a great national loss. He was a great poet, and his ideas were ever grand, noble, elevating. He was very loyal and always very kind and sympathising to me, quite remarkably so. What beautiful lines he wrote to me for my darling Albert, and for my children and Eddy [her grandson the duke of Clarence and Avondale]. He died with his hand on his Shakespeare, and the moon shining full into the window, and over him. A worthy end to such a remarkable man. (Queen Victoria's journal, Dyson and Tennyson, 140)
Tennyson was buried in Westminster Abbey on 12 October. The grave is next to that of Browning, and in front of the monument to Chaucer. On 28 October 1892 there was posthumously published The Death of Œnone, Akbar's Dream, and Other Poems. He left £57,206 13s. 9d.—this, and royalties to come, from poems that have lasted.

Such was the sense of national loss that the abolition of the office of poet laureate was solemnly mooted when Tennyson died. It was not until 1 January 1896, more than three years later, that a successor was announced: Alfred Austin, poetaster laureate.

Emily Tennyson died on 10 August 1896. In October 1897 Hallam Tennyson published, in two volumes, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir. To this he had devoted the five years since the poet's death, amassing, cutting, and (on occasion) shielding, towards the classic Victorian form, a life and letters. Indispensable, the Memoir is capacious and honourable, at its best in breathing a sense of what it was like in the immediate vicinity of Tennyson during the second half of his life, a memoir quite as much duly as unduly reticent.

In due course there came the expected ‘reaction against Tennyson’. Samuel Butler, his grim comic nose in the wind, had started to jeer as soon as the breath was out of Tennyson's body:
I see they packed the volume of Shakespeare that he had near him when he died in a little tin box and buried it with him. If they had to bury it they should have either not packed it at all, or, at the least, in a box of silver-gilt. But his friends should have taken it out of the bed when they saw the end was near. It was not necessary to emphasize the fact that the ruling passion for posing was strong with him in death.
A little later he went on, ‘It seems that it was not the copy actually in bed with Tennyson when he died that was buried with him, but another copy, let us hope of the same edition, and equally well bound, was substituted for it’ (Butler, 254, 257).

Imminent Edwardians ousted eminent Victorians. Some lovers of Tennyson tried to reform things from within: Harold Nicolson in 1923 brilliantly rescued many of the true poems by conceding that much of Tennyson must go—while insisting that the essential Tennyson, ‘a morbid and unhappy mystic’, could and would stay. Here, of all things, was an English poète maudit, more, a poète lauréat maudit. French symbolism, in the person of Verlaine, had judged In Memoriam harshly: ‘When he should have been broken-hearted, he had many reminiscences’—for all the world as if reminiscences were not one deep and honourable way of attending to a broken heart. It was W. B. Yeats who enjoyed giving English currency to Verlaine's gibe (The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1936, ix).

It was left to T. S. Eliot, who warmed wittily and deeply to Tennyson, to insist in 1936 on the needed obvious: ‘Tennyson is a great poet, for reasons that are perfectly clear. He has three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence’ (T. S. Eliot, ‘In Memoriam’, 328).

Pressed by an anthologist for a biographical paragraph in 1837, Tennyson had sent only the ‘dry dates’: ‘I have no life to give—for mine has been one of feelings not of actions—can he not miss me out altogether?’ (13 July 1837, Letters, 1.154). But the life that truly he gave was one that realized feelings, his own and ours. The qualities of his poetry are most vividly commemorated, appreciated, and placed in the criticism by his contemporaries: by Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Arthur Hallam, Gerard M. Hopkins, and R. H. Hutton. Supremely, by Walt Whitman (The Critic, 1 Jan 1887; Jump, 349–50):
To me, Tennyson shows more than any poet I know (perhaps has been a warning to me) how much there is in finest verbalism. There is such a latent charm in mere words, cunning collocutions, and in the voice ringing them, which he has caught and brought out, beyond all others—as in the line ‘And hollow, hollow, hollow, all delight’, in ‘The Passing of Arthur’.

Christopher Ricks  DNB