Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was the most famous poet of the Victorian era, renowned for his dramatically powerful subjects and highly-wrought melodious style. Among his most celebrated works are ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1842), ‘Ulysses’ (1842), In Memoriam A.H.H. (1849), ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854) and Maud (1855). Tennyson often took inspiration from Classical and Arthurian mythology, and frequently explored death, loss, desire, the passing of time, and the dilemma of whether to withdraw from or engage with the world. Such was the acclaim for In Memoriam that Tennyson became Poet Laureate on the death of William Wordsworth in 1850. An epic and painfully personal poem about Tennyson’s grief on the sudden death of his best friend, Arthur Hallam, it came to represent an age of mourning, particularly in the wake of Prince Albert’s death in 1861. Having become an icon of Victorianism, Tennyson was made a baron in 1883. He had come a long way from his origins as the son of a Lincolnshire reverend.
Feted by readers and fellow writers the world over, Tennyson was always ambivalent about his fame: he enjoyed friendships with great thinkers and artists of the day (see Visitors to Farringford), but was anxious about unwanted attention from the public at large. Hence the move to Farringford was an escape from the demands and agitation of London society.
However, Tennyson often grew restless at the isolation of life on the Isle of Wight; Farringford threatened too much tranquillity, and he would regularly return to London to seek out company. In this sense, his life followed the pattern of retreat and engagement with the world that occupied much of his poetry.
The accounts of friends and family indicate the many contradictions in Tennyson’s character. He was figured on the one hand as a lofty visionary whose imposing looks were compared to Shakespeare, Homer and a Hebrew prophet. But his unique style, with flowing cape and broad-brimmed ‘wideawake’ hat, was also described as comically scruffy. His grandson, Charles Tennyson, observed that his “rather loose trousers” hung “in wrinkles which made his legs look like the hind legs of an elephant”(Stars and Markets, 1957) and that “he habitually fastened his hat under his chin with an elastic band like a schoolgirl”(‘The Story of Farringford’, 1955).
Many people talked of Tennyson’s transcendent prophetic quality – the feeling of “talking to something more than common mortality…one who lived in another world”(‘Memories of the Tennysons’ by H.D. Rawnsley, 1900). Yet he was also playful, blunt and unaffected to an almost child-like degree. His close friend Benjamin Jowett wrote that he was “as open as the day, and, like a child, tells any chance comer what is passing in his mind”(Letter, January 1861). Echoing Jowett’s words, the actor Henry Irving reportedly stated that:
“Tennyson was the most natural person he ever knew – as natural as a great Newfoundland dog…his directness was an expression of the singular naivety which was so marked an element in his character and which contrasted so strongly with the deliberate artistry of his verse, his intense and subtle sensibility and the range and accuracy of his knowledge. He spoke whatever was in his mind without equivocation or ambiguity, and gave free and immediate expression to his passing moods, whether of irritation, amusement, grief, or satisfaction.”
(Stars and Markets by Charles Tennyson. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957)
Tennyson enjoyed entertaining people and could even play the clown. The poet William Allingham recalled one occasion where Tennyson read from The Window – co-written with Arthur Sullivan – and “jumped around most comically, like a cock-pigeon. He is the only person I ever saw who can do the most ludicrous things without any loss of dignity”(Allingham’s Diary, 22nd November 1867). Tennyson once declared that “a man without humour is a fool”(quoted in H.D. Rawnsley, ‘Memories of the Tennysons’).
Egotistical, Sensitive and Shy
The poet was egotistical, but also intensely sensitive, shy and brooding. He was haunted by a family history of mental illness: his father suffered from depression and paranoia, often with violent outbursts, and one of his brothers was institutionalised for his entire adult life. His longstanding friend Edward FitzGerald talked of the poet’s “hereditary tenderness of nerve”(Letter, 17th December 1840), while Jowett elaborated: “He is the shyest person I ever knew, feeling sympathy and needing it to a degree quite painful…great mental troubles necessarily accompany such powers as he possesses”(Letter, January 1861). He could therefore appear aloof and even unfriendly, but once he became better-acquainted with a visitor he was warm and welcoming.
Tennyson relished company at Farringford to counteract the solitariness of his writing; long walks on the Down and reciting his own poetry were favourite pastimes. With friends he would often debate pressing religious and political issues. As In Memoriam attests to, Tennyson struggled with religious doubt in the wake of the scientific advances made by naturalists like Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.
He reconciled himself to this new understanding by finding God not in church dogma, but in the actions of those around him. Tennyson once said, “I believe that God reveals Himself in each individual soul”(quoted in Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by Hallam Tennyson, 1897). He was sympathetic to the Christian Socialism of his literary friends F.D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes.
Tennyson’s literary tastes were wide-ranging. From childhood he had devoured English Renaissance, Restoration and 18th-century literature, including Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Swift, Pope, Defoe and Goldsmith. He was also thoroughly educated in the drama, poetry and prose of ancient Greece and Rome, and frequently experimented with Classical verse forms. Tennyson was a great admirer of Dante, whose work he often read in the original Italian, and enjoyed reciting Chaucer (almost as much as his own poetry!).
The foremost Romantic poets were readily acknowledged as an influence on his work. In his teenage years Tennyson had idolised Byron, but he came to prefer Keats, of whom he declared: “He would have been among the very greatest of us if he had lived. There is something of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything he ever wrote”(quoted in ibid). Tennyson held Wordsworth in high esteem, pronouncing that “at his best [Wordsworth is] the greatest English poet since Milton”(quoted in ibid), though he did criticise what he saw as a tendency to diffuseness and prosaic style.
Interestingly, as Tennyson’s fame grew and amateur poets increasingly sent him samples of their work to comment on (“shoals of trash!”, as he called them), he tired of reading poetry and much preferred novels. He went to hear Dickens give a public reading of A Christmas Carol in 1857 and was at his funeral 13 years later; George Eliot was a good friend and attended his son Lionel’s wedding.
Tennyson often spoke generously of his literary contemporaries, showing appreciation for the work of Thomas Carlyle, William Makepeace Thackeray, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Coventry Patmore, Arthur Hugh Clough, Algernon Charles Swinburne and William Barnes. He maintained friendships across the Atlantic with the renowned poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman, though he thought Edgar Allan Poe “the most original American genius”(quoted in ibid).
The friend and rival he arguably respected the most was Robert Browning. They met in Paris in 1853 and became fast friends: Browning was a witness at Hallam Tennyson’s wedding, and was Lionel’s godfather. Allingham noted Tennyson’s “strong personal regard” for Browning, who in his words had “a great imagination” and “a genius for a sort of dramatic composition and for analysing the human mind”(Wilfred Ward, ‘Talks with Tennyson’, New Review, xv, 1896). However, he felt that Browning did not pay enough attention to the harmonious phrasing of verse, which made it difficult to fully enjoy his poetry.