Tennyson’s Wild: Animals in Tennyson’s Poetry

Writing in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Tennyson’s poetry is about a countryside on the cusp of going into decline ...

“Turtle doves are the most likely bird to go extinct within our shores in the next 10 to 15 years, but just a year or two into the rewilding project, we started to hear them at Knepp. There’s nothing more magical than listening to their gentle soothing purring in the thickets, it’s the sound of summer resurrected.” – Isabella Tree


Isabella Tree, author of the runaway best seller ‘Wilding’ talked to Laura Battle in an interview with the Financial Times, about her efforts to recreate the rapidly declining biosphere of Britain on her estate called Knepp.  The experiment has been successful, with rare owls, bats, nightingales and deer all rapidly growing in presence at Knepp alongside the turtle doves. Interestingly, Tree’s experiment at Knepp, although of course principally important for environmental concerns, holds within it, somewhat surprisingly, enormous possibilities for our understanding of English Literature.

Declining Countryside

Writing in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Tennyson’s poetry is about a countryside on the cusp of going into decline, and the landscape that he and his poems inhabit is radically different from the landscape which we live in now. Wildlife teams through his poems, their unspoken noises, sights and smells dominate the picture that he tries to draw for us. Yet, for the modern reader, it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand the setting which these poems place us in. Increasingly, in academia surrounding English Literature, there is a stress on trying to understand the ecological environments in which texts were written, as it is one of the principal gaps between our present and our past, it is perhaps, easier to understand the social concerns of a play like ‘Macbeth’, than it is to understand the environment in which it was written. When Lady Macbeth begins her famous soliloquy

‘The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.’ – ‘Macbeth’ 

We can easily picture the military procession of a King under the battlements of a Medieval Castle, but less easily bring to mind the sound of the croaks of the raven. 

‘So till the dusk that follow’d even-song
Rode on the two, reviler and reviled;
Then after one long slope was mounted, saw,
Bowl shaped, thro’ tops of many thousand pines
A gloomy-gladed hollow slowly sink
To westward – in the deeps whereof a mere,
Round as the red eye of an Eagle-owl,
Under the half-dead sunset glared’ – ‘Gareth and Lynette

The landscape that Tennyson describes in ‘Gareth and Lynette’, however, would have been strange even to him, for he is describing Medieval England, a space almost entirely wild and uninhabited. In ‘Walking to the Mail’ however, the landscape depicted is deeply Victorian.

‘I’m glad I walk’d. How fresh the meadows look
Above the river, and, but a month ago,
The whole hill-side was redder than a fox.’ – ‘Walking to the Mail’  

It is with Tennyson’s poem ‘Progress of Spring’, most especially, however, that the experiment at Knepp connects.

‘Across my garden! And the thicket stirs,
The fountain pulses high in sunnier jest,
The blackcap warbles, and the turtle purrs,
The starling claps his tiny castanets.
Still round her forehead wheels the woodland dove,
And scatters on her throat the sparks of dew,
The kingcup fills her footprint, and above
Broaden the glowing isles of vernal blue.’ – ‘The Progress of Spring’

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