When one thinks about the Victorians, two figures immediately come to mind: Queen Victoria and Alfred Tennyson. The first represents the British Empire, on which the sun never set, and the second is the English poet often regarded, as many have written, as "the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry."
It was Tennyson who succeeded William Wordsworth, perhaps the "chief representative" of the earlier Romantic Period, as Poet Laureate in 1850, the year in which his most famous poem "In Memoriam" was published.
Tennyson was born on August 5, 1809, in Somersby, Lincolnshire. His father, George Clayton Tennyson, a rector, suffered greatly from depression, a condition sometimes exhibited in Tennyson himself in his later years. Called by some a "natural poet," Tennyson began writing poetry at an early age. Never happy with formal schooling, he was tutored at home, and in 1827 he entered Trinity College. At Trinity he joined the Apostles, a group of intellectuals that included Arthur Henry Hallam, who became his closest friend and whose death is mourned in Tennyson's greatest poem, "In Memoriam." Tennyson's father died in 1831, after which Tennyson left Cambridge without a degree.
Tennyson began publishing poetry at an early age. In 1827 he and his two brothers published what has been called the "mistitled" Poems by Two Brothers, and this was soon followed by two other volumes: Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and Poems (1832). Both volumes reflect the influence of the Apostles and his intense interest in the earlier Romantic poets, especially Shelley and Keats. However, as one critic has observed, "with this verse, and in contrast to it, is a strain of poetry in which Tennyson attempted deliberately to deal with the moral and social problems of the age, to assume a public role."
After these two volumes, which received unfavorable reviews, Tennyson did not publish anything until 1842, but during this ten year hiatus, which has been called the "ten years silence," many significant events occurred, both public and personal. His close friend Arthur Hallam died suddenly in 1833, and Tennyson was overwhelmed with grief. Tennyson also suffered a severe financial setback during this period. He had invested the money he had inherited from his father in Dr. Allen's wood-carving machine, and the resulting loss culminated in a period during which Tennyson fell "into so severe a hypochondria that his friends despaired of his life."
In spite of all this, and while it would seem that the poet would be unable to function, the truth seems to be that Tennyson was very active during this ten year period, both revising his earlier poems and composing new ones. In fact, he was to tell his son that it was during this time that "in silence, obscurity, and solitude he perfected his art."
As one critic has said, "In 1842 Tennyson was ready to face the world again, and in that year he published the two-volume Poems." Unlike his earlier publications, these volumes, which contained "The Lady of Shalott," "The Lotus-eaters," "Morte d'Arthur," and "Ulysses," were an immediate success. From that time on Tennyson became Queen Victoria's favorite and the most popular poet of his time. In 1850 he succeeded William Wordsworth as Poet Laureate and married Emily Sellwood, to whom he had been engaged for fourteen years. In 1853 they settled in Farringford, their house in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight; and from that time on, as Harold Bloom writes, "he became an English institution, whether he wrote well or badly."
The Tennysons had two sons, Hallam and Lionel. In 1869 the Tennyson moved from Farringford to Aldworth, Surrey. He accepted a Barony in 1884. He died in 1892 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. His later poetry includes Maud, which Tennyson called a monodrama, The Princess, which has been called a feminist poem, and Idylls of the King, the story of King Arthur and the Round Table.
The one poem for which Tennyson is best remembered is "In Memoriam," the poet's elegy on his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in Vienna in 1833. It took Tennyson seventeen years to write the elegy, and one begins to understand the impact his friend's death had on the poet as one reads the various stanzas, especially those dealing with Hallam's death and Tennyson's bewilderment and deep grief over what seems to be the senseless death of his friend.
The poem became one of Queen Victoria's favorite works, and it is regarded as one of the great poems of the period. It is still highly regarded by many readers today. Tennyson's first title for the poem was "The Way of the Soul," and the title suggests the poet's immediate fears and concerns: the sudden death of someone dear, the apparent waste of a precious soul, and the puzzlement, both religious and scientific, over why this should occur. The death of his close friend causes the poet to wrestle with matters the concern all humans, especially religious and philosophic ones.
Composed of 131 stanzas (four-line ABBA iambic tetrameter stanzas, called by critics In Memoriam Stanzas) and organized around three Christmas seasons, In Memoriam reflects the poets both painful and at other times optimistic thoughts over the death of his friend. While at times seemingly meandering, the poem makes some insightful observations concerning the meaning of life and how one must come to terms with its contradictions. Perhaps Tennyson's most meaningful thoughts come through in two well-known stanzas, ones that reflect both his personal feelings and his deeper concerns over philosophical, scientific, and religious questions.
The first deals with the poet's attempt to deal with his grief in the context of the larger issues of religion and science in his own time. How can she simply accept the death of his friend as part of a "natural" process, one that completely annuls hope for any future "reunion"? Tennyson was very much interested in both science and religion, and, although this is a pre-Darwinian poem, it reflects what later became some of the speculations and questions regarding Darwin's ideas in his Origin of Species, published in 1859.
Tennyson, mourning the death of his friend, rejects the idea that the natural process nullifies any hope of his being reunited in some way with Hallam; he falls back on what he calls "the larger hope." In what is sometimes called "the true spirit of the elegy" he urges his readers to reject despair and pessimism. His thoughts are revealed in Stanza LV:
The wish, that of the living whole No life may fail beyond the grave, Derives it not from what we have The likest God within the soul? Are God and Nature then at strife, That Nature lends such evil dreams? So careful of the type she seems, So careless of the single life; That I, considering everywhere Her secret meaning in her deeds, And finding that of fifty seeds She often brings but one to bear, I falter where I firmly trod, And falling with my weight of cares Upon the great world's altar-stairs That slope thro' darkness up to God, I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope, And gather dust and chaff, and call To what I feel is Lord of all, And faintly trust the larger hope.
The other often-quoted stanza, and again one that reflects Tennyson's attempt to reaffirm his strong belief in a world of faith and hope rather than Godless despair and grief, comes towards the end, Stanza CXXIV:
That which we dare invoke to bless; Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt; He, They, One, All; within, without; The Power in darkness whom we guess,-- I found Him not in world or sun, Or eagle's wing. or insect's eye, Nor thro' the questions men may try, The petty cobwebs we have spun. If e'er when faith had fallen asleep, I hear a voice 'believe no more' And heard an ever-breaking shore That tumbled in the Godless deep; A warmth within the breast would melt The freezing reason's colder part, And like a man in wrath the heart Stood up and answer'd 'I'd have felt.' No, like a child in doubt and fear: But that blind clamour made me wise; Then was I as a child that cries, But, crying knows his father near;'
One can see why In Memoriam was one of the favorite poems of Queen Victoria who had spent most of her life mourning the death of her husband Prince Albert. The poem also demonstrates why Tennyson, although an eminent Victorian, is not bound by his age. His interest in all subjects, philosophic, scientific, and religious, embodies what should be the basis for our interest in him and his poetry in our time. He had what Harold Bloom calls a "poetic split personality."
Bloom writes: "In Memoriam is so troubled by the materialistic metaphysical implications of Victorian geology because Tennyson's imagination responded naturally and even buoyantly to speculations which his moral intellect could not tolerate." Surely Victoria's favorite poet belongs to our age too.
Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (English) of the City University of New York. He specializes in 19th-century British and American literature and has written more than 25 articles for The World & I Online. Prof. Timko edits 'Dickens Studies Annual,' lectures, and is the author of several books and numerous articles. He has participated in many national and international conferences.