Alfred Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, the third surviving son of a rector whose violent alcoholism blighted the family home. Tennyson went to Cambridge where he met Arthur Henry Hallam whose early death was to prompt Tennyson to write his great elegy of mourning, In Memoriam. Tennyson had begun writing as a child and published some of his best-known poems, including 'Mariana', when he was only twenty. However, success was slow to come and the years between Hallam's death and 1843 when Tennyson began to receive an annual government grant were difficult, financially and emotionally. His situation changed with the publication of "In Memoriam" which brought him lasting fame and success and for the next forty years he was the dominant figure in English poetry, being made Poet Laureate in 1850 following the death of Wordsworth. Later work such as The Idylls of the King were held in high esteem and sold well. By this time he was married to Emily Sellwood after a prolonged ten-year engagement due to financial difficulties and his fears over his mental state, the 'black blood' of the Tennysons. This darkness informs much of his poetry which tends to focus on loss and mortality: T. S. Eliot called him "the great master. . . of melancholia."He was made a peer in 1884 and died in 1892. 

Since his death his critical reputation has had its ups and downs: W. H. Auden described his genius as essentially lyrical and the general consensus has been that the longer narrative poems he spent so much time on are less successful, though this view has begun to be challenged. However, he remains the defining English poet of the Victorian era, nowhere more so than in his famous Archive-featured poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' (1854) which commemorates an infamous incident from the Crimean War. In the course of this action, undertaken in error due to misinterpreted orders, the Light Brigade (that is cavalry bearing only light arms) attempted to capture the Russian gun redoubts at Balaclava with disastrous results. Of the six hundred and seventy three men who charged down "The Valley of Death" only a hundred and ninety five survived unwounded. News of the charge and its bloody consequences reached London three weeks later and there was an immediate public outcry. The news affected Tennyson who wrote his poem in commemoration of their courage only a few minutes after reading an account in The Times. It was immediately popular, even reaching the troops back in the Crimea where it was distributed in pamphlet form. 

Less well-known is Tennyson's celebration of a more successful action during the same battle, 'The Charge of the Heavy Brigade'. This was written much later in 1882 at the prompting of a friend which is perhaps why it fails to capture the white-hot creative burst of the first poem. The "three hundred" mentioned are the men of the Heavy Brigade and their commander, Sir James Yorke Scarlett, but the poem never caught the public's imagination. Nevertheless, it is of historical interest to hear the two poems side by side which we're able to do thanks to a remarkable recording made in 1890. These poems and eight others were recorded on a set of twenty three soft wax cylinders. Although their age and the primitive technology sometimes renders a word inaudible, Tennyson's voice comes through clearly, intoning the pounding dactylic rhythms of the verse which gives it a breathless momentum. 

Crtitics on Tennyson:
Whether or not Alfred Tennyson was the greatest of the victorian poets, as affirmed by many critics today, there is no doubt that in his own lifetime he was the most popular of poets. He had gained the title "the poet of people". According to T.H. Hurley, Tennyson is considered as an intellectual giant, a thinker who had mastered the scientific thought of his century and fully confronted the issues it raised. Tennyson was essentially a poet of a countryside, a man whose whole being was conditioned by the recurring rhythms of rural rather than urban life, and once, a critic complained that Tennyson was merely "a discovery of words rather than of ideas".

Decadence involves a policy of conscious exclusion in order to produce an artificial state in the beholder. There are many things in Tennyson Poetry which might seem to partake of this aspect of decadence. According to John Bayley, "Decadence shows us a picture, usually exotic and requires us to attend to it and to nothing else. Almost the whole point of Tennyson's pictures on the other hand is to lead us through delight to curiosity, curiosity about why these have been chosen, about the often deprecating maneuvers that attends their chic, most of all about the nature and creative process of the poet himself.

T.S. Eliot:
Unlike most poets, he was not only a good man, but a man by whom the sensations of a settled goodness were physically craved as much as other kinds of genius have needed drugs.
T.S. Eliot observes that Tennyson combines these qualities which are seldom found together except in greatest poets, abundance, variety, and complete competence.

"I have identified six recurrent features of Tennyson style, his repetitions which is to draw our attention to "see", the repetitions of elements is functional such as wooing back some value and fixing it to last in the mind, his resourceful hovering, his inventive use of appositional grammar and two-way syntax which does not freeze the meaning but leaves them fluid and two way syntax which helps the precise meanings to be free in disposing themselves in variety of ways, his skillful navigation between closed and open use of language he does not venerate superstitiously the universal stability of words, but neither does he licentiously pursue equivocal meaning, his remarkable ability to combine clause of sense with a suggestion of truths that are not explicit in his statements, and his combination of directness and indirectness. These characteristics of his style derive from three main sources. The originate in his view of the world, in his theory of language and in his psychological temperament and general needs.

Tennyson language:
There are two different conceptions of language to be found in Tennyson's work and indeed throughout the 19th. On the one hand, there was the view that words were the poor husks of reality, abstract denotative counters which were the product of the understanding generalizing upon sense experience.
On the other hand, there was still alive something of the older conception of language as a magical instrument, a means of incantation or ritual which gave one power over reality or revealed its true nature.

Tennyson's poems do have this purely lyric element we know. Whitman says,"To me, Tennyson shows  more than any poet. I know how much there is in finest Verbalism, there is such a talent charm in more words, cunning collocations, and in the voice ringing them, which he has caught and brought out beyond all others. Language and poetry played for Tennyson the same role the nature played for Wordsworth where Wordsworth roamed the fields, Tennyson ranged the English poets, reading them in his father's library and imitating them with astonishing facility.