Tennyson was a popular and successful poet. At the funeral of Charles Dickens in 1870 at Westminster Abbey, the end of the service should have seen people respectfully filing out. Each person should have been quietly reflecting on the loss of a great man. Instead there was an unseemly crush as people tried to get a look at the famous Alfred Tennyson. Women climbed on pews and children were held high by parents. Photography had become widely established during the1860s and Tennyson was an early celebrity in a modern sense. As a result there were, and are, some who dismiss Tennyson. His work made him rich, and there are many who feel that to be a poet you have to be poor. The nineteenth century was the age of the Industrial Revolution, and there was a marked reaction against the large scale commercial society it created. Villages and nature were idealised, romantic poetry was written. Now to be successful and to have lots of money was, for some people, to be part of the world that poetry was supposed to provide an escape from. Ironically Tennyson was successful precisely because he was interested in the dreams, legends, and religious reassurances that seemed to be fading in the face of modern life. His ambivalence about the new industrial world driven by money and profit was the reason he became rich.
Alfred's father was the vicar at Somersby in Lincolnshire. He and his wife Elizabeth had eleven children, with Alfred the third oldest, born on 6th August 1809. Inspite of later attempts by Alfred himself and others to make his childhood a fitting introduction to the life of a great poet, he actually seemed a rather normal boy. His father was ambitious for his children, so there was reading of Virgil and other highbrow authors, from a library George Tennyson created. But although reading Virgil sounds impressive, Alfred wrote in the front of his copy of Virgil's verse: "Alfred Tennyson, Somersby, in Lincolnshire, in England, in Europe, in the world, in the air, in space."
At fifteen Alfred left the closed world of Somersby for Trinity College Cambridge. With his father's physical and mental health declining this must have been a release. It was at Trinity that in collaboration with his brother he wrote his first published work, called Poems By Two Brothers. These poems, which contained many quotes from the library back at Somersby only sold a few copies. Alfred, however, called it his "Rubicon". The Rubicon was a river in northern Italy which Roman law forbade any army to cross, in an attempt to guard Rome to the south from the threat of military coup. The Rubicon was crossed by Caesar on his way to Rome to take the title of emperor by force for himself. From that point on Caesar was committed. Ironically the Rubicon was only a little river, hardly bigger than a stream. This was then a good analogy for the little collection of poems Tennyson published with his brother.
By age eighteen Tennyson was very tall, a heavy smoker, and completely unselfconscious socially. He would put his feet up on chairs, ask embarrassing questions, and say the first thing that came into his head. Little or no study seemed to be going on. His one triumph whilst at Cambridge was winning the Chancellor's Gold Medal for a poem on the subject of Timbuktu. Inspite of his less than obvious intellectual credentials, the Gold Medal allowed Tennyson to join the Apostles, an elite debating society where members would pass judgment on topics such as should members of the clergy be allowed to sit in the House of Commons. It was at Apostle meetings that Alfred was to form a close friendship with a renowned debater named Arthur Hallam. Alfred and Arthur were young, idealistic and ready to change the world. So in the summer of 1830, after a slight delay caused by Alfred's hay fever, they headed off to Spain, to convey money to a group of revolutionaries. It was a jolly adventure, and the scenery was beautiful enough to inspire some poems. Landscape between Narbonne and Peripignon resulted in Mariana In The South, and a border village between the rivers Gaube and Marcadou inspired a number of poems, including the Lotus Eaters and the Valley of Cauteritz.
A distant constitutional struggle in Spain could give rise to idealistic adventure. The Apostle's reaction to unrest amongst England's desperately poor agricultural workers was rather different. The autumn of 1830 saw the group arming themselves with sharp sticks. A rumour suggested that an attack on Trinity's library was imminent, and the students prepared to defend it. When hay ricks were set on fire in fields around Cambridge the students manned the pumps, while farm workers cut the hoses. Alfred and his friends were only freedom fighters when the consequences of revolution were far away. As during childhood, Tennyson comes over as an ordinary young man. Auden once said that Tennyson was "of all the great poets undoubtedly the stupidest". But then poetry isn't about being intellectual. The great Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney wrote a wonderful poem called Astrophil and Stella in which the poetry of a pair of lovers has to guard itself against the intellectuals. Tennyson was an ordinary young man, which was part of the reason his poetry became a sounding board for his generation. Christopher Ricks has written that there are lines in Tennyson's verse "which come shapedly into mind on utterly non-literary occasions, occasions when one is thinking, not about shame and loss in literature, but about shame and loss".
The first term of 1831 was to be Tennyson's last at Cambridge. With his father's death Tennyson left Cambridge for Somersby, and never returned. Some felt that he stayed at home with the noble aim of putting his family affairs before his studies. Others, such as his biographer Michael Thorn, suggest that he was simply realistic about his non-existent academic prospects, and his lack of suitability for a life in the Church, the usual career path of a Cambridge graduate. Tennyson continued writing poetry, and by now Arthur Hallam, as well as having a love affair with Tennyson's sister Emily, was acting as his unofficial literary agent, sending poems off to publishers. Tennyson himself could never seem to get round to doing this. His latest work, Poems Chiefly Lyrical, was not well received by the critics. After a trip up the Rhine, and a move to London he published Poems in 1832 under Hallam's guidance. This volume contained The Lady of Shalott which was inspired by Hallam's relationship with Emily. Once again the reviews were terrible.
Into 1833 Hallam was travelling in Europe, while Tennyson stayed in England. That September Hallam tragically died of a stroke in Vienna. Two months previously Tennyson had written in Two Voices of a premonition of the death of a best friend...
Is that his footstep on the floor?
Is this his whisper at the door?
Surely he comes. He comes no more
Following Hallam's death Tennyson set out single-mindedly to be a poet. Even though Tennyson was not to be published again until 1842 he studiously avoided any other paid employment. Perhaps he recalled the trip up the Rhine in 1831 when much time had been spent eating and drinking, and Hallam had been irritated that no poetry was being written. Perhaps he owed Hallam this effort. A poem called In Memoriam was begun, dedicated to Hallam. In Memoriam, written over many years, was to be a masterpiece, although at this point there was little to show how great that poem would be. It was really with this painful ending of a chapter in his life that Tennyson's life as a poet started. Following the death of his friend, a theme that was to become a defining feature of Tennyson's work took shape; this theme was endings. Poem Xll from In Memoriam says:
And saying; 'Comes he thus, my friend?
Is this the end of all my care?
And circle moaning in the air:
Is this the end? Is this the end?
Here Tennyson's personal pain has a more general resonance. The nineteenth century with its huge changes to life was looking to the future. Science had taken away religious reassurances that life had a plan and a point. If life wasn't working towards a destination in God's plan, where was it going? To Tennyson, who had to face the end of his friend's life, the fact that in many ways life seemed to have no end was deeply reassuring. The old religious certainties claimed there was a point and an end. Tennyson said there wasn't, and actually found hope in that fact.
View From Leith Hill
In the summer of 1833 a relationship developed with Rosa Baring of Harrington Hall and feelings reached their peak in 1835. Tennyson visited Dorking in Surrey that summer, staying there alone. He walked among the trees of Leith Hill and wrote The Sleeping Beauty and began Sir Galahad and The Black Bird.
So Tennyson lived out the 1830s, his relationship with Rosa ending, and a new one beginning with Emily Sellwood, who he met as a bridesmaid at his brother's wedding. In late1837 a new vicar arrived in Somersby, and the vicarage where Tennyson had lived since childhood had to be vacated. The loss of his home led to a number of reflective poems, such as The Voyage. In this poem he imagines a voyage in pursuit of a wonderful vision. The voyagers never seem to catch the vision, but..
Like Heavenly Hope she crowned the sea,
And, now the bloodless point reversed
She bore the blade of liberty.
As he is about to leave his home and search for a home elsewhere Tennyson wonders what the point of his search is. A point is a sharp and dangerous thing. When the point is reversed, the sword held safely backwards, then the point can be bloodless and the journey can continue safely. Losing a home, losing friends, life can seem pointless, but in this lovely poem the loss of the point in life is reversed to give hope.
"Merlin's Cave" Tintagel
The family moved to Epping in late 1837, the year in which public celebrations accompanied Queen Victoria's succession to the throne. There was then a move to Tunbridge Wells, Kent and then to Boxley Hall in the village of Boxley near Maidstone, Kent. There were many visits to neighbouring Park House, owned by a friend from Trinity. Tennyson wrote of still and starlit evenings spent on the lawn in Boxley, with candles burning on the tea table. In 1842 the two volume Poems was published, containing some of Tennyson's finest work. The collection included Ulysses, Break Break Break and Morte d'Arthur. Five hundred copies sold in three months which was respectable. But Tennyson aspired to Byron levels of popularity. Five hundred was not a big enough number to satisfy his ambition, and after investing in a disastrous business venture he was also in need of the money that sales would give him.
So Tennyson went in pursuit of his big hit. He had a clear vision of his destiny, even if in some ways his life was one long muddle. The relationship with Emily Sellwood continued but marriage was always being delayed. Hypochondriac worries led to hydrotherapy use, and visits to someone called Mrs Parker who would massage special creams into her clients' scalps to save thinning hair. In May 1848 a trip seemed like a good idea, and Tennyson set off for a stay in Cornwall. The intention was to do some location research for a planned epic about King Arthur. This trip didn't start well. Excessive drink and short sightedness led to him falling six feet onto a railway line behind his hotel in Bude. So, limping with a leg injury from this fall, our hero visited Camelford, Bodmin and Tintagel.
Then came 1850, the year when Tennyson found the kind of success he was looking for. He finally married Emily. Wordsworth died and Tennyson was made Poet Laureate in his place. And on 1st June In Memoriam was published. This poem is a long meditation on questions of faith and doubt in the new age that was emerging. Some people read it as a Christian piece, but it is actually too ambivalent to be described in such a way. Darwin's Origin of Species would be published nine years after In Memoriam, and Darwin's famous book would begin in the cosy and familiar world of pigeon fanciers and gardeners. Darwin made people feel at home before he took them out into the vastness of geological time in which life has been shaped. Tennyson does the same thing in In Memoriam. It is in reassuring and homely images, to do with Christmas for example, that the strangeness of the new is often best expressed:
Tonight ungathered let us leave
This laurel, let this holly stand
We live within a stranger's land
And strangely falls our Christmas Eve
But let not the footstep beat the floor
Nor bowl of wassail mantle warm;
For who would keep an ancient form
Through which the spirit breathes no more
(In Memoriam CV)
View of the Isle of Wight from Hengistbury Head
After marrying, the Tennysons bought a charming property in Sussex which, once they moved in was unfortunately found to be on the verge of collapse. Chapel House, Montpelier Row, Twickenham where they moved next wasn't suitable either, due to the risk of the Thames flooding, and, apparently, a general smell of cabbages. Finally the couple settled in Farringford on the Isle of Wight. The hope was that the island would provide relief from crowds of tourists who pursued the famous poet, a hope which was not fulfilled. Ironically the house at Farringford is now a hotel.
During this time work continued, on a performance poem called Maud and a number of patriotic pieces, that are usually now seen as jingoistic. Tennyson, being the ordinary sort of man he was, read the same newspapers and felt the same nationalistic feelings as his countrymen. After seeing bearded soldiers returning from the Crimea, Tennyson grew a beard, much to Emily's disgust. So Tennyson had nationalistic impulses, and grew a beard to look like a soldier, and in this sense he was like millions of his contemporaries. I suggest he was different not in being above those feelings, but in taking ordinary feelings and on occasion giving them a universal quality. The Charge of the Light Brigade was published in July 1856 and commemorates Lord Cardigan's disastrous charge against Russian guns at Balaclava during the Crimean War. The poem certainly makes much of the soldiers' bravery, but significantly the Light Brigade's charge went in two directions. The Light Brigade charged towards the guns, and then charged back the way they had come, being shot at from all sides. We already know of Tennyson's ambivalence about endings, and the charge of the Light Brigade seems to have no simple ending. We all charge one way and then we all charge back the other way, and the finish line does not seem to exist. This is both hopeful and tragic, just as the charge of the Light Brigade was both foolhardy and courageous.
So on went Tennyson. His life is long and sprawling, which might make things difficult for the internet biographer, but is a fitting kind of life for someone so ambivalent about endings. In 1867 - 1868 he had a new house built on Black Down, near Haslemere in West Sussex. This was, and still is, an isolated part of the South Downs, and the house, called Aldworth, was used to escape tourists who came to look at him on the Isle of Wight. As Tennyson watched the busy activity of building work on Blackdown he wrote a poem called Wages:
She desires no isles of the blest, no quiet seat of the just
To rest in a golden grove, or to bask in a summer sky:
Give her the wages of going on, and not to die
Work does not lead ultimately to some grove where everything is peaceful. No such relief can ever be found. The wages for our efforts are more efforts, the wages of going on and not dying. Tennyson refused to slow down. He continued writing, and was by now the huge celebrity who caused that unseemly scrum in 1870 at Dickens' funeral. But like the Light Brigade charging in opposite directions, Tennyson continued to think that a new age needed old legends. Tennyson was still interested in saving lost legends, or even in creating new ones. Hallam Tennyson reports that while living at Blackdown his father would often visit the Silent Pool in Surrey. This was, and is, a beautiful pool of clear spring water at the foot of the North Downs. Whether it was a sacred prehistoric site is not known, but a number of people in the nineteenth century though it ought to have been. Local writer Martin Tupper made up some fanciful stories about the pool. Tennyson was also attracted to the Silent Pool's seemingly mystical stillness.
In 1888, after being made a lord in 1883, and enduring the death of his son Lionel in 1884, Tennyson's ferocious health and energy finally began to weaken. In 1888 with his health approaching its final decline he wrote By An Evolutionist:
I have climbed to the snows of Age and I gaze at a field in the Past
Where I sank with the body at times in the sloughs of low desire
But I hear no yelp of the beast, and the Man is quiet at last
As he stands on the heights of his life with a glimpse of a height that is higher
Natural History Museum
Tennyson as he reached the end of his life saw science opening new mysteries. Rather than taking away from life's mystery, science revealed vast new vistas. His son Hallam took the old man to the Natural History Museum where he gazed in wonder at the statue of Darwin which at that time stood at the front of the hall. Past "spiritual" certainties did not necessarily open up a higher truth, but could actually be comforting limits. In Parnassus he calls astronomy and geology "terrible muses". As a frail eighty year old, in one of his last poems, Tennyson, recalled the ancient legend of Merlin, and travelled with it into the future.
Call your companions, launch your vessel,
And crowd your canvas, and 'ere it vanishes
Over the margin, after it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam
Tennyson sees no ending to his work. He encourages his readers not to see an edge to their canvas, but to let their pictures pour over the edge like a waterfall.
Tennyson died on 6th October 1892 at Aldworth on Black Down, a copy of Shakespeare's plays open on his chest. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.