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Alfred Tennyson as a Poet for Our Time

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977

During the past year, there has been a program on educational television called “Anyone for Tennyson?” The series began with readings and discussion of Tennyson’s poetry, and subsequent installments treated other Victorian and modern poets. The title is catchy and one that says something about Tennyson and about poetry in our time. Both the name of the program and the fact that reading and discussing poetry can attract a significant television audience suggests a new attitude toward Tennyson and toward poetry that emboldens me to pursue the topic of Alfred Tennyson as a poet for our time.

Tennyson’s life from 1809 to 1892 spanned much of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837—1901). She made him Poet Laureate, to succeed Wordsworth, in 1850; and, upon the recommendation of Gladstone, raised him to the peerage as a Baron in 1883. The adulation in his own time by people of all classes throughout the English-speaking world is probably unmatched in literary history.

Soon after his death a reaction set in, and until about 25 years ago, it was fashionable to denigrate Tennyson, like all things Victorian, and to think of him as a complacent exponent of a self-satisfied, self-important, and self-righteous age. But historical research and literary criticism have now winnowed fact from prejudice, and “Victorian” is anything but the word of opprobrium that it once was. Indeed, Victorian literature, history, and culture have become the “rage.” Beards, hair, and wire-rimmed glasses widely replicate personal styles of 100 years ago. Victorian societies and journals multiply. If Tennyson is the Pre-Eminent Victorian, as Joanna Richardson maintains in a book by that title, then the extent of serious and favorable evaluation to which he is now being treated (more than 60 books and articles listed in last year’s Victorian bibliography) is not surprising. Yet he is not merely significant in relation to a historical and cultural milieu. Nor is this purely an indication of tides in artistic taste. Rather, I wish to suggest, the circumstances of his life, the conditions of his era, exceptional creative powers, poetic insight, and the personal predilections of method and subject matter which his poetry displays make him not only an enduring poet, but a poet of singular pertinence for our time.

Matthew Arnold once said “that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life, —to the question: “how to live?” “Tennyson’s great strengths are the beauty through the meaning and sound of words and feeling through the evocation of the senses and emotions with which he is able to communicate ideas about life. His poetry is addressed to the central question, “how to live?”; that is, to the values that each of us as an individual must choose. He does not write from a perspective of privilege and ease, as his title, Lord Tennyson, might suggest. He knew the vicissitudes of the ordinary existence that we must bear. In his own life, he experienced the mixed potential and the human predicament for good and ill.


The son of a country parson, Tennyson was one of eleven children. His father, moody and sometimes violent toward his wife and family, was subject to periods of depression and drank to excess. As Tennyson approached manhood, his relationship with his father became so strained that he entered Cambridge University before he was adequately prepared in order to escape from the atmosphere of his home and from his father. For the family, money was always a problem; and when his father died, Tennyson left Trinity College, Cambridge, heavily in debt and without a degree—”a drop-out,” as we would say. Two years later, Arthur Hallam, his brilliant best friend at college, who had become engaged to his sister, died suddenly at the age of 22. The brother to whom he was the closest in age and affection for a time became a drug addict. He was deeply attracted to a beautiful young lady who married someone else for money and social position. One of his younger brothers went incurably insane and had to be confined to an asylum for life. He found his true love in Emily Sellwood, but after they had been engaged for three years, her father required them to stop seeing each other and corresponding because Tennyson had no prospect of having enough regular income to support a wife. It was 14 years from the time that he and Emily first met before they were finally married, when Tennyson was 41.

His first two volumes of poetry were harshly received by some of the reviewers and sold slowly. When he was 33, he lost in a business speculation most of what little money he had inherited and had to undergo extended medical treatment for what was virtually a nervous breakdown. Even after he became the leading poet of his time and at last financially secure, all was not serene. His and Emily’s first child was stillborn. Lionel, the second of his two sons, able and promising in every way, died in his early thirties; and the poet lived to see most of his closest friends precede him to the grave. All his life he had to combat a brooding tendency toward melancholia. Whatever positive outlook he achieved regarding the lot of individual men and women was hard won. He shared the uncertainty and the anxiety that have become hallmarks of our time.

If Tennyson’s life, then, corresponds in many particulars to modern experience, the characteristics of the times in England have remarkable parallels with those of the United States today. To compare mid-20th-century America to Victorian England may seem startling; but, like ours, it was an age of rapid change in the conditions of living, in social, economic, religious, and cultural attitudes and beliefs, and in the nature of authority and the source of political power. The railway (first opened in 1830), the steamboat, and the telegraph symbolized the speed of change and the increased tempo of human existence, just as the automobile, the airplane, the radio, and television have done in our own; and the Victorians experienced the same keen problems of adjustment—what Alvin Toeffler calls “future shock.” Science and technology produced unprecedented economic growth and faith in industrial and material progress. By 1870, England was economically and militarily the most powerful country in the world. The population of the United Kingdom more than doubled and concentrated in London and the industrial centers of the Midlands, so that England became a largely urban, instead of rural, nation. Successive extensions of the franchise in elections for Parliament moved the locus of power from the aristocracy to the populace (except for women) and from the land to the cities. The rights of women became a leading cultural and political issue. Money and social prestige based on wealth, often accompanied by greed and dishonesty, became a standard of success. The rich and privileged enjoyed the most affluent society the world had ever known, while millions existed in abject poverty—creating what Disraeli called the “two nations.” Advances in scientific knowledge in geology and biology undermined traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and the Biblical account of creation. An agonizing conflict of faith and doubt became typical of the era and led many people to see man’s life as purposeless and merely a physical or animal existence. Others clung even more determinedly than ever to a fundamentalist, evangelical creed. It was a time of crumbling and uncertain values, and of contention between old and new ethical standards. Despite a rigid surface morality, fraud, injustice, and sexual license permeated Victorian society. In the last quarter of the century, materialism and progress began to seem inadequate to assure the future, and pessimism tended to undermine self-confidence.

To reflect such an age is surely to speak to our own. Tennyson was fully aware of the ambiguities, irony, and paradox, and of the psychological complexity, that we find in human life and that modern critics have prized among literary criteria of excellence. He sometimes reflected these attributes of experience through direct statement, but he characteristically achieved his “powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life” indirectly, through the use of myth and legend, of the quest, of dreams, madness, and trance. All these devices are typical of contemporary literature and appeal to our sensibilities as among the most effective for conveying aesthetic pleasure and truth.

Here is an example of Tennyson’s castigating his age directly, though the tone is quite ironic and he expresses social criticism dramatically through a persona, the protagonist in Maud:

Why do they prate of the blessings of Peace? we
    have made them a curse,
Pickpockets, each hand lusting for all that
    is not its own;
And lust of gain in the spirit of Cain, . . .

But these are the days of advance, the works
    of the men of mind,
When who but a fool would have faith in a
    tradesman’s ware or his word?
Is it peace or war? Civil war, as I think
    and that of a kind
The viler, as underhand, not openly bearing
    the sword.

Sooner or later I too may passively take the
Or the golden age—why not? I have neither
    hope nor trust;
May make my heart a millstone, set my heart as
Cheat, and be cheated, and die: who knows? we
    are ashes and dust.

Peace, sitting under her olive, and slurring
    the days gone by,
When the poor are hovelled and hustled together,
    each sex, like swine,
When only the ledger lives, and when only not
    all men lie;
Peace in her vineyard—yes!—but a company
    forges the wine.

And the vitriol madness flushes up in the ruffian’s
Till the filthy by-lane rings to the yell of the
    trampled wife,
And chalk and alum and plaster are sold to the poor
    for bread,
And the spirit of murder works in the very means of
    life. . . .

Now let us consider an instance in the indirect method of poetic commentary in “Oenone,” in which Tennyson depicts Paris, the son of Priam, King of Troy, as judging who is the most beautiful of the three principal goddesses, Hera, Pallas Athene, or Aphrodite. Tennyson employed classical myths extensively as a vehicle for exploring alternative answers to the question, “how to live?” By illuminating, through mythic and legendary material, the tensions among values, he makes us think and arrive at our own judgments independently.

In this poem, Oenone, a mountain nymph who is Paris’s beloved, recounts the events; and we hear each goddess advance the arguments for the attribute which she represents: power, wisdom, and beauty. Tennyson as poet does not underline the decision that Paris should have made for wisdom and self-control instead of for beauty. The commentary occurs in the jealous and psychologically valid interior monologue of Oenone. War and the sacking of Troy by the Greeks is, of course, the outcome that the ending of the poem foreshadows but does not state. While the flaw in Paris’s decision may seem obvious, we should not overlook the symbolic significance that the myth gives to the necessity of choices in human life and to the fact that such choices always bear consequences which can be fatal to individuals and to society. Ironically, even with the most careful reasoning, in the light of the information available at the time, the consequences often cannot be foreseen.

As presented by Hera, power, properly used, especially for unselfish ends and for the good of humanity, has genuine worth. Kept in perspective, beauty, too, is surely a desirable attribute in life; but in Tennyson’s version, Aphrodite promises Paris, if he decides for her, “the fairest and most loving wife in Greece,” Since each of the goddesses proffers to Paris a means of his own self-aggrandizement, they are really bribing him and corrupting the ideal of a disinterested judgment turning solely upon reason and merit. Yet among several alternatives in life, a most loving wife could be a wise decision for a man to make and could lead to his greatest happiness, Paris’s selecting Aphrodite and a loving wife, however, illustrates the ambiguity of circumstances in which we have to make choices. Helen is not simply a young woman capable of being the most beautiful and the most loving wife that Greece can provide. She is already a wife—somebody else’s wife. Thus ideals clash. To fulfill what is an ideal for Paris means destroying that of Menelaus. Also, to gain Helen, Paris must abandon and alienate Oenone, whose love turns to bitterness and hate.

In “Ulysses,” through the motif of the quest, the poet once more portrays the relativity of values, For Tennyson’s Ulysses, the routine of life in Ithaca after his return from the Trojan War has palled; and he sets off on a final search for adventure. The poem celebrates a zest for action, a longing for knowledge and experience, and the courage and determination of an aging man to persevere against adversity:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life, Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

And again:

        . . . Come my friends
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Yet as admirable and inspiring as Ulysses’s courage is, we must recognize that in setting off on his quest, he is truant in his obligations as husband and king. He rejects the faithful Penelope, dismissing her as “an aged wife,” and leaves to his son Telemachus the responsibility of improving the lot of the Ithacan people. An escapist, he forsakes duty for excitement. Some readers, in their enthusiasm for Ulysses’s heroic posture, fail to see that Tennyson intends us to be aware of the values that are being subverted, as well as of those being celebrated. Furthermore, Ulysses’s quest seems to represent nearly as much the enactment of a wish for death as of a love of life.


As E. D. H, Johnson has shown in The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry, madness, dream, and trance are non-rational elements that Tennyson effectively employs to convey both mystery and meaning in his poetry. Tennyson treats the derangement of the protagonist of Maud, through whose inner monologue the poem is related, with the greatest psychological subtlety. After killing his loved one’s brother in a duel, the protagonist loses his mind for a time; but the spark of Maud’s love for him, which persists in his brain during his period of irrationality, eventually restores him to a shattered sanity. In the meantime, Maud has died, and the protagonist believes that he sublimates self by going off to fight for his fellow Englishmen in the Crimean War. In an illuminating essay entitled “Sex, Symbolism, and Psychology in Tennyson’s Maud,” Roy Basler sees Tennyson as anticipating Freud here, “by recognizing the complex phases of self in his hero, by giving due weight to the unconscious, and by crediting the essentially non-rational causality in psychic phenomena in general. . . . It would be difficult,” he concludes, “to find a twentieth century writer who penetrates so deeply or handles so subtly, for all the accumulation of science in the intervening years, the complex problem that is man.”

Whereas psychic trauma can be so severe as to cause complete withdrawal from reality into madness, dreams seem to be for Tennyson a means for the sleeping mind, released from its ordinary engagements with the affairs and activities of everyday life, to resolve mental and emotional conflicts. Maud’s appearance to the protagonist in a dream as a guiding heavenly spirit begins his return to rationality. The poet’s movement in In Memoriam from despair over Arthur Hallam’s death to affirmation, is advanced significantly by his dream of a journey by water with the spirits of Poetry and Art and other civilizing human attributes to a reunion with Hallam aboard a ship that sails into the cosmos. Yet dreams, like life, are ambiguous and cannot be depended upon as sure guides for action. For example, a dream in Enoch Arden leads to a fateful misinterpretation. Annie has a dream of Enoch, her sailor husband who has failed to return from a Pacific voyage, sitting under a palm tree. Taking this to mean that he is dead and in heaven, she marries his rival. Actually, the dream represents a fleeting glimpse of reality. Having been shipwrecked, Enoch is a lone survivor on a Pacific island. He is eventually rescued and returns to England to encounter an ethical dilemma.

The trance, however, is always trustworthy and raises the imagination to a point of visionary poetic perception. Tennyson had a psychic capacity to experience trances, which he described as follows:

A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This generally has come upon me thro’ repeating my own name two or three times to myself silently, till all at once, as it were out of the intensity of consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death is almost a laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction but the only true life.

Undoubtedly, Tennyson’s finest use of the trance occurs in lyric XCV, the climax of In Memoriam. The passage starts with an everyday domestic scene in which Tennyson, his mother, and younger brothers and sisters are having tea on a summer evening on the lawn of the rectory at Somersby as dusk and then darkness fall. There is no hint of a mystical experience to come. As one by one the family leaves him and the lights go out in the house, and as Tennyson remains rereading Hallam’s letters by a lamp, he rises to a spiritual reunion with the soul of his friend and to a sense of penetrating into ultimate reality:

So word by word and line by line
The dead man touched me from the past,
And all at once it seemed at last
The living soul was flashed on mine,

And mine in his was wound, and whirled
About empyreal heights of thought,
And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world,

Aeonian music measuring out
The steps of Time—the shocks of Chance—
The blows of Death. At length my trance
Was cancelled, stricken through with doubt.

Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame
In matter moulded forms of speech,
Or even for intellect to reach
Through memory that which I became:

Till now the doubtful dusk revealed
The knolls once more where, couched at ease,
The white kine glimmered, and the trees
Laid their dark arms about the field:

And sucked from out the distant gloom
A breeze began to tremble o’er
The large leaves of the sycamore,
And fluctuate all the still perfume,

And gathering freshlier overhead,
Rocked the full-foliaged elms, and swung
The heavy-folded rose, and flung
The lilies to and fro, and said

“The dawn, the dawn,” and died away;
And East and West, without a breath,
Mixt their dim lights, like life and death,
To broaden into boundless day.

Although the vision fades and the poet’s consciousness returns to familiar surroundings, the symbols perfect the attitude of harmony. The gentle breeze stirs the perfume of the flowers; the rose of passion unites with the lilies of purity and innocence. Dawn dispels darkness and the paradoxical, yet unifying elements in human experience, east and west, and life and death, merge in the prospect, not merely of a literal new morning but of the limitless life of an eternal day.


If we turn now from these elements of Tennyson’s creative imagination and insight, there are two subjects that engaged Tennyson’s attention and that give him a particular interest for our time: they are science and the position of women.The Princess, a long poem in seven cantos of blank verse, published in 1847, is the work in which Tennyson addresses himself comprehensively to the nature, education, and rights of women and to women’s relationship to men. This was a daring work for its time, for it appeared more than 20 years before John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On the Subjugation of Women and before any of the women’s colleges was established at Oxford or Cambridge. The Princess inaugurates a women’s college for the study of the advanced knowledge that men pursue. She is such an extreme advocate of women’s liberation that men are barred from the college on pain of death. A medieval joust in a tale-within-a-tale and the mockheroic tone of the first two-thirds of the poem show the extent to which Tennyson felt it necessary to approach the subject obliquely. Nevertheless, he trenchantly exposes the weaknesses, both for individuals and for society, of traditional male domination and mere domesticity for women. In the end, the Princess makes a hospital of her sexist college, and the Prince and the Princess are united in an idealized marriage. But the Prince is committed to the Princess’s goal of full intellectual development for women, to a changed status for them in marriage, and to repeal of discriminatory laws. He sees men and women as complementary to each other:

Like perfect music unto noble words;
And so these twain, upon the skirts of Time,
Sit side by side, full-summed in all their powers,
Dispensing harvest, sowing the To-be,
Self-reverent each and reverencing each
Distinct in individualities,
But like each other even as those who love.
Then comes the statelier Eden back to man:
Then reigns the world’s great bridals, chaste
    and calm:
There springs the crowning race of humankind.

The Princess shows Tennyson addressing himself to a problem that we Americans in the final quarter of the 20th century still have not been fully able to resolve. Confronting Tennyson’s views, whether or not we concur with them, helps us to clarify our own.

We may say, I think without fear of contradiction, that Tennyson was the first English poet forthrightly and convincingly to adapt modern science to poetry. Yet the discoveries of modern science constantly raised the possibility of a mechanistic universe, devoid of a loving or purposeful God concerned for man. Hence, the poet’s conception of the attributes of Nature and of the relationship of Man, Nature, and God is central to a criticism of life and to answering the question “how to live?” In Memoriam reflects Tennyson’s willingness to face the implications of geology and developmental biology squarely:

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.

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Though makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seemed so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who rolled the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Though Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed—

Who loved, who suffered countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or sealed within the iron hills?

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope for answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

For Wordsworth, and for a number of Tennyson’s other predecessors, Nature had been a symbol of permanence, soothing man’s sense of evanescence. Tennyson accepts the evidence of the fossils, the flux of the earth’s surface over eons of time, and the evolution of Nature:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth, what changes thou hast seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

But in my spirit I will dwell,
And dream my dream, and hold it true; . . .

Tennyson’s dream lay in the enduring spirit. The heart of man, Tennyson asserts, finds God, however we describe the deity—”He, They, One, All, within, without; / The Power in darkness whom we guess,” —not in the observations or facts of science nor in the rational propositions of philosophy, but through intuitive experience and feeling. As a consequence, In Memoriam presents God as both transcendent and immanent; God and Nature, properly understood, are not at strife but one; and out of darkness come “the hands / That reach through Nature, molding men.”


As Tennyson aged and the century waned, his vision of mankind darkened. This somber view infuses his most ambitious undertaking, the Idylls of the King, which, after some 50 years of shaping, he completed in 1885, when he was 76 years old. This magnum opus in twelve books, corresponding to the twelve parts of a traditional epic, derives its subject matter from the legends of King Arthur and has sometimes been dismissed as little more than a medieval charade. Actually, it represents Tennyson’s most penetrating poetic analysis of the life of his time and depicts the disintegration of an ideal society through materialism, sensuality, hypocrisy, falsehood, and distrust. In the words of Jerome H. Buckley:

Could Arthur’s kingdom remain true to its first principles, could it rise in time of crisis to what Arnold Toynbee would call the moral challenge, it might learn to control its successes, and turn to social good its manifold selfish energies. But increasingly committed as it is to the values of expediency, sensuality, and self-interest, it must face its certain doom. . . .

In final effect, then, the Idylls, which traces the rise of a purposeful order and the gradual catastrophic betrayal of its sustaining idealism, stands as an oblique warning, if not a direct ultimatum, to 19th-century England.

The Idylls of the King, if not a direct ultimatum to 20th-century America, is as much a warning to us as it was for Victorian England. It is a fable for our time. Earlier in this century, it was fashionable to deplore the Idylls; now the poem is receiving extensive attention as meeting elevated canons of literary and aesthetic criticism and providing a remarkable exegesis of aspects of contemporary life. In the days of Watergate, Lockheed International bribes, Fanne Foxe and Wilbur Mills, Elizabeth Ray and Wayne Hays, even Merlin’s fall to the enticements of Vivien has a curiously current ring.

Finally, I conceive of Tennyson as a poet for our time because of the hope that he offers for the future. Few poets have seen so fully the complexity, contradictions, and exacting demands that face us in resolving the question “how to live?” As befits a poet for our time, he can be, to use the words that he applies to Virgil, “majestic” in his “sadness at the doubtful doom of humankind.” But, despite uncertainty about the destiny of the human race, he never ceases to remind us, as he says in In Memoriam, of the “mighty hopes that make us men.” By illuminating the ambiguities, ironies, and paradoxes by which we must exist, Tennyson forces us to examine the opposing and often dehumanizing values of our time. He makes us come to grips with what each one of us ultimately believes about self and the nature of the universe. He insists upon the spiritual as the true reality and upon the validity of the unseen. Yet he would not have us abandon the physical world or the battle of life in an attempt to reach the spiritual by a short-cut. He asserts the necessity of each individual’s fulfilling his responsibility for the development of others as well as of himself.

Life for Tennyson is a process, and the human race, as in his late poem, “The Making of Man,” has yet to undergo millenia of evolution before the final pronouncement, “It is finished. Man is made.” But exercise of will, struggle, and suffering, Tennyson believed, can lead to ethical as well as physical evolution, to an eventual purification of the race, and to what he called that “one far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves,” That apotheosis is not inevitable, and it depends upon man’s continuing moral effort and heightened ethical consciousness. Tennyson evokes the timeless and modern feeling of inadequacy of the here and now and expresses the persistent desire for something fuller, richer, and more satisfying than life presently affords. Yet his view of human dignity, of spiritual integrity, and of the creative power in the universe, encourages us to say of man, with William Faulkner, “he will prevail.”


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