Who was Alfred, Lord Tennyson?
Born in 1809, Alfred Tennyson’s poetic career spans much of the nineteenth century. Described as the ‘great voice of Victorian England,’ Tennyson became Poet Laureate in 1850. After his death in 1892, Tennyson left a literary legacy which includes many of the most popular nineteenth century poems.
Tennyson’s upbringing in Somersby, and the local Lincolnshire landscape, provided a backdrop for many of his early poems. Described as a melancholic figure, the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam in 1833 influenced his mournful and lyric poetry, but he also found inspiration in the works of Shakespeare, the romantic poets and legends of King Arthur.
His works, such as Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and The Princess, achieved some popularity, although mixed critical reviews.
After decamping to the south of England, Tennyson’s critical fortunes improved with the publication of In Memoriam in 1850. This monumental poem, crammed with geological motifs, explored the poet’s struggles with faith, doubt and grief.
His marriage to Emily Sellwood in the same year coincided with the death of Poet Laureate William Wordsworth, and Tennyson was invited to take up the position. This cemented his role as the nation’s poetic voice.
Moving to the Isle of Wight in 1853, Tennyson acquired a new landscape from which he could draw creative inspiration, and composed much of his Arthurian verse epic, Idylls of the King, during this period.
His house at Farringford became a site of literary tourism even during his lifetime, prompting the poet to divide his time between the Isle of Wight and West Sussex.
Tennyson continued to write and recite poetry into the 1890s, and his death in 1892 prompted widespread national mourning and a funeral in Westminster Abbey.
Tennyson’s position in the Victorian imagination as the ‘great voice’ of the age is undoubted, but the tone of that ‘great voice’ remains today the centre of critical debate.
Was Tennyson’s true voice that of the youthful romantic poet, wandering the Lincolnshire countryside reciting melancholic lyrics? Or was it the later strident voice, booming from the cliffs of the Isle of Wight? Should we even separate the two?
The question is fiercely debated, yet what remains clear is that Tennyson’s poetry continues as much to inspire and divide today as it did during his own lifetime.