Alfred Tennyson, the most popular poet of the Victorian era, was born in Lincolnshire, to a just barely middle class family, on August 6, 1809. In 1883 Tennyson was made a baron, the first British writer to be raised to the peerage for his literary work, and is now known universally as Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Tennyson was one of the most famous men in Victorian Britain. He was Poet Laureate from 1850 until his death in 1893.
Many of his poems – “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “The Lady of Shalott,” “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” “ Morte d’Arthur,” and “Ulysses” – were read aloud and portions of them memorized by generations of students.
He gave us familiar phrases, such as “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,” and “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.”
Despite the great success that came to Tennyson late in life, most of his life was filled with sadness, loss, and above all fear – fear of financial ruin, madness, and declining social status.
Tennyson was the fourth of the 12 children (all of whom survived into adulthood) of George and Elizabeth Tennyson. George was a country vicar and a violent, mentally unstable alcoholic and drug addict who was eventually dismissed from his post and drank himself to death when Tennyson was 22 putting an end to his career as a student at Cambridge.
There was a strong streak of mental illness and addiction in the Tennyson family, which they referred to as the “black blood,” and to which Tennyson himself was not immune.
One of Tennyson’s brothers spent most of his life in an insane asylum and two others were institutionalized off and on throughout their lives. Each of the 12 siblings was said to have had at least one mental breakdown.
Tennyson himself had several. He suffered from depression and alcoholism and experienced strange seizures that he thought were signs of epilepsy, which also ran in his family.
Tennyson wrote poetry from an early age, as a means of escape. He liked to compose while walking, which helped give his poetry its resolute metrical beat.
In 1832 he published a collection, called simply Poems, which although it contains many of what would become his most admired verses, was met with almost universally hostile reviews.
Tennyson was crushed, and the death the following year of Arthur Hallam, his closest friend and the fiance of his sister Emily, set him on a downward spiral.
He didn’t publish anything for another decade, drank heavily and spent times recovering in “hydrotherapy” sanitariums, and was often homeless.
In 1842 Tennyson finally broke his silence and published a two-volume collection, also called Poems. Volume I was a reworking of the poems in the 1832 edition and Volume II contained new poems.
It was his poem about his friendship with Arthur Hallam and his grief over his death, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” that caught the public’s attention most and made Tennyson instantly famous.
In the half century after Tennyson’s death his reputation went into a critical decline. Despite his popularity with readers and schoolmasters, Tennyson was considered to be too sentimental, too formally rigid, and quite simply too Victorian.
This criticism is in part quite fair. During his long term as Poet Laureate he produced many mawkish and pedestrian commemorative odes.
Critics today rightly discount them and focus more on the personal poems, which express feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, and show great emotional depth.