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Tennyson at 200

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: 6 August 1809-6 October 1892

Alfred Tennyson was perhaps the most popular and prolific of the Victorian poets.  As Britain’s poet laureate from 1850 until his death in 1892, he was also the official Victorian poet.  He wrote in a broad variety of poetic forms on a vast range of subjects–classical mythology, knights and ladies, contemporary domestic life, women’s education, and the death of his best friend Arthur Hallam among them.  It may be hard for people today to imagine a world in which everyone read poetry, looked forward to new work by a favorite poet, and memorized favorite poems not only for school recitation, but for personal pleasure, but that was the world in which Tennyson wrote.
Yet, even 200 years after his birth, fragments of Tennyson’s verse are familiar to people who may not even know that those fragments are lines from his poems.  “Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all,” for example, is a fragment from Tennyson’s elegy, In Memoriam AHH, for his best friend Hallam.  This poem, in which one young man mourns another and muses on the meaning of life, death and the soul in an increasingly secular and scientific world, has been read by many mourning readers over the past century and a half as an expression of their own grief and confusion.  From Queen Victoria, mourning her husband, Prince Albert, to some of the students in my undergraduate Victorian poetry class who have lost friends or relatives, readers of this poem have found its deceptively simple lyrics richly satisfying.
Full of beautiful sounds, and extraordinary visual imagery, Tennyson’s poetry has inspired both visual and musical adaptations.  “The Lady of Shalott,” a poem about a weaving lady in a tower longing for love, is known to many through Victorian paintings of its scenes: 

and through Loreena McKennitt's musical adaptation:

Another much quoted Tennyson poem is “Ulysses,” in which the Greek hero Ulysses, come home at last from the wars, expresses his desire to abandon Ithaca and set sail again:

  Come, my friends.
'T is 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.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
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.

One former governor of Illinois found these lines particularly expressive of his own situation:

Harvard poetry professor Stephen Burt cautions against quoting from a poem you don’t completely understand.  (Or haven’t read in its entirety) He points out here http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=182792 that Tennyson’s poem is highly critical of Ulysses, something that the quoting governor apparently missed.  And yet, part of what’s so interesting about Tennyson poems is the way they often go in two directions at once–the poem may be critical of Ulysses’ abandonment of his duty, but it also makes his expression of the desire to set out again beautiful, compelling, memorable and heroic, so that the lines take on a seductive power of their own, and work against the movement of the poem as a whole. 

Similar arguments have been made about “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which some readers see as a celebration of heroism—even misguided, useless, and criminally wasted heroism—and others as a scathing criticism of war.  This was a poem much memorized for public recitation, and you can read it and hear Tennyson reciting it here:

Tennyson was among the first generation of poets to leave audible and visual bodily traces of himself—he was photographed and his voice recorded on wax cylinders, an early recording technology.  But he also leaves his trace on YOUR body when you read him aloud, and let your breath and vocal chords and lips and tongue become the medium whereby his words live in a body once again.  Read Tennyson aloud on his 200th birthday, and let him enjoy the occasion.  Or, as Tennyson describes reading the dead Hallam’s letters:

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

Kathy Alexis Psomiades
Associate Professor
Department of English, Duke University

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Posted 3 August 2009

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Last modified August 6, 2009 4:28:33 PM EDT