If 19th-century England had anything resembling a rock star, it was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He was one of the most popular and exciting poets of his era, with a riveting stage presence. He remains one of the English language’s most popular poets to this day.
Tennyson was descended from King Edward III, one of England’s most successful medieval monarchs. He began writing and publishing poetry in his teens. In 1850, when he was 41, he succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate of England, and held this position for more than 50 years, until his own death — a term longer by far than any other laureate before or after.
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.
Tennyson was a huge and powerful figure. The Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle described Tennyson as “one of the finest-looking men in the world,” with “bright, laughing hazel eyes” and a “most massive yet most delicate” face. Later in his life, a photographer called him “the most beautiful old man on earth.” His resonant, booming voice riveted listeners when he read his poetry.
A highly popular poet in his own lifetime, Tennyson earned considerable money from his works. He was often referred to as “the Poet of the People,” revered for reflecting the collective mind. Queen Victoria herself was a fan. In 1884 she made him Baron Tennyson, and Alfred Tennyson became Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Tennyson offers a clear description of transcendence. When the mind dives within during practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique, mental activity settles down, like waves settling on the ocean. We experience finer and finer levels of the thinking process, until we transcend, or go beyond, thinking altogether.
What do we experience then? Consciousness itself — not consciousness of perceptions, thoughts, or feelings but pure consciousness, silent and unbounded. This is our innermost Self, the innermost reality of the universe. It is a field of pure Being, to use one of Maharishi’s early terms.
So when Tennyson says, “Individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being,” he is accurately describing the experience of transcending. He no longer experiences himself as a limited ego — he now experiences his true Self, infinite and unbounded.
Here, he tells us, “death was an almost laughable impossibility.” Quite right. Pure consciousness, Maharishi explains, is eternal, immortal. It lies beyond space, time, and causation.
Tennyson describes his experiences again in a poem called “The Ancient Sage.” On a number of occasions while sitting alone, he says:
The mortal limit of the Self was loosed,
And passed into the Nameless, as a cloud
Melts into Heaven. I touch’d my limbs, the limbs
Were strange, not mine — and yet no shade of doubt,
But utter clearness, and thro’ loss of Self
The gain of such large life as match’d with ours
Were Sun to spark — unshadowable in words,
Themselves but shadows of a shadow-world.
— “The Ancient Sage”
Here Tennyson describes experiences of his bounded self merging into “the Nameless, as a cloud / Melts into Heaven.” As in the first passage, he describes this as an experience of “utter clearness.” Unbounded awareness stands in the same relation to ordinary waking consciousness, Tennyson tells us, as a sun to a spark.
No doubt Tennyson’s ability to have this profound experience enhanced his creative abilities and helped make him the great poet he was (he continued writing into his 80s). Scientific research shows that regular experience of transcending through the Transcendental Meditation technique leads to rapid and measurable growth of creativity and intelligence, among many other benefits.
Throughout history people such as Tennyson glimpsed the fourth state of consciousness, Transcendental Consciousness, and described it with great beauty and precision. We are fortunate to have a simple, natural, effortless procedure, the Transcendental Meditation technique, to have this experience on a regular basis.
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.
These are only samples of the much fuller detail supplied by the new biography; throughout, it gives a consecutive story in place of the often disconnected jottings of the Memoir. Sir Charles does not essentially alter the familiar Tennyson (and he produces no scandal to rehabilitate him for our age), but by filling in outlines he makes a more real and human figure, who remains, as man and as poet, a massive and shaggy bundle of paradoxes. The modern and usually hostile eye has been too much focused on, the Laureate, the “National Institution,” and it is well to see more of the younger Tennyson, poor, unhappy and care-ridden, who wrote so much of the great poetry.
The account of his later life has less novelty, since here the Memoir was pretty full, but there are many good anecdotes—as of Tennyson’s desperate efforts to escape from the over-watchful Palgrave (p. 328)—and many of the sacred bard’s less sacred utterances are cited. In comparison with the piety of the son’s portrait (which reflected public piety too), the grandson is commendably candid in painting in the warts. He often illustrates that poetical vanity which was so disarmingly naïve and which went along with extreme shyness; he recognizes some unfortunate strains in both poetry and opinion; and he quotes some of the bitterest newspaper parodies attacking Tennyson’s imperialism and his acceptance of a peerage. If in the later years the air grows heavy with incense, that is part of the story; Tennyson came to live, in a unique and superlative degree, the life of a royal personage or—with some essential differences—of a Hollywood star.
Sir Charles Tennyson, a lawyer and government official, who in 1930-31 edited two valuable volumes of Tennyson’s early unpublished poetry, modestly admits his disadvantages in literary scholarship (one young American scholar, by the way, is assigned to “Oake University, Salem” instead of Duke University, Durham), and his comments on the poems, while respectable, are not always sophisticated. But he has done, with both sympathy and detachment, and without “the exercise of the imagination,” the competent, solid and honest piece of biography that he was especially qualified to do.
Tennyson was protective of the intensity of his feelings: hence the time he took to publish. He avoided the imperative to immediately display. Today we feel immense pressure to respond at once, in public, with clear stances, to make things transparent. Such transparency destroys soulfulness.
What makes our times so hard to bear are not just external circumstances themselves but the common ejection of mystery and suffering from art, and transcendence from consciousness.
In Memoriam dwells with the mysteries of being and death, mounts an impassioned defence of love and friendship, and — perhaps rarest of all — reminds us of something noble in the capacity to suffer for an ideal.
Tennyson’s lavish, excessive passion, his “tarrying with the negative” as Hegel put it, shows us how soulful art stirs us to life and staves off banality — but the cost must be paid.
Tennyson had a deep interest in Persian poetry through his friend Edward Fitzgerald (translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam).
He surely found something in Persian poetry’s insistence that grief and joy are inseparable and that death is not total loss, because nothing we feel passionately and soulfully is truly lost to us.
Ulysses, a perennial favorite and one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s greatest poems, appeared in the 1842 volume of Poems that made Tennyson’s name. However, it was written at age 24, nine years earlier, after the death in 1833 of Arthur Henry Hallam, the most important single person in Tennyson’s life, and the subject of his great elegy In Memoriam A.H.H. Tennyson himself said of “Ulysses” in a note that it “was more written with the feeling of [Hallam’s] loss upon me than many poems in In Memoriam,” a formulation revised in a later note to read that it “gave my feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam.”
The main sources of the poem are book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus (Ulysses is the Latinized form of his name) goes to the underworld and has his future foretold by Tiresias the prophet (this is the scene also in which Ajax turns away from Odysseus, one of the touchstones in Longinus’s description of the sublime); and the 26th canto of Dante’s Inferno, where Dante is led by his guide Virgil to meet Ulysses and hear his story. There are also echoes of William Shakespeare’s Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) had not read the ancient Greek poet Homer but only accounts of the Homeric epics; his Ulysses came largely from the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid. Therefore, Tennyson is synthesizing two traditions and two sources, not simply adding a link in a chain.
In Homer, Tiresias tells Ulysses (as we will call him here for consistency) that he will return home to Ithaca, but that eventually he will make one more journey and die in a land so far from the world he knows that it will be entirely alien to him. Neither the Odyssey nor any other surviving work tell the story that was clearly known to Homer’s audience, but Dante invented it. He has Ulysses gather his men together, perhaps in Ithaca (as Tennyson obviously thought) to make one final journey. The reason for this, he says in the English translation by H. F. Cary that Tennyson would have read at the time, was that he and his men “were not form’d to live the life of brutes / But virtue to pursue and knowledge high” (Inferno 26, ll. 116–117). His virtue is not Christian, and so Dante puts him in the hell he has visited in the classical myths. But his words are powerful and striking, especially the famous exhortation not to waste the little time that remains to them in “the brief vigil of our senses:” “questa tanto picciola vigilia / d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente” (26, ll. 114– 115; Cary translates: “the short remaining watch, that yet / Our senses have to wake”).
Tennyson’s poem is a dramatic monologue, spoken by Ulysses as he decides to leave the Homeric Ithaca to which he has returned and undertake the journey predicted for him by Tiresias. The two great authorities, Homer and Dante—or, within their respective fictions, Tiresias and Ulysses himself—disagree about how the story will end. In Homer, Ulysses will die “far from the sea” (Odyssey, 11, l. 154); in Dante, Ulysses and his men are sucked down, perhaps straight to hell itself, in an Atlantic whirlpool (see line 62 of Tennyson’s poem). Because it is a dramatic monologue, Tennyson’s Ulysses need not know what will happen. But he knows what he is giving up: the kingdom he has reestablished, which he leaves to his son Telemachus to manage and rule. The arts of peace are more necessary than those of war, and Telemachus matters more to the rest of humanity than Ulysses now can. He is the last, or at least the latest, of the introspective romantic explorers—the internalized questers, as Harold Bloom calls the romantic poets embarked upon the seas of subjective experience. Telemachus will save the world; Ulysses seeks to save his soul, and to do so more or less disbelieving in the world’s existence.
The crisis provoked by Hallam’s death was for Tennyson a crisis about the meaningfulness of anything in the world. (This is a crisis that would be confirmed for him by contemporaneous geological discoveries about the extreme age of the world, and the almost complete disappearance of its former accepted forms and vitalities.) What is the purpose of going on in a world that comes to an end for the self when the self comes to an end? Why care about what survives you—son or city—when nothing will survive for long? “Ulysses” is a crisis lyric (which is described in the entry for the Intimations Ode). What can you do in a world become empty and poor, from which all possibility of meaningful interaction with another, all hope, has been removed?
Ulysses recognizes that there is nothing in experience worth the desire to experience it. The joys he has known turn out to be fugitive ones, their promises unfulfilled. What he wants is life, but he wants it not for its own sake but for something hauntingly elusive—in a way the ghost-memory of Hallam, to be compared and contrasted to the great Achilles, whose absence is what characterizes the world now. Where is meaning if its only bearer is gone? What kind of faith can Tennyson keep with the nonexistent? For Ulysses disbelieves in any afterlife (this is part of Dante’s irony in making him speak in an afterlife), and this is a disbelief that Tennyson is close to feeling.
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.
- Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Bloom, Harold. “The Internalization of Quest Romance.” In Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism, 3–24. New York: Norton, 1970.
- ———. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.
- Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
- Kilham, John. Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960.
- Kincaid, James R. Tennyson’s Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975.
- Ricks, Christopher B. Tennyson. New York: Macmillan, 1972. Rowlinson, Matthew. Tennyson’s Fixations: Psychoanalysis and the Topics of the Early Poetry. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
- Tucker, Herbert: Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.