Alfred, "Eccentric" Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Alfred Tennyson was born 5 August1 1809, third surviving child of the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson and Elizabeth Fytche Tennyson. Although George was an elder son, his younger brother Charles was made sole heir after a disagreement between George and his father, and George was forced to earn his living as a clergyman, which he hated2, but there were eleven little Tennysons he had to support by 1819. Alfred himself started writing poetry at age eight and had written most of a blank verse play by age fourteen. The year he entered Cambridge, 1827, his first published poetry appeared in Poems by Two Brothers3. At Cambridge, he made such friends as Edward FitzGerald, Thackeray, and Arthur Henry Hallam. In 1829 Alfred beat out Thackeray, among others, for a poetry prize. The following year, his Poems, Chiefly Lyrical won some critical praise, and Alfred met Emily Sellwood, the love of his life. Arthur Hallam introduced them, and Arthur himself became engaged to Alfred's sister Emily4. It was therefore quite a shock when Arthur died on 15 September 1833 of an apoplexy. That same year, Alfred's brother Edward was finally admitted to a mental asylum, where he stayed until his death in 1890. Out of this awful year came the start of In Memoriam: A.H.H., perhaps Alfred's most famous work5, which wasn't actually finished until 1850.

In 1839, Alfred and Emily were officially engaged. By 1840, they were officially unengaged. Emily's father had put a stop to the match, supposedly because Alfred was too poor to marry. He was, but the real reason was probably the very unhappy marriage between Charles, Alfred's older brother, and Louisa Sellwood, Emily's sister. Charles was an opium addict, and though he eventually straightened out, by then Louisa had worked herself into a nervous collapse trying to help him6. So Alfred and Emily suffered the pangs of separation, which showed pretty strongly in Alfred's poetry of the time. He threw himself into traveling and studying, and he eventually became proficient in several languages, including Persian and Hebrew.

By 1842, Alfred found himself well and truly famous with the publication of his Poems7. Unfortunately, he had decided that his health was bad8 and let his doctors talk him into not writing or even really reading for almost two years. And just when he'd started writing again, Edward Bulwer-Lytton9 wrote a long poem satirizing such greats as Wordsworth, Keats, and especially Alfred. But Alfred kept writing anyway, finishing the long blank verse poem The Princess in 1847, a poem which also contained some lyric poems as songs. In 1849, a wondrous thing happened-brother Charles was reconciled with his wife. The following year, on 13 June, Alfred and Emily married in great secrecy. By then, Wordsworth had died and the Court was looking for a new Poet Laureate. The job was first offered to the 87-year-old Samuel Rogers, who turned it down10. Alfred's name was submitted with two others, but Prince Albert had read In Memorium, so Alfred was in. He loved being Poet Laureate, though he never quite got used to all the attention from complete strangers. His home life was what was important to him. On 11 August 1852, Hallam Tennyson was born, followed by Lionel Tennyson on 16 March 1854. Alfred was a doting father and spoiled the boys a little.

Alfred published four of the Idylls of the King, his epic on the story of King Arthur and Camelot, in 1859. When Prince Albert died in 1861, the official poem on his death was made part of the later Idylls and the whole work was dedicated to the Prince. The Idylls were huge when finished, hugely popular with the general public, and hugely abused by critics11. But Alfred had his family, and friends like Edward Lear (of limerick fame) and William Gladstone, Prime Minister under Queen Victoria12. The Queen was continually offering Alfred a baronetcy, which he kept turning down (he was rather shy) and it wasn't until 1884 that he actually became Lord Tennyson.

Between 1874 and 1879, Alfred wrote several plays at the urging of a friend who owned a theatre13. None of them were terribly good, but one of them ran for 67 nights, probably because the Prince and Princess of Wales liked it so much. His eyesight had gotten very bad, though fortunately he'd always composed his poems in his head, and he had Emily to act as secretary, a job which Hallam took over in 1874 due to his mother's failing health. But Alfred was afraid to take on another major work that he might not live to finish. His brother Charles died in 1879, Edward FitzGerald died in 1883, and Alfred was starting to feel lonely and old14. The real blow came in 1886, when his son Lionel died of fever while at sea. Alfred's poem "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After"15 was written around that time, and is a scathing, Dickensian satire of Victorian England and the horrible conditions of the poor. It isn't very typical of his work, but his baronetcy made him feel obligated to speak out on this sort of thing.

In November 1889, Hallam's son Lionel was born, followed by Alfred, Jr. in April 1891. Alfred himself had been ill for some months, but was still working hard to prepare one last volume of poems for publication. It was published two weeks after his death, on 6 October 1892. He died peacefully, apparently of gout, with his wife and son by his side. He'd outlived most of the great writers of his time, but there were some literary luminaries at the funeral like Thomas Hardy and Arthur Conan Doyle. At Alfred's request, his poem "Crossing the Bar," an epitaph of sorts, is always printed last in any collection of his works.

Levi, Peter. Tennyson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993.

  1. This is what the baptismal records say, anyway. His mother habitually celebrated his birthday on 6 August, her wedding anniversary.

  2. It drove him to drink. A lot. Some people even thought he was epileptic due to his drunken fits; which led to the belief that Alfred and some of his siblings were also epileptic. Epilepsy, however, is not inherited, so don't let anyone confuse you. The Tennysons were mostly just eccentric, anyway. Only two of them were even a little insane.

  3. They were actually by three, but Frederick, the eldest, didn't want to be associated with them because he thought they were bad. They were, kind of, but Alfred's were slightly less bad.

  4. Alfred's sister Emily eventually married a naval officer named Richard Jesse and had a son named Arthur Henry Hallam Tennyson Jesse. In the interests of clarity, I promise not to mention this Emily again.

  5. Though "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is right up there. In Memoriam's real claim to fame is the "'Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all" line.

  6. You can see why Mr. Sellwood was a little reluctant to marry any more of his family into the Tennyson family.

  7. Not to be confused with Elizabeth Browning's Poems or John Keats' Poems or anybody else's Poems.

  8. He had always had hypochondriac tendencies, but I'm sure the chain-smoking and bottle of port every day didn't help any.

  9. Actually Edward Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, first Baron Lytton, most famous for coining "It was a dark and stormy night." Obviously, he had no business satirizing anyone.

  10. He was apparently a wonderful conversationalist and a so-so poet, but he was the person to know if you wanted to be considered literary.

  11. It wasn't Alfred's fault. The epic poem was past its prime and had been pretty much since Paradise Lost.

  12. The Queen once asked Alfred to persuade Gladstone to retire, as she could no longer stand him. Gladstone didn't listen to a word of it and stayed the P.M. until 1894.

  13. The friend's assistant was an aspiring young Irish novelist named Bram Stoker.

  14. Alfred stayed pretty active until the very end of his life. He once told an acquaintance, noted actress Fanny Kemble, "I can run uphill, I can waltz." Miss Kemble apparently replied, in an icy voice, "I hope I shall never see you do it." Well, I thought it was funny.

  15. It was a sequel, as you might suspect. The original "Locksley Hall" was mainly a heroic, chivalrous poem where the main character wins the love of his cousin Amy and they marry and live happily ever after. Only the sequel shows that they didn't.

Selected Works

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