The great poets commonly take up the subject of death in their works, but it is rare to see a great poet treat death in such a sustained and deeply personal way as Tennyson does. Many of his greatest works were written in the aftermath of the death of his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. “Ulysses” is about the great hero searching for life in spite of old age and coming death, and “Tithonus” concerns the weariness of life on earth when all one wants to do is fade into the earth and no longer linger on. “The Two Voices” is a debate about whether or not to commit suicide. “In Memoriam” is the poet’s lengthy meditation on his profound grief and his desire to know what happens after death as well as his occasional musing that he wishes to die and join his friend. As “In Memoriam” proceeds, however, Tennyson appears to accept the reality of death in the natural cycle of life and to understand that he can still find pleasure on earth until his time comes. He looks forward to his reunion with Hallam and believes that his friend’s death occasioned his transcendence to a higher spiritual state. The acceptance of death is manifested in one of his last works, “Crossing the Bar,” in which he looks upon his passage from life to death as a meaningful and happy occasion.
Nature plays many roles in Tennyson’s poetry. Occasionally she is beguiling and sensuous, as in “The Lotos-Eaters.” In that poem the men sojourning on the isle are entranced by their natural surroundings and do not want to return to their normal lives. Nature is also an ever-present reminder of the cycle of life from birth to death; existing outside of that cycle can bring grief and separation from one’s mortal humanity, for better or for worse. Occasionally Nature is a reminder of the vitality of life and existence; other times Nature is used as a metaphor for death (see “Break, break, break” for the former and “Crossing the Bar” for the latter). Finally, Nature can also be chaotic, hostile, and indifferent to Man. The casual way she discards species and wreaks havoc leads the poet to conclude that life might be meaningless.
Grief permeates Tennyson’s poetry and was a major feature of Tennyson’s emotional life. He endured the deaths of his parents, the ensuing mental illness and addictions of many of his family members and, as a kind of muse, the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. His poems are frank discussions of despair and the trouble of using words sufficient to express it, and he demonstrates the significance of writing poetry in the face of sorrow and loss. In some of the poems his grief is overwhelming, and he does not know if he wants to continue living. In others he finds ways to manage his grief, coming to accept that sorrow may always be a part of one’s life, while acknowledging other things in life inspire happiness and hope.
Tennyson struggled with the question of whether great art had to be produced in artistic isolation or if engagement with the world was acceptable and would not cloud artistic vision. In “The Lady of Shalott” he examines this question. Her island is a safe haven for artists, and she creates her magic web in contentment. However, she is not actually creating reality, since she only sees things reflected in the mirror, and she eventually tires of her estrangement from life and love. When she chooses to look out the window and leave her tower, thus breaking the rule in the curse, she chooses to embrace a full and passionate life. However, this life is actually death, and her art is destroyed as well. The poem suggests that the end of artistic isolation brings a loss of creativity and artistic power.
Tennyson adhered to a Christian faith that can most vividly be seen in “In Memoriam,” but he was not wary of expressing his difficulties with that faith and religious belief, particularly in the wake of the death of Hallam. He engages with the scientific findings of the Victorian era, wondering whether Nature is truly indifferent to Man and whether death only brings obliteration of the soul. He finds it difficult to be optimistic and positive that he will be reunited with Hallam after death and that there is any purpose in living. The poet’s lapses in faith, however, are reconciled by the end of the poem. He moves from doubt to acceptance, certain once more that the spirit is not gone after death but lives on and progresses to a higher state. He believes that God does have a plan for human beings and that one’s presence on earth is not accidental or unheeded.
Many of Tennyson’s works reflect his working through the implications of time. Growing old and lingering on are laborious and enervating in poems like “Tithonus” and “The Two Voices,” while in “Ulysses” the title character wants to keep adventuring as long as he can. Life on earth can be very sad because one is separated from loved ones who have died and because knowledge is limited. Time is also complicated by the tensions between science and religion; science reveals that time stretches on for a very long time, and religion asserts but does not prove what happens after death. Generally the poet’s reflection is that life is fleeting and short, wasted if one dwells merely in sadness or in hope, and worth savoring while it lasts.
Many of Tennyson’s greatest poems feature individuals displaying great courage, especially under duress. Courage is a universally admired virtue, but during the Victorian age and for the British in particular, it was extremely important. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” features the “noble” six hundred soldiers who rush into a battle even though they know they will probably perish; their courage and willingness to follow orders are exemplary. Similarly, Tennyson creates a highly sympathetic character in Princess Ida from “The Princess: A Medley.” She is firmly committed to her vision and does not yield to those who wish to dissuade her from her noble goal of securing gender equality. In “Morte d’Arthur,” one of the most heroic men in legendary history, King Arthur, is depicted demonstrating his courage not in the heat of battle but in his willingness to face death; much like Ulysses. Courage is perhaps the greatest Tennysonian virtue.
Tennyson’s Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Tennyson’s Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Tears, Idle Tears” was composed on a visit by Tennyson to Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, a locale also taken as subject for a poem by another famous English poet, William Wordsworth. Tennyson said the poem was about “the passion of the past,...