Biography of Alfred Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is one of the most famous poets in English literature. Many of his poems are standards of 19th-century literature and are critical and popular favorites. The body of critical work on him is immense, and although some of his work is seen as too sentimental today, his intellectual contributions to poetry and metaphysics are undeniable.

Alfred Tennyson was born August 6, 1809, in Lincolnshire, England, to George and Elizabeth Tennyson. The family was very large; eleven children reached maturity. Alfred's father was not wealthy, as his grandfather had made his younger son Charles his heir, leaving George to enter the ministry. Tennyson often worried about money throughout his life. Several of Tennyson's family members also struggled with alcoholism and mental illness, including his father, who grew violent and paranoid from excessive drinking in the 1820s.

Tennyson left the family home to attend Trinity College at the University of Cambridge with his two brothers. He had already been writing poetry before he went away to school. One of his particular quirks was that, as he walked or performed other duties, he would think of discrete lines or phrases and store them in his memory until he invented the proper context in which to use them. At Cambridge his tutor was William Whewell, a renowned philosopher. Tennyson and his brothers Frederick and Charles published Poems by Two Brothers in 1827 and became well-known at the college, winning prizes for poetry.

At this time Tennyson composed the strange and mesmerizing "Timbuctoo," which attracted the notice of other young intellectuals. Tennyson was invited to join the Apostles Club in 1829, which included Arthur Henry Hallam, James Spedding, Edward Lushington, and Richard Monckton Milnes. These men would be his friends his entire life (except for Hallam, who died young). Hallam and Tennyson were particularly close, and the former became engaged to Tennyson's sister Emily after he met her on a visit to Somersby.

In 1830 Tennyson published Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. The volume included poems such as "Mariana," "The Kraken," and "Ode to Memory." "Mariana" is one of Tennyson's most beguiling and justly famous works. Reviews of this volume were generally favorable. In 1832 Tennyson published Poems, which included "The Lady of Shalott," "The Lotos-Eaters," "The Palace of Art," and "Oenone." Unfortunately, the reviews were brutal and damning, and Tennyson, sensitive to criticism, was crushed.

Hallam's death in 1833 at the age of 22 was another profoundly devastating blow to Tennyson. This death, his sister's despair over her fiancé's death, the terrible reviews, his father's death, his poverty and isolation in the country where he resided, and his own fears about mental illness and addiction pushed him into depression. He said of this period, "I suffered what seemed to me to shatter all my life so that I desired to die rather than to live." Many of Tennyson's most famous works of poetry were influenced by his immense grief even though they were not uniformly pessimistic. These included "Ulysses," "Tithonus" and, of course, the monumental In Memoriam A.H.H..

Tennyson became engaged to a young woman, Emily Sellwood, but fears about his financial situation and his possible mental problems led him to break off the engagement in 1840. During this time he was rather itinerant, moving about a great deal, and some of those closest to him thought his poetic genius had evaporated. In 1842, however, he published Poems, which contained some work from 1830 and 1832 that had been revised as well as new work; these two volumes provided the basis for his excellent reputation and secured his fame.

A government pension in 1845 alleviated some of his financial distress, and he married Emily in 1850. In 1847 he published "The Princess: A Medley," and in 1850 he finally published In Memoriam anonymously. Subsequent editions of that poem brought Tennyson a great deal of fame and money. The death of Wordsworth in 1850 seemed to designate Tennyson as his poetic successor, and indeed, in 1850 he was made Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Alfred's and Emily's first son, Hallam, was born in 1852, and a year later they established a home in Farringford, the Isle of Wight. A second son, Lionel, was born in 1854. "Maud, and Other Poems" was published in 1855, The Idylls of the King was published in 1859, and Tennyson published various other poems throughout the next decade.

Tennyson was admired by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The Queen described her first impression after meeting him: "very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair & a beard, — oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him." Tennyson accepted an offer of barony in 1883 and took his seat in the House of Lords in March 1884. He also was awarded honorary degrees from Oxford and Edinburgh, and he made friends with other luminaries such as Charles Dickens, William Gladstone, and Robert Browning.

Lord Tennyson was frequently ill throughout the 1880s. He suffered immensely once again when his son Lionel died at age 32 in 1886. On October 6, 1892, Tennyson died. He is buried at Westminster Abbey.

Study Guides on Works by Alfred Tennyson

The poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is among the greatest of English literature. Many of his poems are mainstays of literature courses, and most have attracted copious critical attention. His poems are renowned for, among other things, their bold...