Renoir Young Girl Reading

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Tennyson, the fourth of twelve children, was born in 1809, into a very troubled family. His father, George Tennyson, the rector at Lincolnshire, had been the eldest son of a wealthy family, and expected to inherit his father's estate. But his father chose a younger son as his heir, and George was unable to get over his bitterness. He began to drink, and to become increasingly violent as he drank. Many critics have commented on the impact of Tennyson's grim childhood on his poetry. He characterized his adult self, in In Memoriam, as

An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry...

Tennyson went to Cambridge where he became close friends with Arthur Hallam, who was the single greatest influence on his life and poetry. Hallam's sudden death in 1833, when Tennyson was 24, was a loss from which Tennyson never fully recovered. His grief inspired or affected almost all of his poetry until the end of his life.

Death, loss, and bereavement are strong themes in Tennyson's poetry. There is an ambivalence in Tennyson's attitude toward death: he yearns for it, and at the same time repudiates suicide. Likewise, Tennyson is ambivalent about the role of the imagination in the material world. His temperament in his early days was more Romantic than Victorian; his friend Arthur Hallam (the inspiration for In Memoriam) characterized his poetry as Keatsian: "So vivid was the delight attending the simple exertions of eye and ear, that it became mingled more and more with trains of active thought, and tended to absorb their whole being into the energy of sense." But unlike Keats, Tennyson feared allowing his imagination free reign; he needed to remain rooted in the real, the material world.

These ideas are expressed especially vividly in his early poetry, such as "The Lady of Shalott" (1832). According to R. H. Hutton, "The Lady of Shalott" must be read as an allegory:

["The Lady of Shalott"] has for its real subject the emptiness of the life of fancy, however rich and brilliant, the utter satiety which compels any true imaginative nature to break through the spell which entrances it in an unreal world or visionary joys...The curse, of course, is that she shall be involved in mortal passions, and suffer the fate of mortals, if she looks away from the shadow to reality. Nevertheless, the time comes when she braves the curse.

Tennyson's masterpiece, of course, is In Memoriam. He began composing the poem after the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in 1833, and continued to work on the various sections of the poem for the next 17 years. In Memoriam was published in 1850; in the same year, Tennyson became the Poet Laureate of England; he also married the woman with who he'd been in love for 20 years, Emily Sellwood.

The poem is a collection of brief "elegies," as he called them, recording his sorrow and commemorating his friend. The poem is loosely unified by the evolution of the narrator's grief through three Christmases. The poem has 133 sections ranging in length from 12 to 144 lines. The form of the poem is rigid: all of the stanzas are made up of four tetrameter lines rhymed a b b a.

Tennyson never planned the poem as a single unified entity; the sections were written at many places, and at different times. Tennyson writes,

I did not write them with any view of weaving them into a whole, or for publication, until I found that I had written so many. The different moods of sorrow as in a drama are dramatically given, and my conviction that fear, doubts, and suffering will find answer and relief only through Faith in a God of Love. "I" is not always the author speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking through him.

Within the poem, there are several recurring elements. Over and over again, the narrator moves toward an emotion or a conclusion, and then retreats. Sometimes he decides his mourning is too extreme and resolves to end it, but then lapses back into despair. He vaccillates between his need to express his personal anguish and his duty to enlighten the public.

There is also a recurring use of imagery of light and darkness, and imagery of hands. And in addition, Tennyson makes use of Nature imagery to serve as a metaphors for various ideas and emotions.

A number of recent critics have raised the question of Tennyson's sexuality. The depth of his grief for Arthur Hallam, and the imagery he uses to describe his feelings in the poem, lead some to speculate that Tennyson had a homosexual love for his friend. Some lines certainly seem to imply that: in one section, he begs, "Stoop soul and touch me: wed me..."; in another, he mourns "...That I shall be thy mate no more..." Yet it is important to remember that literary, language, and cultural conventions change from era to era. In the Victorian Era, such powerful expressions of friendship were commonplace and raised no eyebrows. Gordon Haight points out that "The Victorians' conception of love between those of the same sex cannot be understood fairly by an age steeped in Freud. Where they saw only pure friendship, the modern reader assumes perversion..."

Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling call Tennyson's style "the most flawless in English history after Milton's and Pope's...Tennyson understood what poetry was..." T. S. Eliot called In Memoriam "the concentrated diary of a man confessing himself. It is a diary of which we have to read every word."

Although In Memoriam is recognized as a masterpiece now, Tennyson's contemporaries were not all as kind. One critic of the time wrote,

We have surely had enough of men reporting their sorrows: especially when one is aware all the time that the poet wilfully protracts what he complains of, magnifies it in the Imagination, puts it into all the shapes of Fancy: and yet we are to condole with him, and be taught to ruminate our losses and sorrows in the same way. I felt that if Tennyson had got on a horse and ridden 20 miles, instead of moaning over his pipe, he would have been cured of his sorrows in half the time. As it is, it is about 3 years before the Poetic Soul walks itself out of darkness and Despair into Common Sense.

Robert Browning

For many years during his lifetime, Robert Browning was known more as "the husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning" than as a poet in his own right. But as time passed, his work came to be appreciated; as his gifts matured, his reputation rose.

Aside from his romantic marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, Browning is best known these days for his dramatic monologues; among the most popular are "My Last Duchess," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church," and "Fra Lippo Lippi." In each of them, he invents a narrator who, in the course of speaking to his listener, unwittingly reveals more about himself than he intends. Some critics claim that Browning also reveals more about himself than he intends--not that he is, like Ferrara in "My Last Duchess," a murderer; but that, by reading through the body of his work, one can detect the complex mind and personality he intended to hide behind his narrators.

In Browning's poems, there is seldom a single clear "message" or "moral." More often, there are complicated and ambiguous characters whose motives are mixed; in "My Last Duchess," for example, Ferrara is in the process of bargaining with the representative of the Count of Tyrol for a new wife: the Count's daughter. In the process of this negotiation, he goes out of his way to show the Count's representative a portrait of his first wife whom, he clearly implies, he murdered because her conduct displeased him. Why would Ferrara reveal this information to a man whose daughter he is trying to marry?

In "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," likewise, there is no single clear "message." In fact, readers and critics have debated the symbolism of the poem ever since it was published: why is it a "dark tower"? What is the significance of the horse? The river? The baby's cry? And so on.

Keep this poem in mind when you read T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland in a few weeks; many critics have said that Browning has more in common with the Modern poets like Eliot, than with the other Victorians such as Tennyson and Arnold. When you've read Eliot, you can form your own opinion on that issue.

If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, go to the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Robert Browning, Robert Brainard Pearsall
2. Robert Browning: A Life Within Life, Donald Thomas
3. Tennyson, Christopher Ricks
4. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Victorian Prose and Poetry, eds. Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom
5. Alfred Tennyson, James Kissane