Who was Tennyson?
Alfred Tennyson was the most popular poet of the Victorian age. With royal patronage, Queen Victoria made Tennyson Poet Laureate in 1850 for his poetry defined an era. There was a time when his poems, particularly the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. were de rigeur for high school literature.
Tennyson had a superb ability to pen quotable lines, something quite difficult, but the key to memorization. The Brigade, a not very long poem, but highly alliterative thus keeping the meter flowing, are the memorable verses of “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. ” Thrilling stuff. As “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them volleyed and thundered.”
His poor beginnings
He was born August 6th, 1809, at Somersby, Lincolnshire on the east coast of England, north of Boston, the fourth of twelve children. Despite having wealthy relatives, the Tennyson’s lived in relative poverty not only because of their poor health — most of his siblings suffered from one kind of disabling condition or another—melancholia, insanity, opium addiction, alcoholism and epilepsy. The last was tremendously fears because those who saw its victims fell suddenly under its violent spell were horrified by the sudden violence. Even today, epilepsy can be still difficult to treat. (Fyodor Dostoevsky the Russian literary great and contemporary of Count Lev Tolstoy (War and Peace; Anna Karenina) suffered from this disease too. He wrote several pieces on the theme, the most renown The Possessed (where the possession takes some strange turns both mentally and politically) and The Idiot, but the malady is throughout his oeuvre).
His father, a minister, because of ill health increasingly took to drink — the major health tonic of the day — and under it grew increasingly mentally unstable and too physically weak so he could no longer give sermons and thus bring in money for his family. Things changed in 1827 when he could go to Oxford University.
This was a transformative moment — shown by Pluto in the 3rd of communications — because it gave him the skills to create inspiring poetry. He made great friends like Edward FitzGerald and William Makepeace Thackeray; and the college he attended boasted of eminent former members as William Wordsworth and Lord Byron. But it was his friendship with the seventeen-year-old Arthur Henry Hallam, son of a leading Whig historian, that made the great impression.
The friendship came to a tragic and abrupt close when Hallam died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of twenty-two. Tennyson said , “as near perfect as mortal man can be,” and his friend in a long melancholic reverie that lasted until his own more than half a century later.
Yet, within a year of entrance, Tennyson won the Chancellors Gold Medal for his poem, Timbuctoo. This poem, a majestic, though an abbreviated echo of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold, hearkens to a far away Ancient African land of Timbuctoo where possibilities of one’s imagination are the only limits to the magic it can create, much like Percy Shelley’s Epipsychidion, click here for that one.
the Prince and Alfred
After a brilliant start, several of his poem afterward got harsh reviews. Thus our soulful poet went into retreat and stopped publishing, though it seems kept writing, for the next 9 years or roughly a 1/3 of a Saturn rotation. That’s important because Saturn is conjunct his ascendant at 27 Scorpio 13 [a military band at march] making not only his father’s illness and misfortune affect him deeply, but also all criticism and thoughtless sleights affect him disproportionately.
Then in 1842 coincident with Neptune’s discovery, he published again and this time, the attitude towards poetry and Tennyson had changed (Neptune 04 Sagittarius 07 Rx [a radical magazine gives a man high exaltation and dramatic force to succeed] and granted a civil pension. Now financially secure, Tennyson released his great elegiac poem, In Memoriam A.H. H. (Arthur Henry Hallam).
This is a full-blown poem complete with 131 sections, a prologue, and epilogue mourning not only his friend’s death but also weaving into his personal loss, Tennyson’s remorse over the contemporary dwindling of Christian faith (he wrote that the Hermetic Occultist Giordano Bruno and he had the same religious outlook), the pursuit of money (Charles Dickens not to miss a beat, wrote at the same time in prose about this latter issue in several books culminating in his admixture the Christmas Carol) and the ramifications of Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution.
The timing of Prince Albert’s visit to Tennyson is vague, but at some point the Prince went to see the poet on the Isle of Wight to discuss the Memoriam because of John Stuart Mill’s great praise of the poem. Tennyson was flattered, showcased his works and read some of his more recent works. It was a successful meeting and the Prince of England recommended Tennyson to be William Wordsworth’s (author of Tintern Abbey) successor as poet laureate on November 5 1850. This, of course, brought his university years full circle, and flush with funds, Tennyson married Emma Sellwood shortly thereafter.
Baron Tennyson died on 6 October 1892 at 83 years old & was buried at Westminster Abbey. His eldest son, Hallam (named for his friend) received his title 2nd Baron Tennyson and since he had been his father’s personal secretary, wrote a biography of him. Here is Hallam’s version of that great Victorian death-bed scene:
The tendency to fatal syncope may be said to have really commenced about 10 A.M. on Wednesday, and on Thursday, 6 October , at 1:35 A.M., the great poet breathed his last. Nothing could have been more striking than the scene during the last few hours. On the bed a figure of breathing marble, flooded and bathed in the light of the full moon streaming through the oriel window; his hand clasping the Shakespeare which he asked for but recently, and which he had kept by him to the end; the moonlight, the majestic figure as he lay there, “drawing thicker breath,” irresistibly brought to our minds his own “Passing of Arthur.”Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son(1897)
Hallam then went on to become the second Governor-General of Australia. When he retired from his post in 1904, he returned to England, where he died 15 years later.
We continually vet our essays for accuracy and typographical errors. This was edited on 15 November 2019.