December 8, 2010

Voices from the Past: Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a poet who lived from 1809 to 1892.  He wrote, most famously, "The Charge of the Light Brigade."  He also wrote the lovely and sad In Memoriam A.H.H. to his friend and then my favorite, "The Lady of Shalott," which is so romantic but sad. 

Like many Victorians, he was obsessed with death.  At first read, he may seem a bit impenetrable, but when you connect his life to his writing ~ and if you can get past the language ~ he's trying to memorialize, to make a person's life epic, to make it have meaning. (It's been a while since I've actually dug into his work.)

Here's a little about him, from Wikipedia:

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, FRS (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892) was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular poets in the English language.

Tennyson excelled at penning short lyrics, "In the valley of Cauteretz", "Break, Break, Break", "The Charge of the Light Brigade", "Tears, Idle Tears" and "Crossing the Bar". Much of his verse was based on classical mythological themes, such as Ulysses, although In Memoriam A.H.H. was written to commemorate his best friend Arthur Hallam, a fellow poet and fellow student at Trinity College, Cambridge, who was engaged to Tennyson's sister, but died from a cerebral hemorrhage before they were married. Tennyson also wrote some notable blank verse including Idylls of the King, Ulysses, and Tithonus. During his career, Tennyson attempted drama, but his plays enjoyed little success.

Tennyson wrote a number of phrases that have become commonplaces of the English language, including: "Nature, red in tooth and claw", "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all", "Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die", "My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure", "Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers", and "The old order changeth, yielding place to new". He is the second most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare.


Tennyson used a wide range of subject matter, ranging from medieval legends to classical myths and from domestic situations to observations of nature, as source material for his poetry. The influence of John Keats and other Romantic poets published before and during his childhood is evident from the richness of his imagery and descriptive writing. He also handled rhythm masterfully. The insistent beat of Break, Break, Break emphasizes the relentless sadness of the subject matter. Tennyson's use of the musical qualities of words to emphasize his rhythms and meanings is sensitive. The language of "I come from haunts of coot and hern" lilts and ripples like the brook in the poem and the last two lines of "Come down O maid from yonder mountain height" illustrate his telling combination of onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Tennyson was a craftsman who polished and revised his manuscripts extensively. Few poets have used such a variety of styles with such an exact understanding of metre; like many Victorian poets, he experimented in adapting the quantitative metres of Greek and Latin poetry to English. He reflects the Victorian period of his maturity in his feeling for order and his tendency towards moralizing and self-indulgent melancholy. He also reflects a concern common among Victorian writers in being troubled by the conflict between religious faith and expanding scientific knowledge. Like many writers who write a great deal over a long time, he can be pompous or banal, but his personality rings throughout all his works—work that reflects a grand and special variability in its quality. Tennyson possessed the strongest poetic power; he put great length into many works, most famous of which are Maud and Idylls of the King, the latter one of literature's treatments of the legend of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table.

Why do I bring him up today?  Well, first, because I've been thinking about the Victorians.  But also because, amazingly, there is a recording of the actual Tennyson reading "The Charge of the Light Brigade."  (To learn more about what the poem is about, go here.)  He was born two centuries ago! 

So, your treat for the day.  Go here and enjoy.

Questions of the Day: Are you drawn to a certain period in the past?


February Grace said...

Tennyson has been my favorite poet since I was a pre-teen. I keep a volume of his work on my desk.

"Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth,
Cursed be the social lies that warp us from the living truth."

Locksley Hall will always be my favorite.

Thanks for talking about ol' Alfred, and making me smile.


Tamara said...

I'll have to read LH with more attention! Not as familiar with that one.

I just love hearing their actual voices. There's one recording of Virginia Woolf doing an essay for the BBC I particularly love, too.

Thanks so much, Bru!