Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson was born on August 6th, 1809, in Somersby, Lincolnshire, the fourth of
twelve children of George Tennyson and Elizabeth Fytche. Due to his family's relatively
modest circumstances in the shadows of the great wealth of his aunt Elizabeth Russell and uncle
Charles Tennyson, Tennyson grew up feeling impoverished and which led him to worry about money all his life.
He also had a lifelong fear of mental illness, for several men in his family
had a mild form of epilepsy, which was then thought a shameful disease. His father and brother
Arthur also had a problem with excessive drinking. As the years progressed, his father's physical and mental condition
worsened, and he became paranoid, abusive, and violent.
In 1827, Tennyson followed his two older brothers to Trinity College, Cambridge, where
his tutor was William Whewell. The Tennyson brothers became well known at Cambridge when they published
"Poems by Two Brothers" that same year. Alfred won the Chancellor's Gold Medal in 1828 for
"Timbuctoo". In 1829, The Apostles, an undergraduate club, invited him to join. The
group, which met to discuss major philosophical and other issues, included Arthur Henry Hallam, James
Spedding, Edward Lushington (who later married Cecilia Tennyson), and Richard Monckton Milnes, all
eventually famous men and Tennyson's life-long friends.
Arthur Hallam, a brilliant young man, was the most important of these
friendships. On a visit to Somersby, Hallam met and later became engaged to Emily Tennyson, and the two
friends looked forward to a life-long companionship. Hallam's death from illness in 1833
at the age of 22, shocked Tennyson profoundly, and his grief lead to some of his best poetry,
including "In Memoriam", "The Passing of Arthur", "Ulysses,"
Tennyson suffered from extreme short-sightedness--without a monocle
he could not even see to eat--which gave him considerable difficulty writing and
reading, and this disability in part accounts for his manner of creating poetry.
Tennyson composed much of his poetry in his head, occasionally working on
individual poems for many years. During his undergraduate days at Cambridge, he
often did not bother to write down his compositions, although the Apostles
continually prodded him to do so. We owe the first version of "The Lotos-Eaters" to Arthur
Hallam, who transcribed it while Tennyson recited it at a meeting of the Apostles.
Tennyson was always sensitive to criticism. Critics in those days
delighted in the harshness of their reviews: the Quarterly Review was
known as the "Hang, draw, and quarterly." John Wilson Croker's harsh
criticisms of some of the poems in Tennyson's "1832 Poems" kept Tennyson from publishing
again for another nine years. 1833 was also a bad year in that Alfred's brother Edward had to be confined in
a mental institution after 1833.
Late in the 1830s, Tennyson grew concerned about his own mental health
and visited a sanitarium run by Dr. Matthew Allen, with whom he later invested
most of his inheritance. When Dr. Allen's scheme for mass-producing wood carvings using steam
power went bankrupt, Tennyson ended his engagement to Emily Sellwood.
The success of his "1842 Poems" made Tennyson a popular poet,
and in 1845 he received a Civil List pension of £200 a year, which
helped relieve his financial difficulties. The success of "The
Princess" and In Memoriam and his appointment in 1850 as Poet
Laureate finally established him as the most popular poet of the Victorian era. By now Tennyson,
only 41, had written some of his greatest poetry, but he continued to write and to gain in popularity.
In 1853, Prince Albert visited the Tennysons as they were moving into their new house
on the Isle of Wight. His admiration for Tennyson's poetry helped solidify his position
as the national poet, and Tennyson returned the favor by dedicating "The
Idylls of the King" to his memory.
Queen Victoria later summoned him to court several times, and at her insistence he
accepted his title, having declined it when offered by both Disraeli and Gladstone.
Long-lived like most of his family, Alfred, Lord Tennyson died on October 6, 1892, at
the age of 83.
Idylls of the King