“I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”
– Lord Alfred Tennyson
During the Victorian Literary Period (approximately 1837-1901), a time when poetry was not the financially popular form of expression, one poet claimed and held the favor of Queen Victoria. In 1850, following the death of William Wordsworth and the refusal of the honor of the position by Samuel Rogers, Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, FRS became Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign. Lord Alfred Tennyson remains one of the most popular British poets into the present days although the majority of his best work was created prior to his royal appointment.
Born in 1809 as the fourth of twelve children, Tennyson’s childhood was both pleasant and difficult. His father, George Clayton Tennyson, was rector of Somersby, the eldest of two sons who was disinherited by his father in favor of his younger brother. Despite his middle-class relegation, Tennyson’s father managed finances with a shrewd hand and provided a comfortable situation for his family.
In 1827, Tennyson, with collaboration of two older brothers, first published a book of poetry, a collection of boyish rhymes entitled Poems by Two Brothers. Tennyson was 17 years old. Two years later, Tennyson’s talent developed to the degree that he was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal at Cambridge for “Timbuctoo,” one of his early poems that he reworked specifically for the competition.
Tennyson attended Trinity College, Cambridge where his poetry captured the attention of the secret literary society, the Cambridge Apostles, a gathering of intellectuals for the purpose of debate although their reputation suffered notoriety in more recent years on political and moral fronts. Tennyson was a member for a short time and although he bowed out of the society, they still claim his membership as an honor. While at Cambridge, Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam, a man who became his closest friend. Hallam later became engaged to Tennyson’s sister but succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage before their marriage.
Hallam’s death devastated Tennyson and inspired several great works including In Memoriam A.H.H., a long poem detailing the “Way of the Soul.”
Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. is far too long to present in this article in its entirety. Instead, I have selected the following passages from the complete works to illustrate what I consider Tennyson’s mastry of the craft.
As you read, feel the rhythm of the human pulse, the use of caesura that echoes the faltering heartbeat, the unstressed syllables that quicken the pace and the paired stressed syllables to make time linger. His use of rhythm is of equal importance to the message, providing the breath of life and staggering depth of sorrows.
In Memoriam A.H.H. (Excerpts) – Lord Alfred Tennyson
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasp’d no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
Few poets ever possessed the depth of understanding of meter equal to Tennyson. His use of rhythm to enhance his poetry and meaning came as second nature, regardless of theme or style. He mastered combining poetic devices to enhance whatever he chose to illustrate in verse.
“Maybe the wildest dreams are but the needful preludes of the truth” – Lord Alfred Tennyson
Thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights. I hope I have presented a view of Lord Tennyson’s poetry with the respect it deserves. I could ramble on about the details of his life, his influences and honors but there are many sources that will do just that for those with more curiosity about his personal history. I elected to focus on his poetic voice, the gift that honored his presence on earth and sets the bar high for all poets who follow.
The Literature Network
The Victorian Web
University of South Carolina
Carbon print by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1869; courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago