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Short Biography

Alfred Lord Tennyson


Alfred Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, the fourth of the twelve children of George Tennyson, clergyman, and his wife, Elizabeth. His fatherís father had gone against all tradition in making his younger son, Charles, his principal heir, and arranging for George to enter the ministry. 

In 1816 (7) Tennyson was sent to Louth Grammar School, which he disliked so intensely that in later life he refused even to walk past the school. From 1820 (11) he was educated at home, mainly by his father, who introduced him to such works as The Arabian Nights, The Koran and other books of folklore and myth. He joined his brothers, Frederick and Charles, at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827 (18), and, with his brother Charles, published Poems by Two Brothers in the same year. 

Tennyson's father becomes unstable
At home, his father had become dangerously unstable. Elizabeth Tennyson complained of his foul language towards her and his children, and there were bad tempered rows between him and his eldest son, during which threats of serious violence were made. Georgeís family finally persuaded him to go abroad. 

The Apostles
At Cambridge, Tennyson was invited to join the undergraduate club called the Apostles, whose members included Arthur Henry Hallam, James Spedding, Edward Lushington (who later married Tennysonís sister Cecilia), and Richard Monckton Milnes. The Apostles were influential in encouraging his poetic calling, and were to remain his friends for the rest of his life, though the club itself was little more than a private debating society with a few odd rituals (eg each meeting was begun with the eating of anchovies on toast). The personality of Arthur Hallam was to have a huge impact on his sensibilities, however.

First publication
In 1830 (21) he published Poems Chiefly Lyrical

Goes to republican Spain
Through the Apostles, Tennyson and Hallam became involved with Spanish exiles working for the establishment of a republic in Spain, and the two friends travelled to the South of France as couriers. During this period Hallam became emotionally attached and then engaged to Tennysonís sister Emily. 

Death of his father
In 1831 (22) Tennysonís father, who had returned home, died. 

Hallam contributed an essay entitled On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson to Moxonís Englishman's Magazine (August 1831, 22), which was attacked by Professor John Wilson writing in Blackwoodís Magazine (May 1832, 23) under the pseudonym Christopher North. Wilson ridiculed the use of the word 'genius' to refer to Tennyson, and attributed the demise of the Englishman's Magazine (which ceased publication after October 1831, 22), to the 'superhuman - nay supernatural - pomposity' of this one paper, though he did add that he had good hopes of Alfred Tennyson. 

European travel
The two men went on a trip down the Rhine in the summer of 1832 (23). 

Death of Tennyson's friend Hallam
In 1833 (24) Hallam made a trip abroad with his father, and died suddenly in Vienna, an event which had a profound emotional impact on Tennyson, and led him later to write some of his most memorable verse, including In Memoriam, Ulysses, Tithones and the Passing of Arthur
Hallam's extraordinary impact on his friends is also noted by William Gladstone, who commented on Hallam's character more than sixty years after Hallam's death in an interview given to the Daily Telegraph on 5 January 1898, just before his own death. 'Among his contemporaries at Eton ... he stood supreme .... and the long life through which I have wound my way, and has brought me into contact with so many men of rich endowments, leaves him where he then stood so far as my estimation is concerned. ... It is a simple truth that Arthur Henry Hallam was a spirit so exceptional that everything with which he was brought into relation came to be, through this contact, glorified by a touch of the ideal. It is a true case of ostendent terris hunc tantum fata: he resembled a passing emanation from some other and less darkly chequered world.' The Latin quotation is from Vergil Book VI of the Aeneid line 869,  'Only a glimpse of him will fate give earth (nor suffer him to stay long)'.  Translation by H.R.Fairclough.

His brother Edward confined
His brother Edward was confined to a mental institution in 1833 (24), and Tennyson became increasingly concerned about his own physical and mental health. 

His brother Charles marries and he meets his future wife
In 1836 (27) his brother Charles married Louisa Sellwood, the daughter of a solicitor from Horncastle, and Tennyson found himself best man with Emily Sellwood, his future wife, bridesmaid. By early 1837 (28) it was generally accepted that they were engaged. 

Health and a misguided investment
His health was a continual concern to him, and in 1840 (31) he visited a sanitarium in High Beech, Epping Forest run by Dr Matthew Allen. While there, Allen persuaded him to invest the inheritance he had received from his grandfather (who had died in 1835, 26) and some of his familyís money (to the extent of some £8000) in a scheme to produce wood carvings by steam power. The scheme failed, and Tennyson was effectively left penniless. 

He revises Poems
A new version of Poems appeared in 1842 (33) in two volumes, the first volume containing revised versions of the poems from the previously published works, and the second volume new works, including The Lady of Shallott, The Lotus Eaters, Morte díArthur and Ulysses. The publication established his reputation. It received praise from both Carlyle and Dickens, and was followed by an influential essay which appeared in 1844 (35) amongst a collection of essays contributed by, among others, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, entitled A New Spirit of the Age (edited by R.H.Horne).

He receives government pension
In 1845 (36) he was awarded a government pension of £200 a year by the Prime Minister, Peel, after a campaign by his friends. 

He becomes Poet Laureate
The Princess, a Medley
was published in 1847 (37), and sold well, running to five editions by 1853. In 1850 (41) he succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate, and married Emily Sellwood. 

In Memoriam
That same year (41) he published In Memoriam, substantially a memorial to his late friend Arthur Hallam, on which he had been working intermittently since 1833 (24), and which addressed the High Victorian interests in death, remorse and spiritual growth. The book was a critical and commercial success, and went to three further editions in the same year. 

His first son born and the Duke of Wellington dies
His son, who was christened Hallam, was born in 1852 (42), and later that year he produced an Ode on the Death of Wellington, which was printed as a pamphlet in an edition of 10,000, and sold to the crowd outside St Paulís for the funeral of the dead hero.

He settles in Farringford on the Isle of Wight
In 1853 (44) the Tennysons settled at Farringford, a house in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. 

His second son born and he writes the Charge of the Light Brigade
His second son Lionel was born in the following year (45). He wrote and published the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, and the poem was included in the volume Maud published in 1855 (46), which Moxon printed in an edition of 10,000, and reprinted within the year. 

He writes further poetry and, for the first time, plays
He continued to write and publish to the end : Idylls of the King (1859, 50), which was printed in an edition of 40,000, and reprinted within 6 months, Enoch Arden and Other Poems (1864, 55), of which 60,000 copies were sold in the first year, Lucretius (1868, 59), The Holy Grail and Other Poems (1869, 1871 and 1872, 60, 62 and 63), Queen Mary, a play (1875, 66), Harold (1876, 67), The Falcon (1877, 68), Ballads and Other Poems (1880, 71), The Cup, a play (1881, 72), The Promise of May (1882, 73), Beckett (1884, 75), Tiresias and Other Poems (1885, 76), Locksley Hall Sixty Years After (1886, 77), Demeter and Other Poems (1889, 80), The Death of Oenone and Other Poems (1892, 83) and The Foresters (1892, 83). 

He died in 1892 (83) and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Alfred Lord Tennyson Biography : Links

Detailed Biography and Evaluation  


Arthur Hallam - Characteristics of Modern Poetry 
The Englishman's Magazine, August 1831

R.H.Horne -  A New Spirit of the Age

A.C.Bradley - A Commentary on In Memoriam


The Lady of Shallot: William Holman Hunt

The Lady of Shallott : painting by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)

Click on image to go to poem.

   Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade : painting by Richard Caton Woodville Jr (1856-1927).

Click on image to go to poem.


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