Alfred, "Eccentric" Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Alfred Tennyson was born 5 August1 1809, third surviving
child of the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson and Elizabeth Fytche Tennyson.
Although George was an elder son, his younger brother Charles was made sole
heir after a disagreement between George and his father, and George was
forced to earn his living as a clergyman, which he hated2,
but there were eleven little Tennysons he had to support by 1819. Alfred
himself started writing poetry at age eight and had written most of a blank
verse play by age fourteen.
The year he entered Cambridge, 1827, his first
published poetry appeared in Poems by Two Brothers3
At Cambridge, he made such friends as Edward FitzGerald, Thackeray
, and Arthur Henry Hallam. In 1829
Alfred beat out Thackeray, among others, for a poetry prize. The following
year, his Poems, Chiefly Lyrical
won some critical praise, and
Alfred met Emily Sellwood, the love of his life. Arthur Hallam introduced
them, and Arthur himself became engaged to Alfred's sister
. It was therefore quite a shock when Arthur died on
15 September 1833 of an apoplexy. That same year, Alfred's brother Edward
was finally admitted to a mental asylum, where he stayed until his death in
1890. Out of this awful year came the start of In Memoriam:
, perhaps Alfred's most famous work5
wasn't actually finished until 1850.
In 1839, Alfred and Emily were officially engaged. By 1840, they were
officially unengaged. Emily's father had put a stop to the match,
supposedly because Alfred was too poor to marry. He was, but the real
reason was probably the very unhappy marriage between Charles, Alfred's
older brother, and Louisa Sellwood, Emily's sister. Charles was an opium
addict, and though he eventually straightened out, by then Louisa had
worked herself into a nervous collapse trying to help him6.
So Alfred and Emily suffered the pangs of separation, which showed pretty
strongly in Alfred's poetry of the time. He threw himself into traveling
and studying, and he eventually became proficient in several languages,
including Persian and Hebrew.
By 1842, Alfred found himself well and truly famous with the publication of
his Poems7. Unfortunately, he had decided that his
health was bad8 and let his doctors talk him into not
writing or even really reading for almost two years. And just when he'd
started writing again, Edward Bulwer-Lytton9 wrote a long
poem satirizing such greats as Wordsworth, Keats, and especially Alfred. But Alfred kept writing
anyway, finishing the long blank verse poem The Princess in 1847, a
poem which also contained some lyric poems as songs. In 1849, a wondrous
thing happened-brother Charles was reconciled with his wife. The
following year, on 13 June, Alfred and Emily married in great secrecy. By
then, Wordsworth had died and the Court was looking for a new Poet
Laureate. The job was first offered to the 87-year-old Samuel Rogers, who
turned it down10. Alfred's name was submitted with two
others, but Prince Albert had read In Memorium, so Alfred was in.
He loved being Poet Laureate, though he never quite got used to all the
attention from complete strangers. His home life was what was important to
him. On 11 August 1852, Hallam Tennyson was born, followed by Lionel
Tennyson on 16 March 1854. Alfred was a doting father and spoiled the boys
Alfred published four of the Idylls of the King, his epic on the
story of King Arthur and Camelot, in 1859. When Prince Albert died in
1861, the official poem on his death was made part of the later
Idylls and the whole work was dedicated to the Prince. The
Idylls were huge when finished, hugely popular with the general
public, and hugely abused by critics11. But Alfred had his
family, and friends like Edward Lear (of limerick fame) and William
Gladstone, Prime Minister under Queen Victoria12. The
Queen was continually offering Alfred a baronetcy, which he kept turning
down (he was rather shy) and it wasn't until 1884 that he actually became
Between 1874 and 1879, Alfred wrote several plays at the urging of a friend
who owned a theatre13. None of them were terribly good,
but one of them ran for 67 nights, probably because the Prince and Princess
of Wales liked it so much. His eyesight had gotten very bad, though
fortunately he'd always composed his poems in his head, and he had Emily to
act as secretary, a job which Hallam took over in 1874 due to his mother's
failing health. But Alfred was afraid to take on another major work that
he might not live to finish. His brother Charles died in 1879, Edward
FitzGerald died in 1883, and Alfred was starting to feel lonely and
old14. The real blow came in 1886, when his son Lionel
died of fever while at sea. Alfred's poem "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After"15
was written around that time, and is a scathing, Dickensian satire of
Victorian England and the horrible conditions of the poor. It isn't very
typical of his work, but his baronetcy made him feel obligated to speak out
on this sort of thing.
In November 1889, Hallam's son Lionel was born, followed by Alfred, Jr. in
April 1891. Alfred himself had been ill for some months, but was still
working hard to prepare one last volume of poems for publication. It was
published two weeks after his death, on 6 October 1892. He died
peacefully, apparently of gout, with his wife and son by his side. He'd
outlived most of the great writers of his time, but there were some
literary luminaries at the funeral like Thomas Hardy and Arthur Conan
Doyle. At Alfred's request, his poem "Crossing the
Bar," an epitaph of sorts, is always printed last in any collection of
Levi, Peter. Tennyson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993.
- This is what the baptismal records say, anyway. His mother habitually
celebrated his birthday on 6 August, her wedding anniversary.
- It drove him to drink. A lot. Some people even thought he was
epileptic due to his drunken fits; which led to the belief that Alfred and
some of his siblings were also epileptic. Epilepsy, however, is not
inherited, so don't let anyone confuse you. The Tennysons were mostly just
eccentric, anyway. Only two of them were even a little insane.
- They were actually by three, but Frederick, the eldest, didn't
want to be associated with them because he thought they were bad. They
were, kind of, but Alfred's were slightly less bad.
- Alfred's sister Emily eventually married a naval officer named
Richard Jesse and had a son named Arthur Henry Hallam Tennyson Jesse. In
the interests of clarity, I promise not to mention this Emily again.
- Though "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is right up there. In
Memoriam's real claim to fame is the "'Tis better to have loved and
lost/Than never to have loved at all" line.
- You can see why Mr. Sellwood was a little reluctant to marry any
more of his family into the Tennyson family.
- Not to be confused with Elizabeth
Browning's Poems or John Keats' Poems or anybody else's
- He had always had hypochondriac tendencies, but I'm sure the
chain-smoking and bottle of port every day didn't help any.
- Actually Edward Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, first Baron Lytton, most
famous for coining "It was a dark and stormy night." Obviously, he had no
business satirizing anyone.
- He was apparently a wonderful conversationalist and a so-so poet,
but he was the person to know if you wanted to be considered
- It wasn't Alfred's fault. The epic poem was past its prime and had
been pretty much since Paradise Lost.
- The Queen once asked Alfred to persuade Gladstone to retire, as she
could no longer stand him. Gladstone didn't listen to a word of it and
stayed the P.M. until 1894.
- The friend's assistant was an aspiring young Irish novelist named
- Alfred stayed pretty active until the very end of his life. He
once told an acquaintance, noted actress Fanny Kemble, "I can run uphill, I
can waltz." Miss Kemble apparently replied, in an icy voice, "I hope I
shall never see you do it." Well, I thought it was funny.
- It was a sequel, as you might suspect. The original "Locksley
Hall" was mainly a heroic, chivalrous poem where the main character wins
the love of his cousin Amy and they marry and live happily ever after.
Only the sequel shows that they didn't.
This document is part of Incompetech.com.
©1998-2013 Kevin MacLeod