On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson is an essay by Arthur Henry Hallam that highlights the difference between the poetry of sensation and the poetry of reflection, and insists that the poetry of sensation – Alfred Tennyson’s modality – is the superior form. Although Hallam justifies his arguments with thorough analysis and astute observation, this essay is clearly an act of puffery in praise of his close friend Tennyson.


Bust of Arthur Henry Hallam by Francis Leggatt Chantrey (Wikimedia Commons)
Bust of Arthur Henry Hallam by Francis Leggatt Chantrey (Wikimedia Commons)

Arthur Henry Hallam was a poet and essayist. Having taken an early interest in “serious literature” he attended Eton College from 1822-1827. After leaving Eaton in 1827 he travelled continental Europe with his parents and became infatuated in Italy with an Englishwoman named Anne Wintour, who would inspire eleven of his poems. Upon his return to England he attended Trinity College where he met and formed a close friendship with the poet Alfred Tennyson. The two hoped to publish a book of poetry together, but the project was abandoned when Hallam’s father forbade it. In 1830 he met and fell in love with Tennyson’s sister, Emily Tennyson, with whom he would have an inconclusive engagement. He died suddenly of an aneurism while travelling in Vienna. His poetry was published publically posthumously, although he is most well-known in the present for his friendship with Tennyson and as the muse for Tennyson’s //In Memoriam// (Lang).


Hallam opens his essay with a scathing critique of the lately published second edition of Robert Montgomery’s Oxford and satirizes the puffery surrounding its publication. His reaction to this publication is to declare that “the highest species of poetry is [not] the reflective” (Hallam 1191). Hallam condemns the poetry of ideas and opinions because produces poetry that is “false in art” (1191). From this overview of reflective poetry he launches into praise of sensational poetry, and, mostly emphatically, Tennyson’s excellence in the latter form.

In order to contextualize what Hallam sees as the ideal of modern (i.e. Victorian) poetry he draws on the romantic poets Shelley and Keats, contrasting them with “other”, or reflective poets. Hallam writes, “[Reflective] poets seek for image to illustrate their conceptions; [Shelley and Keats] had no need to seek; they lived in a world of images” (1192). This statement forms the basis for his argument in favour of sensational poetry, which:

  1. Balances imagination and moderatio
  2. Possesses authenticity in its poetic voice
  3. Renders objects vividly and accurately, and infusing them with emotional significance
  4. Employs sound devices that evoke their sense
  5. Implies its poet’s intellect through moderation of emotion (1196).

Hallam’s characteristics are an elaboration of William Wordsworth’s original conception of sensational poetry. Wordsworth wrote in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads” that poetry “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling… recollected in tranquillity” (Wordsworth). The similarity between Wordsworth’s and Hallam’s characterizations of poetry indicates that Hallam is in favour of a traditional and romantic mode of poetry.

Hallam also endeavours to give his “readers some spiciments in illustration of [his] remarks” on the characteristics of sensational poetry (Hallam 1196). He proceeds to analyze three of Tennyson’s poems: “Recollections of the Arabian Nights” (qtd. in Hallam 1196-8), “The Ballad of Oriana” (1200-1), and “Adeline” (1203-4). He transparently praises Tennyson’s work by prefacing his analysis with the following disclaimer: “Criticism will sound but poorly after this [poetry]” (Hallam 1198). Each poem is analyzed through the lens of Hallam’s ideals of modern and sensational poetry.

The analysis closes with a final praise of Tennyson’s mastery of language and his embracing of English as a “necessarily… compound language” (1204). Finally, Hallam concludes his essay by stating his hopes for Tennyson’s success as a poet, and that he wishes that his own theory of poetics, as exemplified by Tennyson, will be adopted into “existing circumstance” (1205).


Hallam’s admiration for Tennyson’s work is by no means concealed in this essay. Its purpose is to present to its readership “a poet in the truest and the highest sense” (1195). In order to convince his readers that Tennyson is such a poet, Hallam engages in puffery and employs several persuasive devices designed to position Tennyson’s work as advantageously as possible.

Hallam’s fusion of poetic theory and praise is certainly an act of puffery. Puffery in a contemporary sense refers to “wildly exaggerated, fanciful or vague claims that no reasonable person could possibly treat seriously or find misleading” (“Misleading”). Although Tennyson’s poetry certainly achieves excellence by its own merit, Hallam’s essay is, in a sense, an act of puffery in that it constructs an entire poetic theory around the work of a single author. One way in which Hallam renders his argument so compelling is by employing the collective “we” pronoun. The use of this pronoun assumes the agreement of his readers and creates a sense of authority in his writing, just as kings and queens employ the royal “we” in Shakespeare. Also, Hallam does not counterbalance his argument – he fails to acknowledge the excellence achieved by “reflective” or radical poets contemporary to Tennyson. Instaed, he deconstructs the poetic of other writers at the beginning of his essay, so that when Tennyson is finally mentioned several pages into the review, his poetic seems to be the only one worth taking seriously.


Arthur Henry Hallam wrote On Some of the Characterisitcs of Modern Poetry and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson in order to introduce his friend Alfred Tennyson’s work into the literary world. To bolster his friend, Hallam constructs a theory of modern poetry that compliments his work.

-- TAL.ENGL386 - Winter 2015


Hallam, Arthur Henry. “On Some Characteristics of Modern Poetry: and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson.” The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory. Eds. Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle. Peterborough: Broadview Press, Ltd., 2005. 1190-1205. Print.

Lang, Timothy. “Hallam, Arthur Henry (1811-1833).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oct. 2005. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/view/article/12002

“Misleading or deceptive conduct.” Consumer Affairs Victoria. State Government of Victoria, 2015.Web. 02 Feb. 2015.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” Department of English: University of Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania, Spring 2001. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.