Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Born in Somersby, Lincolnshire in 1809, Alfred Tennyson was the fourth child born of twelve children. Tennyson was surrounded by his family’s problems all his life as his father George Clayton Tennyson and his brother Edward suffered from epilepsy, which was considered a mental illness in the nineteenth century. The Victorians viewed epilepsy as a shameful disease, and George and Edward made matters worse with their excessive drinking. Edward ended up spending the majority of his life in an insane asylum. Consequently, Tennyson feared that he too would fall ill with this disease.

Tennyson’s father was a rector at the Church and became hopeful that his family could carry on this tradition; however, due to the mental instability in the family, Tennyson’s eldest brother Frederick was unfit to carry on the role as priest. George took out his frustrations on his wife Elizabeth, Tennyson, and his siblings, and at one point George wanted to kill Frederick [1]. In spite of the ailment, George chose the second eldest son as his favorite deeming him rector of the Church.

As a way to escape the chaos of his family, Tennyson began writing poetry to remove him from the distress. As a result, most of Tennyson’s poetry focuses around madness, loveless marriages, murder and estranged families and friendships. Tennyson’s “Maud” is a good example of this interest in madness because of the speaker’s morbidity and, later, insanity. Furthermore, the ways the stanzas are structured portray chaos and disorder.

Tennyson did not care for academics nonetheless he did attend Trinity College, if only to leave Somersby and his family behind. In 1827, Tennyson published his first volume of poetry By Two Brothers which contained a few works from his brothers Charles and Frederick. A few years later, in 1829, Tennyson wrote one of his less famous poems “Timbuctoo [2].” This poem was strange, but it illustrated the way Tennyson started to both incorporate landscapes and imagination, and pull away from reality in his works. “Timbuctoo” won Tennyson the Chancellor’s prize [3] where he also met his good friend Henry Hallam. That same year Tennyson and Hallam joined the Secret Society, a group of elite undergraduates but Tennyson dropped out of the society after only a few meetings, though he remained close friends with the group members. Tennyson’s new friendships helped him get through his academic studies, and he began writing more and more poetry that alluded to landscapes and imagery such as one of his most famous poems “Mariana,” which was published in his Chiefly Lyrical collections in 1830.

After the death of Tennyson's father in 1831, his family faced financial hardship due to his father`s large amount of debts that were discovered by his grandfather. Tennyson`s grandfather made arrangements to help the family with George`s debts and offered to help Tennyson pay for his tuition, but Tennyson refused his grandfather`s help and instead dropped out of Trinity College and continued writing poems [4]. In 1832, Tennyson published “Lady of Shallot,” “The Palace of Art,” “A Dream of Fair Women” and many others. Unfortunately, these poems were negatively criticized leaving Tennyson in great distress. Following Tennyson’s failed poems came the death of Henry Hallam, which shocked Tennyson, and he fell into a depression and feared he was going to suffer from epilepsy, alcoholism and drugs so he left England and stopped publishing poetry as he felt no one appreciated his work [5]. Although Tennyson did not publish any of his poems, the death of Hallam greatly affected him it inspired him to write poems such as “Ulysses,” “Morte de Arthur,” and “Elegies,” which became In Memoriam of Henry Hallam’s death published in 1850. In Memoriam reveals the meaning of life and death while coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. In Memoriam helped Tennyson cope with the death of Hallam.

Tennyson met Emily Sellwood in 1836 at his Brother Charles’ wedding to her sister Louisa Sellwood where they fell in love. Tennyson and Emily spent a few years together, but he was too afraid to marry her in fear that he would pass epilepsy onto their children. Tennyson also feared that he could not take care of her financially and by 1840, he ended their relationship. In 1848, Tennyson thought he was suffering from epileptic episodes but found out that he only had gout [6] and the episodes he thought he was experiencing were merely flashes of light [7]. This news reassured Tennyson that he would not pass epilepsy onto his off-spring, and he no longer feared marriage. In 1850, Tennyson reunited with Emily, and they were married that same year. Emily and Tennyson lived a happy marriage with two children, Hallam and Lionel [8]. After becoming a successful poet, in 1874, Tennyson decided to try poetic drama, his first play appeared in 1875 called Queen Mary [9]. Other works of Tennyson included “June Heather and Bracken,” for Emily and dedicated his last volume of poetry to her in 1889 which included his famous poem “Crossing the Bar.” On October 6, 1892, Tennyson passed away and was buried in Westminster Abbey near the graves of Browning and Chaucer [10].
-- BG, UVic Engl 386/2012W
Works Cited:
Alfred Tennyson, “Timbuctoo,” The Literature Network Online-Literature, 2000. Web. 19 February 2012.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Representative Poetry Online, University of Toronto Libraries, 1997. Web. 17 January 2015.

Unknown, “Alfred Tennyson. Biography,” Bio. True Story Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011. Web. 19 February 2012.

Unknown, “Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892),” The Poetry Foundation, Poetry Magazine, 2011, Web. 19 February 2012.

[1] Unknown, “Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892),” The Poetry Foundation (Poetry Magazine, 2011), accessed 19 February 2012. Online
[2] Alfred Tennyson, “Timbuctoo,” The Literature Network (Online-Literature, 2000), accessed 19 February 2012. Online
[3] Unknown, “Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892),” The Poetry Foundation (Poetry Magazine, 2011), accessed 19 February 2012. Online. Tennyson would have never submitted his poetry into a contest if it was not for the urging of his friends. Because of their support, Tennyson won 1st place and met his best friend Henry Hallam.
[4] Unknown, “Alfred Tennyson. Biography,” Bio. True Story (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011), accessed 19 February 2012. Online
[5] Unknown, “Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892),” The Poetry Foundation (Poetry Magazine, 2011), accessed 19 February 2012. Online
[6] Ibid. Gout is most often seen in men; it is the inflammation of smaller joints and will spread to larger joints as well as internal organs.
[7] Ibid. Tennyson lived most of his life paranoid that he would suffer from epilepsy like his father and brother.
[8] Unknown, “Alfred Tennyson. Biography,” Bio. True Story.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Unknown, “Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892),” The Poetry Foundation.