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We have left our study of Tennyson to the last, because he represents, more fully and faithfully than any other writer, the changing life and thought of the Victorian era from first to last. Rossetti represents an art movement, which does not become important until the Victorian era is well advanced; Arnold represents a particular phase of thought, characteristic, as we have seen, of the middle and later years of the century. But, apart from other reasons, Tennyson holds a very different position from such writers as Rossetti and Arnold, because he lived and worked longer than any other English poet of the time. He was born in the early years of the nineteenth century, before the Waverley novels were written, when George III was on the throne, and Napoleon was the terror of Europe; he died when the century was nearing its end. He began his work as a poet before Victoria came to the throne; he continued to write until her long reign was almost over. He lived to be eighty-three years old, and sixty-five busy years lie between the appearance of his first work and the publication of his last. For half a century he was generally looked up to, both in England and America, as the greatest living poet of the English race. So we cannot definitely associate him, as we can Rossetti, with any one group of poets; we cannot say that he belongs wholly, or even chiefly, either to the earlier or the later part of the era. He belongs to it all. The greater part of those changes in life and thought which have already been described took place during his lifetime. He saw the old order yielding place to the
new; he felt the fierce struggle of his time, and fought out the long battle of his generation from first to last. So, if we study Tennyson carefully, and read his poems in the order in which they were written, we shall find that they help us to follow the inner life of Victorian England from the beginning almost to the end.
Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809, at Somersby, a tiny village in the East Midland region of Lincolnshire, where his father, the Rev. George Clayton Tennyson, was rector. The country immediately about Somersby has a richness and beauty wanting in many other parts of the county. It is "A land of quiet villages, large fields, grey hillsides, and noble talltowered churches." From the first, Tennyson was an observant and a true lover of nature, and these quiet country scenes entered deeply into his life.
After some training at home, and in the grammar school at Louth, a town some twenty miles away, Tennyson entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1828. Here, shy as he was, he showed that he had a great power of making friends. He joined a debating society, which included among its members several of the ablest young men in the University. Among this little group of bright and congenial spirits was Arthur Henry Hallam, a young man of rare promise and singularly sweet and lovable nature, whose short life is indissolubly linked with the career of Tennyson. Long before he entered college, Tennyson had written verses; he had even printed a volume in conjunction with his brother Charles, in 1827; but at Cambridge he first made a decided impression by his prize poem, Timbuctoo. In 1830 Tennyson made his real entrance into the world of English letters by the publication of a slim volume, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. It is largely
the work of an experimentalist in meter and melody; like the preliminary studies of an artist who is bent upon mastering the technique of his art. He had something of Keats' delight in color and melody; yet even in this early effort we detect a note of divergence from those poets who, like Keats, loved “beauty only." He shows us his ideal poet “dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn, the love of love,” whose melodies fling abroad the winged shafts not of beauty but of "truth." In a remarkable poem, The Palace of Art, which appeared in a volume published in 1832, Tennyson defined clearly his position on this point, as against Keats' oft-repeated principle that
Beauty is truth; truth beauty.”
Tennyson lost his father in 1830, and in that year left Cambridge without taking a degree. In 1833 came the shock of a profounder sorrow in the loss of his more than brother, Arthur Hallam, who died suddenly in Vienna. In Memoriam, that incomparable poem in which Tennyson, seventeen years later, gave to the world the record of this story of friendship and loss, admits us into the sacred places of this great grief.
After Hallam's death Tennyson lived chiefly in London, writing constantly, but publishing almost nothing. He belonged to a select coterie, the “Sterling Club," where he met Carlyle, Thackeray, and many other famous men. Nearly ten years' silence was broken at last in 1842 by two volumes of poems, including many of his earlier poems revised, and about as much
matter. The new poems included the Morte d'Arthur, Ulysses, The Two Voices, and Locksley Hall, and won for Tennyson most enthusiastic recognition