B. 1809 D. 1892
Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change. - 'Locksley Hall', Alfred Tennyson
About Alfred Tennyson
Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, the third surviving son of a rector whose violent alcoholism blighted the family home. Tennyson went to Cambridge where he met Arthur Henry Hallam whose early death was to prompt Tennyson to write his great elegy of mourning, In Memoriam. Tennyson had begun writing as a child and published some of his best-known poems, including ‘Mariana’, when he was only twenty. However, success was slow to come and the years between Hallam’s death and 1843 when Tennyson began to receive an annual government grant were difficult, financially and emotionally. His situation changed with the publication of In Memoriam which brought him lasting fame and success and for the next forty years he was the dominant figure in English poetry, being made Poet Laureate in 1850 following the death of Wordsworth. Later work such as The Idylls of the King were held in high esteem and sold well. By this time he was married to Emily Sellwood after a prolonged ten-year engagement due to financial difficulties and his fears over his mental state, the ‘black blood’ of the Tennysons. This darkness informs much of his poetry which tends to focus on loss and mortality: T. S. Eliot called him “the great master . . . of melancholia”. He was made a peer in 1884 and died in 1892.
Since his death his critical reputation has had its ups and downs: W. H. Auden described his genius as essentially lyrical and the general consensus has been that the longer narrative poems he spent so much time on are less successful, though this view has begun to be challenged. However, he remains the defining English poet of the Victorian era, nowhere more so than in his famous Archive-featured poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854) which commemorates an infamous incident from the Crimean War. In the course of this action, undertaken in error due to misinterpreted orders, the Light Brigade (that is cavalry bearing only light arms) attempted to capture the Russian gun redoubts at Balaclava with disastrous results. Of the six hundred and seventy three men who charged down “The Valley of Death” only a hundred and ninety five survived unwounded. News of the charge and its bloody consequences reached London three weeks later and there was an immediate public outcry. The news affected Tennyson who wrote his poem in commemoration of their courage only a few minutes after reading an account in The Times. It was immediately popular, even reaching the troops back in the Crimea where it was distributed in pamphlet form.
Less well-known is Tennyson’s celebration of a more successful action during the same battle, ‘The Charge of the Heavy Brigade’. This was written much later in 1882 at the prompting of a friend which is perhaps why it fails to capture the white-hot creative burst of the first poem. The “three hundred” mentioned are the men of the Heavy Brigade and their commander, Sir James Yorke Scarlett, but the poem never caught the public’s imagination. Nevertheless, it is of historical interest to hear the two poems side by side which we’re able to do thanks to a remarkable recording made in 1890. These poems and eight others were recorded on a set of twenty three soft wax cylinders. Although their age and the primitive technology sometimes renders a word inaudible, Tennyson’s voice comes through clearly, intoning the pounding dactylic rhythms of the verse which gives it a breathless momentum.
A remarkable recording made in 1890, these poems and eight others were recorded on a set of twenty three soft wax cylinders.
Poems by Alfred Tennyson
Books by Alfred Tennyson
Selected Poems: Tennyson
Penguin Classics, 2007
Oxford University Press, 2009
Everyman's Pocket Library Book
Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poems
The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tennyson's Poetry, New York
W W Norton