Biography of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892

Biographical Sketch by Donna-Jean Breckenridge

"I hold it true,
Whate'er befall;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."

These oft-quoted lines by the man known as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, come from his lengthy poem, "In Memoriam." And while the typical assumption is that the poem was written after the deep pain of a broken romance, the added initials in the title, "A.H.H.," tell the full story. "A.H.H." stands for Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson's dear friend who died suddenly at the age of 22. Hallam, a brilliant fellow poet and classmate at Trinity College at Cambridge, had been engaged to marry Tennyson's sister, Emily.

"In Memoriam" was considered one of the greatest poems of the 19th century. It was loved by Queen Victoria herself, who told Tennyson that after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, she was "soothed and pleased by it."

In his day, Tennyson was said to be one of the three most famous living persons. He shared that fame with none other than Queen Victoria and British politician and Prime Minister William Gladstone. Tennyson was also England's Poet Laureate, succeeding William Wordsworth.

Alfred Tennyson (the "Lord" came when he accepted a peerage from the Queen while he was in his seventies) was born in 1809, one of his parents' eleven surviving children. His father, a minister, suffered by his own father's neglect and disinheritance, and he took it out on his family. Alfred's father provided an atmosphere of books and learning, yet he was an alcoholic who struggled mentally and physically.

Tennyson's years in college were his happiest. He was able to leave home, his first book of poetry was published, and he had his friendship with Hallam and other young poets. But the older Tennyson died, and Alfred was unable to finish his education. His second book of poems received -- at least initially -- poor reviews, his relationship with a young woman ended because of his inadequate finances, and then there was the tragedy of Hallam's sudden death.

For ten years, Tennyson published no more poems. He did continue to write, however, and in 1850, things began to improve. He learned he did not have an illness that had gripped him with fear, his financial situation stabilized, he was married to Emily Sellwood, he published "In Memoriam" to much acclaim (it was his wife who suggested the title), and he was selected to be England's new Poet Laureate.

Tennyson's fame came at the cost of privacy. People would look through the windows of his home while he and his family ate their meals, and they soon had to move. Tennyson went on to write more poetry, including "Charge of the Light Brigade" and the twelve narrative poems that make up the Arthurian epic, "Idylls of the King."

Despite his success, he continued to experience tragedy. One of his sons, Lionel, got sick and died while traveling back from a trip to India. Tennyson's "Demeter and Other Poems" includes some poetry that addressed this great loss.

In 1892, at the age of 83, Tennyson died at his home. A week later, he was buried in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner.

Tennyson, particularly in his later years, spent much time in grief, searching for proofs of immortality. Yet he asked that every edition of his poetry end with the simple prayer found in his poem, "Crossing the Bar":

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound or foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell;
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

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