An Experiment in Poetry: Alfred, Lord Tennyson Composes Touchstones for Mourning and Hope

Image by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

Image by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

An Experiment in Poetry is a weekly series here at spotlighting poets whose work points to transcendent values and encourages us to contemplate questions at the heart of the human condition.

Henri Nouwen often emphasized that “the most personal is the most universal.”[1] By this, the prolific author-priest meant, among other things, that our most private and unique moments are touchstones for essential human identity and experience. His books testify to the truth and power of this insight, as Nouwen offered his most vulnerable, intimate experiences to his readers for their edification and spiritual growth.

Over a century earlier the great Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson[2] (1809-1892) tapped into this same inspirational vein, producing out of his personal storehouse scores of exquisite poems that continue to resonate with readers to this day. Born in England at the start of the nineteenth century, Tennyson was the fourth of twelve children, all of whom were raised in a volatile home environment, where the father’s many (often self-inflicted) misfortunes were tragically borne by his offspring. Tennyson’s poetic gifts were recognized at a young age; he was writing poetry by eight and prose romance by twelve. Still, this embryonic genius took a while to be recognized; Tennyson’s early collections were not particularly well received, and he left Cambridge without a degree.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, image from Wikipedia

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, image from Wikipedia

The 1840s proved a turning point for Tennyson’s poetic standing, with his two-volume Poems being quite positively reviewed. In response to them, Edgar Allan Poe went as far as to wonder whether “Tennyson is not the greatest of poets," and marked his skilled control of the music of poetry as the distinguishing feature of Tennyson’s work. He also frequently drew from the classics of western literature to frame his poetic explorations. He was inspired by Homer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, and he wrote big poems to match big themes such as war and faith, Arthurian legend and myth.

In one such poem, Tennyson considers the position of Odysseus’ men as they stumble upon the Lotos-eaters and are tempted by their fruit, lulled into lethargy and drawn away from their mission. In his description of the island and the men’s mental state, the poet demonstrates mastery of sound and imagery, immersing readers in a dreamy yet paralyzing malaise. As with Tennyson’s other poems, this one overflows with passion, matching cadence to feeling and invoking in readers the text’s poetic mood. By pairing beautiful natural images with a persistent dull, deadening end rhyme, the poet heightens the poem’s tension between desire and bondage, showing the men at the mercy of their uncontrolled appetites:

Here are cool mosses deep, 
And thro' the moss the ivies creep, 
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep, 
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep. 

It was his masterpiece In Memoriam (1850), however, that enlarged Tennyson’s fame beyond literary circles and established him as the exemplary Victorian poet he’s now recognized to be. With more than sixty thousand copies sold within the first months of its publication, In Memoriam thrust Tennyson into the public eye, and soon thereafter he was distinguished as the ceremonial voice of the nation in his role as British Poet Laureate, a post he inherited on William Wordsworth’s death and held for over forty years.

In Memoriam is a collage of 130+ lyrics, an elegy lamenting the loss of Tennyson’s beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam seventeen years earlier. Here the poet illustrates Nouwen’s principle, sharing with the world his personal sorrow born of specific experiences. While the poem’s speaker is wrestling with private anguish over the loss of his friend, readers recognize that he is also simultaneously grappling with the most pressing and perennial challenges of life in this fallen world. Through the crucible of profound grief, Tennyson composed a touchstone for mourning and hope, for personal loss and for the pressing questions of the Victorian era.

Despite the Victorian era’s unsettling scientific discoveries and Tennyson’s own personal experience of loss, the speaker cannot simply acquiesce to the death promised by nature. Reality itself, ultimate reality, must be otherwise, he is convinced.

The nineteenth century was a tumultuous time, with the previously sacrosanct foundations of church and state being upended by scientific discoveries and rapidly changing social conditions. Tennyson’s poetry, including and especially In Memoriam, served as a ballast against these changes, as Laurence Mazzeno explains: “Readers found in Tennyson’s poetry excitement, sentiment, and moral solace; his works were a lighthouse in a stormy sea of social and moral uncertainty.”[3] This is so because Tennyson effects a rapprochement between the specific and the general, the subjective and the universal. Through the poem’s I, readers vicariously experience Tennyson’s pain and questioning and attempts at healing; their own distinctive human struggles and existential longings echo ever more loudly in Tennyson’s poetic articulation.

This echo does not, however, erase the singularity of either Tennyson’s or the reader’s experience; humans come embodied, enfleshed and enculturated in an interlocking web of time and space. For Tennyson, Hallam himself matters. His loss is not some abstract, amorphous concept but a physical reality, one that alters the course of Tennyson’s physical and emotional life. It is Hallam’s house in section 7, for example, that evokes the speaker’s guilt and underscores his loss. There is a “noise of life” the speaker hears on this street, but this general “noise” and activity is no substitute for the actuality of the singular individual that he misses:

Dark house, by which once more I stand
         Here in the long unlovely street,
         Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,  

A hand that can be clasp'd no more—
         Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
         And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.   

If Tennyson was expressing personal grief in In Memoriam, he was also channeling the spirit of his age, wrestling with questions raised about the viability of belief in God in the face of recent scientific discoveries, especially those in evolution (Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation) and geology (Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology). These cultural questions were Tennyson’s personal struggles writ large and infused by the tenor of the times—what hope, one might ask, do we have of life after death, when death seems to be confirmed as the unswerving way of nature? Speaking of Tennyson’s poetry more generally, Mazzeno explains, “His poems reflect an insight into the crises of his own age, as well as an appreciation of problems that have faced all men, especially the problems of death, loss, and nostalgic yearning for a more stable world.”[4]

The poem’s prelude establishes these terms, as the speaker pleads with God to make himself known through means other than empirical evidence. Can the speaker’s intuition, his own personal intimation that life is stronger than death and will overcome it, be trusted?

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
         Thou madest man, he knows not why,
         He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

These natural laws were especially difficult for Tennyson to square with a God of love, captured well in these lines (from section 56) as the speaker reflects on the inevitability of death, not only of the individual man but perhaps of mankind itself, following in the footsteps of other extinct species through the ages:

"So careful of the type?" but no.
         From scarped cliff and quarried stone
         She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
care for nothing, all shall go.

Man seems so small in comparison to such a fate, and the God of man impotent or ludicrous when set against this scene:

Who trusted God was love indeed
         And love Creation's final law --
         Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed --

Even still, the speaker insists on the possibility of resurrection and redemption, which is especially evident in the three Christmas sections that anchor the text (28, 78, and 104). And eventually the poem does culminate in hope fulfilled, with a wedding blessing on the occasion of his sister’s marriage. In this epilogue, Tennyson attempts to reconcile faith and science, imagining God working through and improving natural processes to renew and restore what nature itself has taken:

No longer half-akin to brute,
         For all we thought and loved and did,
         And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed
Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man, that with me trod
         This planet, was a noble type
         Appearing ere the times were ripe,
That friend of mine who lives in God,

That God, which ever lives and loves,
         One God, one law, one element,
         And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.  

Despite the Victorian era’s unsettling scientific discoveries and Tennyson’s own personal experience of loss, the speaker cannot simply acquiesce to the death promised by nature. Reality itself, ultimate reality, must be otherwise, he is convinced. In Memoriam suggests how restoration can occur. Through his poetic voice, Tennyson proclaims the way through, championing a love that overcomes nature’s ravages and enables a life that transcends them.  

Audio (and text) of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” his narrative poem written after a particularly hard loss for the British in the Crimean War

Links for This Week’s Featured Poems

“The Higher Pantheism” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“Milton” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Selection from In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

[1] Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1997), 80.

[2] Being an Americanist, I am often stymied by the class system of England; what little I understand is that “Lord Tennyson” must be written after the author’s first name—you’ll find that, too, if you do any research into his work. If you are interested in learning more about Tennyson’s title or the peerage system in general, check out these links:,

[3] Laurence Mazzeno, “Alfred, Lord Tennyson,” Critical Survey of Poetry, Second Revised Edition, September 2002, p. 1-9.

[4] Ibid.