In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alfred Tennyson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Collections of Papers
  • Reference Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Works
  • Individual Works
  • Drama
  • Correspondence
  • Classical Influences
  • Romantic Influences
  • Cambridge, Hallam, and the Apostles
  • Language and Style
  • Meter
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Religion and Science
  • Nation and Imperialism
  • Publishing and Popular Culture
  • Reception
  • Influence

Victorian Literature Alfred Tennyson
Samantha Matthews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0068


Alfred, Lord Tennyson (b. 1809–d. 1892) was born in Lincolnshire, the fourth child of a well-educated but volatile country vicar. In 1827, Tennyson went up to Cambridge and became part of a close-knit debating society, the Apostles. His earliest work, a collection of poems by Tennyson and his brothers, was published the same year, followed by his first individual publication in 1830. After mixed reviews for his early works, constant anxiety about financial instability, and the devastating death of his close friend Arthur Hallam in 1833, Tennyson published little for ten years. A measure of critical success rewarded Poems (1842), a mix of radically revised old poems and new work. The year 1850 was his annus mirabilis, with the publication of his well-received long poem In Memoriam A. H. H., appointment as poet laureate thanks to Prince Albert’s patronage, and his long-awaited marriage to Emily Sellwood. Financial and domestic stability followed, despite disapproving reviews of Maud (1855). Much of his poetry of the succeeding years reflected public events and preoccupations, and in 1862 his Idylls of the King was dedicated to the recently deceased Prince Albert. Tennyson finally accepted a peerage in 1883. He died nine years before Queen Victoria and was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1892. His reputation declined rapidly with the repudiation of all things Victorian that marked the beginning of the 20th century. A renewal of critical interest in his work began with the birth of Victorian studies in the 1960s, and Tennyson studies is now a vigorous area of scholarly activity.

General Overviews

Brooke 1894 is a key contemporary commentary, reflecting the broadly positive assessment of Tennyson’s life and works at his death. Overviews written in the early 20th century reflect the modernists’ distaste for their Victorian predecessors and tend to be dismissive—Nicolson 1923 reflects this trend and modifies it. Buckley 1960, a reevaluation, marks a significant shift in Tennyson scholarship and is a foundational work for later critics’ more positive and complex assessments. Ricks 1972 is a seminal work offering a modification of Nicolson’s dualistic Tennyson, combining biography with deft critical analysis. Palmer 1973 offers solid scholarly introductions to key perspectives on Tennyson’s literary and cultural influences. Culler 1977 registers the new possibilities for Tennyson studies opened up by a new modern edition of the poems (see Tennyson 1987, cited under Primary Works). Sinfield 1986 and Jordan 1988 are good examples of the productive results of applying different theoretical models to Tennyson’s poetry.

  • Brooke, Stopford A. Tennyson, His Art and Relation to Modern Life. 2d ed. London: Isbister, 1894.

    Influential commendatory analysis of Tennyson’s life and work by a contemporary who knew him. Praises Tennyson’s exemplary, Christ-like character and offers sympathetic analysis of the poems. An important Victorian appraisal of the poet laureate and his position among contemporaries.

  • Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

    A key work of 20th-century criticism. Challenges Nicolson’s influential view of the dual Tennyson, arguing for the fruitful interaction of personal circumstances and innate genius, and the unity of the public and private in his work. Includes detailed critical readings of the major poems.

  • Culler, A. Dwight. The Poetry of Tennyson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

    Comprehensive interpretation of Tennyson’s oeuvre, charting Tennyson’s evolving self-image as a poet and the image’s relation to changing literary structures. Important for recovering then-unfashionable genres (the English Idylls, the civic poem, and poems of social converse) for modern readers. He emphasizes the “frame” device by which Tennyson first mediated between himself and the world and then, inverting it, placed himself in the world.

  • Jordan, Elaine. Alfred Tennyson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Good student introduction, giving a feminist and cultural-materialist account of the poetry’s major themes and concerns. Examines Tennyson’s uneasy position as a writer of male middle-class ascendancy and his poetry’s ambivalent attitudes toward masculinity, war, and science.

  • Nicolson, Harold. Tennyson: Aspects of His Life, Character, and Poetry. London: Constable, 1923.

    In this highly influential monograph, Nicolson works to debunk “the Victorian ‘Tennyson legend’ that made Tennyson ‘the civic prophet—the communal bard’” (p. 5), at the expense of his lyrical gift. Proposes a fundamental division between Tennyson the mystic lyric poet and Tennyson the practical, objective public laureate.

  • Palmer, D. J., ed. Tennyson. Writers and Their Background. London: Bell, 1973.

    Useful collection in the Writers and Their Background series of nine critical essays by Tennyson scholars, covering major and minor works, including the plays. Includes a lengthy selected bibliography, not annotated but helpfully divided into themed sections.

  • Sinfield, Alan. Alfred Tennyson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

    A groundbreaking Marxist, deconstructionist-influenced study. Argues against what Sinfield sees as a dominant view of Tennyson’s work as belonging to a literary establishment representing universal human values. Aims to locate the text “in its ideological field” and offers illuminating readings of the poems’ political and cultural context.

  • Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson. London: Macmillan, 1972.

    Very influential in modern Tennyson studies. Extensive research and fine critical readings characterized by a sharp ear for literary echoes and allusions are combined with biographical detail to give a rich and sympathetic portrayal of the poet and his work. The 1989 second edition is substantially unchanged but has additional material in appendices.

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