Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born August 6, 1809, in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England, where his father was the rector. He was the fourth of twelve children. Alfred was a bright and talented boy, and the fine physique and manly good looks which characterized him as an adult were noticeable even at an early age.
Until he was eleven, Tennyson attended a grammar school in the nearby town of Louth, of which he later had very unhappy memories. From then on, he remained at home, where he studied under the close supervision of his scholarly father. Tennyson demonstrated his literary talents quite early, and by the age of fourteen had written a drama in blank verse and a 6000-line epic poem. He was also interested in the study of science, particularly astronomy and geology. In 1827, a small volume entitled Poems by Two Brothers, containing works by Alfred and Charles Tennyson, as well as a few short contributions by Frederick Tennyson, was published in Louth.
In 1828, Tennyson enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge. Despite his intelligence and good looks, he was excessively shy and was quite unhappy. After a while, however, he joined an informal club known as "the Apostle" which counted among its members the most outstanding young men at the university. Here he was praised highly for his poetry, and he made the acquaintance of Arthur Henry Hallam, a brilliant young man, who was to become his closest and dearest friend. In 1829, Tennyson won the Newdigate Prize for poetry.
In 1830, while Tennyson was still an undergraduate, his volume Poems, Chiefly Lyrical was published, but it made no significant impression of the reading public. That summer he and Hallam went to Spain with the romantic notion of joining a band of insurgents in the Pyrennes. They successfully delivered a large sum of money collected on behalf of the rebels, but there is no record of their having participated in any military engagement. In 1831, after his return, Tennyson was forced to leave the university without taking his degree, due to the death of his father.
Afterward, Tennyson lived quietly with his family at Somersby. He spent his time working on his poems and engaging in various outdoor sports and activities. Hallam was engaged to one of Tennyson's sisters and spent a great deal of time at the family home, so that the two young men were able to be together often.
In 1832, Poems by Alfred Tennyson was published, in which early versions of many of his finest pieces appeared, including "The Lady of Shalott," "The Palace of Art," "The Lotos-Eaters," "Oenone," and "A Dream of Fair Women." The quality of the poems in the volume was not constant, and many of them were overly sentimental or lacking in polish. As a result, despite the fine lyrics mentioned above, the book received a very harsh critical reaction. Tennyson had never been able to stand criticism of his work, and he was deeply hurt. For a long time he wrote nothing, but he finally resolved to devote himself to the development of his poetic skill.
In 1833, Hallam died suddenly while in Vienna. The shock of this tragic loss affected Tennyson severely. He withdrew completely from all his usual activities and spent his time in mourning and meditation. During his bereavement he thought often about his affection for Hallam and about such problems as the nature of God and the immortality of the soul. During this long period of anguish and grief, Tennyson composed many very moving elegies and lyrics on the death of his beloved friend. These were eventually collected and published in 1850 and are considered one of the greatest elegaic works in English literature, In Memoriam: A.H.H.
During the next few years, Tennyson continued to live with his family, which had now moved to London, and to apply himself to his studies and writing. He became engaged to Emily Sellwood, despite the objection of her parents, but felt it was impossible for them to marry because his financial resources were so limited. In 1842, a two-volume collection of his work appeared, containing many revisions of earlier poems, besides a number of excellent new ones, including "Morte d'Arthur," "Ulysses," and "Locksley Hall." At last Tennyson was recognized as one of the leading literary figures of the period and was acclaimed throughout England.
At this time Tennyson lost his small inheritance through a foolish investment and suffered a serious nervous breakdown as a result. Upon his recovery he was provided with an annual pension by the British government. In June 1850, after an engagement of thirteen years, Tennyson and Emily were married. Later that same year Tennyson was appointed to the post of poet laureate, succeeding Wordsworth. Among the most notable poems he wrote while holding that office are the "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" (1852) and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854).
Despite his fame, Tennyson remained shy and moved from London to a more secluded home. He worked intently on his Arthurian poems, the earliest of which had been published in the 1832 volume, and the first four idylls appeared in 1859. These rapidly became his most popular works, and he continued to revise and add to them until the Idylls of the King reached its present form in the edition of 1885.
The remainder of Tennyson's life was uneventful. He and Emily had a son, whom they named Hallam. Tennyson was hailed as the greatest of English poets and was awarded numerous honors; he received an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1885 and was offered the rectorship of Glasgow University. In 1883, he was raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria and was thereafter known as Baron Tennyson of Aldworth. He was the first Englishman to be granted such a high rank solely for literary distinction. Among his friends Tennyson counted such noteworthy people as Albert, the Prince Consort, W. E. Gladstone, the prime minister, Thomas Carlyle, the historian, and Edward FitzGerald, the poet.
All his life Tennyson continued to write poetry. His later volumes include Maude, A Monodrama (1853), Enoch Arden (1864), Ballads and Poems (1880), Tiresias and Other Ballads (1885), Locksley Hall Sixty Years After (1886), Demeter and Other Poems (1889), and The Death of Oenone (published posthumously in 1892). He also wrote a number of historical dramas in poetic form, among which are Queen Mary (1875), Harold (1877), Beckett (1884), and The Foresters (1892).
Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the most highly regarded poet of his period and the most widely read of all English poets. The quality of his work varied greatly, and much that he wrote is of little interest today, for he included in his poetry themes and subjects that were of intense interest only to the Victorians. Tennyson's thought was often shallow and dealt with matters of fleeting significance, but his technical skill and prosody were unsurpassed. Perhaps the most perceptive evaluation of his work is embodied in Tennyson's own remark to Carlyle:
I don't think that since Shakespeare there has been such a master of the English language as I — to be sure, I have nothing to say.
Tennyson died at Aldworth House, his home in Surrey, on October 6, 1892, at the age of eighty-three. He was buried in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey, and the copy of Shakespeare's play Cymbeline, which he had been reading on the night of his death, was placed in his coffin.