Tennyson Becomes England’s Poet Laureate Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the moment that England’s poet laureate and preeminent Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, died, no living English poet seemed to have the stature to succeed him as laureate. While efforts to fill his empty post were under way, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published In Memoriam, which became an instant best seller. Without seriously considering other candidates, Prince Albert then named Tennyson the new poet laureate.

Summary of Event

Even before William Wordsworth died on April 23, 1850, speculation was quietly under way as to who should succeed him as England’s poet laureate. Some questioned whether the post was not an anachronism and thus should be abolished. Traditionally, the poets laureate had served the Crown by composing commemorative poems for events such as royal birthdays. Usually, such occasional verse had been mediocre. Certainly the most recent holders of the post gave no justification for continuation of the laureateship. Wordsworth, although the most important living English poet during the 1840’s, had accepted the post with the strict understanding that there would be no duties attached, and with one exception he lived up to his agreement. Tennyson, Alfred, Lord England;poet laureates Poetry;English Poet laureates Wordsworth, William Southey, Robert Albert, Prince Victoria, Queen [p]Victoria, Queen[Victoria];and poet laureates[Poet laureates] Literature;English [kw]Tennyson Becomes England’s Poet Laureate (Nov. 5, 1850) [kw]England’s Poet Laureate, Tennyson Becomes (Nov. 5, 1850) [kw]England’s Poet Laureate, Tennyson Becomes (Nov. 5, 1850) [kw]Poet Laureate, Tennyson Becomes England’s (Nov. 5, 1850) [kw]Laureate, Tennyson Becomes England’s Poet (Nov. 5, 1850) Tennyson, Alfred, Lord England;poet laureates Poetry;English Poet laureates Wordsworth, William Southey, Robert Albert, Prince Victoria, Queen [p]Victoria, Queen[Victoria];and poet laureates[Poet laureates] Literature;English [g]Great Britain;Nov. 5, 1850: Tennyson Becomes England’s Poet Laureate[2770] [c]Literature;Nov. 5, 1850: Tennyson Becomes England’s Poet Laureate[2770]

In the spring of 1847, the secretary for Prince Albert requested Wordsworth compose a poem celebrating the occasion of the prince consort’s election as chancellor of Cambridge University. Wordsworth reluctantly set out to compose a poem but had to enlist considerable assistance from his son-in-law in developing the ode, which was set to music. The official poem proved to be the last poem Wordsworth ever wrote.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Although he is now known as one of the great Romantic English poets, Wordsworth was named poet laureate long after he had written any poetry of significance. His predecessor, Robert Southey, who had a contemporary reputation comparable to that of Wordsworth, also served only in the twilight of his life, contributing much poetry in service to the young Queen Victoria but in that capacity producing nothing of lasting importance. Despite bringing little to the post, Southey and Wordsworth were distinguished poets with long reputations.

There simply did not seem to be any living poet of comparable reputation to replace Wordsworth. Samuel Rogers, the eighty-seven-year-old early Romantic poet, was offered the post mainly in recognition of his longevity, but he declined the invitation. A movement was carried out by some members of the press in favor of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Browning, Elizabeth Barrett , under the justification that it would be a tribute to the queen to have as poet laureate the most distinguished living female poet. Victoria was not, however, impressed with Browning. Leigh Hunt also was mentioned and even lobbied for the post in his autobiography published that year.

As the controversy over the successor to Wordsworth continued in the press, however, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, broke seventeen years of poetic silence with the publication of In Memoriam In Memoriam (Tennyson) in 1850. This long elegy was a reflective meditation ostensibly on the death of a close college friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. Throughout the reflections on life, death, and the meaning of existence, Tennyson also was expressing the dilemmas of the age and the ideals of Victorian optimism. The book became an overnight best seller. Readers identified closely with mourning and with the hope for a glorious age of progress.

Tennyson had been mentioned as a possible poet laureate when Southey had died; with the huge amount of publicity resulting from In Memoriam, he easily became the favorite. Unlike Hunt, Tennyson never sought the position. As rumors began to circulate, however, he bowed to the inevitable. The night before he received his appointment letter he had a dream that Prince Albert had come and kissed him upon his cheek and that he had thought to himself, “very kind but very German.” The next day, November 5, 1850, he received the official notice from Windsor Castle in behalf of the queen requesting his service in her honor.

Tennyson’s appointment to the laureateship proved a turning point in his career and was a major literary event of the nineteenth century. With the appointment and the success of In Memoriam, Tennyson was at last able to marry his fiancé of twelve years and to move even further in his literary career.

Although the role of poet laureate has always been primarily honorary, Tennyson still was allowed to become closely acquainted with Prince Albert, who, during the early years of Victoria’s reign, effectively managed the official duties of the Crown because the queen was raising her family. The prince visited the poet and his wife at their home on the Isle of Wight Wight, Isle of , and Tennyson was deeply impressed with his serious yet sensitive character.

When Prince Albert died in December of 1861, Queen Victoria, in deep mourning, turned first to In Memoriam for solace and then to Tennyson himself. Perhaps Tennyson’s greatest work as poet laureate stemmed from his close relationship with Victoria. His poem “To the Queen” became the standard introductory poem to his collected works just as “Crossing the Bar” conventionally ended them. His further homage to the queen in “Dedication” opened his popular Idylls of the King Idylls of the King (Tennyson) (1861-1862). Throughout his remaining life, Tennyson contributed perhaps the finest official verse of any English poet laureate.

For many years, although he was not a frequent personal visitor to the residence of the queen, Tennyson’s personal relationship to her developed alongside that of the other major male companion of Victoria’s middle years, John Brown, her personal attendant (starting in 1864) from Balmoral. Brown, with his easy informality toward the queen (often referring to her as “wumman”), provided one kind of male companionship while Tennyson, with his reticent formality, provided another. Common hearsay of these years from the 1860’s to the 1880’s records times where Tennyson read informally for the queen from Maud and other popular works while reclining with his head in her lap. Such stories, while intriguing, remain unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, they remain revealing about the possible extent of Tennyson and Victoria’s relationship. Upon John Brown’s death in 1883 the queen again went into deep mourning and Tennyson composed “Lines for a Memorial Statue of John Brown.”

In subsequent years the queen deepened her relationship with her poet laureate, writing often to him in the first person instead of the formal third-person “we.” By 1885 she was writing him and signing her name with “Yours affectionately” instead of the more usual “Yours truly.” In 1883, Tennyson was conferred a peerage and composed “Freedom” upon the occasion. The jubilee year of 1887 also saw him present several significant official poems, including “On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria.”

In the throes of serious illness in January of 1892, Tennyson was called upon one last time to compose an official poem, this time upon the untimely death of the duke of Clarence. “The Death of the Duke of Clarence and Avondale” is perhaps Tennyson’s finest purely occasional, purely official poem. It proved to be his last poem, as he never recovered from the exertion. He died on October 6, 1892, succeeded as poet laureate by Alfred Austin.

Significance

The role of poet laureate of England was essentially an anachronism when Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was appointed in 1850. His predecessors Robert Southey and William Wordsworth did little to justify the position. Before Southey, Henry James Pye, a political appointee, proved an embarrassment to the position because of his incompetence. After Tennyson’s tenure, however, the laureateship, while still primarily honorary, has seen several distinguished successors—Cecil Day Lewis, John Masefield, Ted Hughes, and Andrew Motion. Hughes’s poem commemorating the 1997 death of Diana, princess of Wales, owes much to the spirit of Tennyson.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. An essential biography that corrects earlier accounts of Tennyson’s life and work.
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    xlink:type="simple">Goslee, David. Tennyson’s Characters: Strange Faces, Other Minds. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989. A classic study of Tennyson’s poetry.
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    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Robert. Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A controversial yet important study of the poet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mazzeno, Laurence W. Alfred Tennyson: The Critical Legacy. New York: Camden House, 2004. Part of the Literary Criticism in Perspective series. Throughout this work, Mazzeno demonstrates that the critics’ reaction to Tennyson reveals as much about themselves and the critical prejudices of their own times as it does about the Victorian laureate and his poetry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moorman, Mary. William Wordsworth, a Biography: The Later Years, 1803-1850. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1965. The definitive biography of Wordsworth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ormond, Leonee. Tennyson: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 1993. A section of this literary biography explores the years of Tennyson’s laureateship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ricks, Christopher B. Tennyson. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. One of the most important modern biographies of Tennyson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, W. David. Alfred Lord Tennyson: The Poet in an Age of Theory. New York: Twayne, 1996. Part of Twayne’s English Authors series. A revisiting of Tennyson in the light of late twentieth century literary standards.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tennyson, Sir Charles. “Tennyson as Poet Laureate.” In Tennyson: Writers and Their Background, edited by D. J. Palmer. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1973. Unlike other essays, this work considers the laureateship’s official poetry.

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