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Alfred Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, on 6 August 1809. He was the third surviving son of 11 children born in 13 years to George Clayton Tennyson and Elizabeth Fytche. Their family life was intense, creative and cramped. George’s epilepsy, alcoholism, opium addiction and bitter sense of unfair treatment from his own father, contributed to a cocktail of chaos. Elizabeth provided what little stability and order there was in the house. At least four of Tennyson’s six brothers were treated for mental illness in the course of their lives.
Alfred Tennyson spent between the ages of 7 and 11 at what is now King Edward VI School in Louth. It was a very unhappy time. One of Tennyson’s library books now in the Tennyson Research Centre has the damning comment written in Tennyson’s hand, ‘In the little Louth school, Charles and I learnt – well – I should say – absolutely nothing’ Tennyson never got over the enthusiastic violence of its punishments.
Tennyson’s imagination was formed by the rolling landscape of the Lincolnshire wolds, largely unchanged today. He and his brothers and sisters roamed around the countryside, gleefully and compulsively composing poetry. His closest brothers, Frederick and Charles, collaborated with Alfred in the publication of the inaccurately titled ‘Poems by Two Brothers’ in the spring of 1827.
Alfred Tennyson’s arrival at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827 opened a whole new world for Tennyson. He met sophisticated young men who had travelled and were intellectually confident. He met Arthur Hallam, a charismatic, gifted student in 1829 and he quickly became his closest friend. Hallam championed Tennyson’s poetry which was being published first in periodicals to mixed reviews and then by the most supportive publisher, Edward Moxon. When Hallam met Tennyson’s younger sister, Emily, they fell in love and were engaged in 1833. Just a few months later, Hallam died suddenly while in Europe and the grief that Tennyson experienced was monumental and ultimately immensely creative.
He lived a restless, largely unrecorded 15 years until his marriage in 1850 to Emily Sellwood, his sister-in-law, who took on the nurture and management of the man she never failed to consider god-like, in spite of a notoriously casual approach to dress and hygiene.
In 1850, he published In Memoriam which consists of 131 elegies/lyrics about the love, loss, grief, despair and redemption he experienced from the death of Arthur Hallam, his best friend. It became the characteristic poem of the Victorian age, reaching its fourth edition within a few months and ensuring Tennyson’s reputation and financial security. The most complete manuscript of In Memoriam is held in the Tennyson Research Centre.
Queen Victoria made him her Poet Laureate and his entry into the 19th century establishment was complete.
The task of Poet Laureate was to compose poetry to mark national events and Tennyson took to this with verve. In 1854, during the Crimean War, there was a mistaken charge made during the Battle of Balaclava by lightly armoured cavalry which resulted in appalling casualties. Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, Tennyson Research Centre written after reading the newspaper report, became one of the most famous poems of war. Many drafts and proof copies of the poem are held in the Tennyson Research Centre.
Tennyson, his wife Emily and his infant son, Hallam, moved into Farringford on the Isle of Wight in 1853. Lionel was born in 1854 and completed their family. Farringford became their family home and they were neighbours to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the pioneer photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Friendships and correspondence, both sustained and casual, with Edward Lear, Edward FitzGerald, William Gladstone and most well-known cultural and political Victorian figures developed. 9,000 letters are held in the Tennyson Research Centre.
Tennyson’s popularity grew apace. His poems sang the concerns of the day and they inspired cultural responses of great variety: paintings, illustrations, photographs and even furniture and crafts. He published prolifically. His Arthurian epics, Idylls of the King, sold 10,000 copies within a few weeks of publication in 1859.
Visitors and sightseers besieging his home on the Isle of Wight led him to look for a secluded summer refuge near Haslemere on the Surrey/Sussex border. In 1869, the Tennysons moved into Aldworth and they maintained the two homes for the rest of their lives.
In 1883, Tennyson finally accepted a hereditary barony, allegedly to ensure the future of his dutiful son, Hallam, who had devoted his life to the service of his father and mother. His second son, Lionel, had tragically died in 1886, at the age of 32, on board ship whilst returning from India.
Tennyson lived a long, healthy life despite his energetic commitment to smoking and ale. Long walks and a family which ministered carefully to his genius, contributed to a productive old age. Although the plays he published were performed without much success during the later part of his life, his ‘Tiresias and other poems’, published in 1885, attracted many favourable reviews. He died on October 6th, 1892, one of the first ‘celebrity’ deaths. Relics of Tennyson’s last illness and death were lovingly packaged and labelled and now reside in the Tennyson Research Centre.