Active in the nineteenth century, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892) was the leading poet of the Victorian age who remains one of the most renowned poets in the English language and among the most frequently quoted writers. He was appointed the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1850 and held the position for a record 42 years till his death in 1892. Tennyson was influenced by the writers of the Romantic Age before him as is evident from the richness of his imagery and descriptive writing. He used a wide range of subject matter ranging from medieval legends to classical myths and from domestic situations to observations of nature. Here are the 10 most famous poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson including Ulysses, Tithonus, The Eagle and In Memoriam.
#10 Locksley Hall
In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
In this poem, the narrator takes leave from his friends to spend some time alone to muse about the past and the future at his childhood home, the fictional Locksley Hall. He has been rejected by a woman and he begins by an angry outburst at his former sweetheart and her husband. He then directs his tirade at other issues in society, primarily materialism taking precedence over love. He hypes up the beauty of the noble savage but ultimately gives preference to the progress civilization has made. He then turns his back on Locksley Hall and marches forth to meet his comrades. According to Tennyson, the poem represents “young life, its good side, its deficiencies, and its yearnings”. Locksley Hall contains several famous lines like the one mentioned in the excerpt; and “knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers”.
#9 The Eagle
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
This poem is one of Lord Tennyson’s shortest pieces of literature. It consists of only two stanzas of three lines each. Literary scholars often cite the shortness of the poem to emphasize the deeper meaning in nature itself, that the readers have to find themselves. In the poem, Tennyson uses the technique of alliteration, which is repetition of similar sounds in the beginning of words, like in the words ‘clasps,’ ‘crag’ and ‘crooked’ in the first line. The hard ‘c’ sound is used to make the reader stop and consider the meaning of the line. In addition to alliteration, Tennyson uses personification (crooked ‘hands’) and simile (‘like a thunderbolt’) to enhance the reader’s experience of imagining an eagle.
#8 Tears, Idle Tears
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
The Princess is a long narrative poem by Alfred Tennyson divided into multiple sections. This poem is the most well-known part of The Princess. It is written in blank verse, i.e. verse which is metrically regular but without rhyme. Tennyson was inspired to write the poem after a visit to Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, an abbey that was abandoned in 1536. Tintern Abbey also features in another popular poem, written by William Wordsworth. Tennyson’s poem laments “the days that are no more” and describes the past as a “Death in Life”. It is regarded highly by critics for the quality of its lyric and has been set to music a number of times.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.
In Greek mythology Tithonus was the lover of Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Eos asked the king of the gods, Zeus, to make Tithonus immortal, but forgot to ask for eternal youth, which resulted in him living forever as a helpless old man. In Tennyson’s poem, Tithonus is old and troubled with the pains brought about by old age. He yearns for death and begs his lover Eos to take back the boon of immortality. The poem emphasizes on the inevitability of death and of the necessity of accepting it as such. It is often contrasted with another famous poem by Tennyson, Ulysses, which explores the human spirit that refuses to accept death.
#6 Break, Break, Break
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead,
Will never come back to me.
An elegy is a poem written to praise, and express sorrow for, someone who is dead. Break, Break, Break can be classified as an elegy that describes Alfred Tennyson’s feelings of loss after the death of his dear friend Arthur Hallam. It also touches themes of nostalgia and isolation. The word “break” here is used to describe the breaking of the waves of the sea against the shore. Among other things, the poem is known for Tennyson’s masterful handling of rhythm with the insistent beat of Break, Break, Break emphasizing the relentless sadness of the subject matter.
#5 The Lady of Shalott
Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
The most famous of Tennyson’s early poems, The Lady of Shalott is loosely based on the legend of Elaine of Astolat who dies of her unrequited love for British knight Sir Lancelot. In Tennyson’s poem, the Lady of Shalott suffers from a mysterious curse by which she must see the outside world only through a mirror. She sees Sir Lancelot as he rides by and is deeply affected. Being “half-sick of shadows” she looks out of her window, bringing about the curse. She leaves her tower and finds a boat to travel down the river to Camelot. She dies before reaching her destination and, among the people who see her dead body, is Lancelot, who thinks “she has a lovely face”. The poem was hugely popular among artists and several paintings depict scenes from it. It continues to be a part of popular culture.
#4 Crossing the Bar
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote this renowned short poem after suffering a serious illness while at sea, crossing the Solent strait from Aldworth to Farringford on the Isle of Wight. Written three years before he died, the poem describes Tennyson’s accepting attitude towards death. The metaphor of “crossing the bar” represents travelling serenely and securely from life through death; while the Pilot is a metaphor for God, whom the narrator expects to meet face to face after he dies. Shortly before Tennyson died, he told his son Hallam to put Crossing the Bar at the end of all editions of his poetry collections.
#3 The Charge of the Light Brigade
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854, in the Crimean War. It was originally intended to send the Light Brigade to pursue a retreating Russian force but miscommunication led to them launching a suicidal attack against a different and heavily defended position. Weeks after news of the assault reached Britain, Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom at the time, wrote this poem to commemorate the heroism of the Light Brigade for bravely carrying out their orders regardless of the obvious outcome. The poem has since remained hugely popular and it is Tennyson’s most famous work as Poet Laureate.
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Ulysses, or Odysseus, was the legendary Greek king of Ithaca who is the central character of Homer’s epic, the Odyssey. In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses has returned to his kingdom after his long and famous journey. However, he is discontented and restless with domestic life after his exciting travels. So, despite his old age, he calls on his fellow mariners to join him on another quest. Several critics consider elements of the poem to be autobiographical. Tennyson wrote Ulysses soon after the death of his dear friend Hallam, and he himself said that the poem “gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life”. Ulysses is one of the most well-known poems in English literature and is also one of the most quoted. T. S. Eliot called it a “perfect poem”.
#1 In Memoriam A.H.H.
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
A.H.H., or Arthur Henry Hallam, was a close friend of Tennyson. He was also engaged to Alfred’s sister, Emilia Tennyson. Hallam died of a stroke at the young age of 22 in 1833. His death had a deep impact on Tennyson, who wrote many lyrics, over the next 17 years, related to the death of his dear friend. These were ultimately published as a single lengthy poem titled In Memoriam A.H.H. in 1850. The poem consists of 131 sections, a prologue, and an epilogue; and is primarily an elegiac work. It contains the elements of a traditional elegy like mourning for the dead and praise of his virtues, while also including philosophical reflection on faith and science. In Memoriam was an enormous critical and popular success. It was a favourite of Queen Victoria who was “soothed & pleased” by it after the death of her husband Prince Albert. It is the most famous work of Alfred Lord Tennyson and is considered one of the great poems of the 19th century.