Tennyson as Poet Laureate

In this essay, written when she was in her third year of undergraduate study, Emma Leadbetter describes the way in which Tennyson acquired the position of poet laureate, and what he made of it. Although in many ways he was an unconventional figure, his moderate politics and patriotism helped him make the position a success. The poems that he wrote in his official role have mixed reputations, but one in particular, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', is very well-known.

In 1850, Tennyson was awarded the title of Poet Laureate. Wordsworth had died in April of that year. The role of Laureate had changed a great deal over the reign of Queen Victoria, with Wordsworth only accepting the title on condition that he did not have to meet its customary requirements. He never produced work specifically on the commission of the royal family or the state in the seven years in which he held the position. His successor would have a lot to live up to, for Wordsworth was both very popular with the general public and in literary circles. However, there was also a growing mood of patriotism in Britain in the years running up to the in 1854, and it was felt by some that the more traditional aspects of the laureateship - such as commemorating royal and public events and celebrating the feats of the British military - were becoming more important, and should be taken on board by whoever was chosen for the role.

Perhaps surprisingly given his poetic achievements, Tennyson was not the obvious choice for the laureateship. At forty-one years old he was considered rather young for the honour, which was bestowed for life. There had been some speculation in the press as to the most likely candidates, and it was in fact Samuel Rogers, a leading literary figure of the time and friend of Wordsworth and Byron, who was first asked to succeed Wordsworth. The letter from Prince Albert to Rogers offering him the title tells us a great deal about the changing perception of what the role entailed:

Although the spirit of the times has put an end to the practice (at all times objectionable) of exacting laudatory odes from the holder of that office, the Queen attaches importance to its maintenance from its historical antiquity and the means it affords to the sovereign of a more personal connection with the poets of the country through one of their chiefs. (J. Cuming Walters, Tennyson: Poet, Philosopher, Idealist (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co, 1893) p. 75.)

The tentative approach shown by the in offering Rogers the laureateship is a sign of the potential candidate's reluctance to be restricted in his writing, either by the difficulties of working on commission or by the increased public interest which could prevent them from airing any unorthodox views. Like Wordsworth, Rogers' tendencies may have had a part in his unwillingness to become laureate. Unlike Wordsworth, however, Rogers actually refused the title, giving his old age as the reason (he was eighty-seven), and recommended Tennyson for the post.

In 1850 Tennyson was arguably at the height of his artistic success. His Poems (1842) and The Princess (1847) had both received favourable criticism, and earlier works such as 'Ulysses' (1833) remained popular. Tennyson had completed 'In Memoriam' in 1849 and it was published just before his appointment to laureate. He was also popular with his fellow poets. In public support of Tennyson's claim to the position, the poet religious view which was not compatible with standard Anglican Christianity, and he interested himself in what new evolutionary theorists were describing as the divide between God and Nature. (This website's resources on 'Tennyson and Science' and 'Tennyson and Religion' explore his views on these things.) Nevertheless, he was a real patriot who respected the royal family and felt great loyalty to his country and to the Empire. Furthermore it is said that even before his appointment the Queen had expressed admiration for his poetry.

Tennyson was invested as poet laureate on 19th November 1850, and presented at court on 6th March of the next year. His first act in the role was a dedicatory poem to the queen.

Revered, beloved-O you that hold
A nobler office upon earth
Than arms, or power of brain, or birth
Could give the warrior kings of old,
Victoria,-since your Royal grace
To one of less desert allows
This laurel greener from the brows
Of him that utter'd nothing base.

His poetic output throughout the laureateship was patchy, and frequently divided critical opinion. Thoroughly fulfilling the public side of his role, he published some thirty patriotic and commemorative poems alongside some of his most famous and ambitious works such as Maud and Idylls. Modern critics such as Christopher Ricks and Robert Hill mark out his 'Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington' as an example of his best commemorative writing. Hill calls it 'one of the very few first-rate pieces of occasional verse in the language' but notes that it was by contemporary critics. Despite this criticism it remained a favourite piece of Tennyson's; and the last line, 'God accept him, Christ receive him!',

Of all the occasional pieces written by Tennyson, the most famous is , which achieved universal acclaim both on publication and over the course of Tennyson's life. The story of its composition is told in Hallam Tennyson's Memoirs:

On Dec 2nd he wrote 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in a few minutes, after reading the description in the Times in which occurred the phrase "some one had blundered", and this was the origin of the metre of the poem.

Tennyson also wrote that the distinctive metre used throughout the poem - one of its most defining features and certainly a reason for its success and longevity - was influenced by the phrase, which appears verbatim in the poem:


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
'Charge for the guns!' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Despite Tennyson's anecdote, however, many modern critics have found similarities between 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' and , published in 1605. It is interesting to note that in his 1855 revision to the poem, the line 'Someone had blunder'd' is removed - although Tennyson did later restore it, under the encouragement of who called it . The battle at Balaklava captured the imagination of the British public, and made a strong impression on Tennyson. Speaking of his poetic tribute to the Light Brigade, he said that . After the poem's publication in The Examiner in December 1854, copies were sent to buoy the spirits of troops still fighting in the Crimea.

Queen Victoria's admiration of Tennyson's work only increased over the period of his laureateship, and in 1884 he was made Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth and Freshwater. He accepted a peerage from Prime Minister William Gladstone in 1883, a decision which was more likely made to secure the future prosperity of his son, rather than from any real interest in politics. He avoided party allegiance, had a liberal and moderate political ideology, and shared many views with Queen Victoria herself. However, he remained a public figure and continued to write on many subjects until his death on 6th October 1892. The Queen wrote her personal condolences to his son and The Prince of Wales made a request that the coffin should be draped with the Union Flag. His funeral in Westminster Abbey was a national event and there was a feeling that no suitable successor could be found amongst his contemporaries; indeed, the position fell vacant for four years before Alfred Austin was appointed. Many of the newspaper reports of the funeral turn on the laureate's devotion to his crown and country:

Very striking was the evidence that the funeral was of one whom the whole educated nation - rich and poor, noble and simple - loved and honoured [. . .] Tennyson gained that mark of supreme excellence which belongs to those who sing for all who can understand [. . .] Here is a poet who does not want merely to amuse men, to make them an earthly paradise of words, or to lead them into an enchanted garden, but one who claims to take his part in civil endeavour, and to serve the nation, if not with war-cries or Acts of Parliament, yet with a gift of song that teaches the duty of the citizen to his State. (Hallam Tennyson, Memoir, in Bevis, ed., Lives of Victorian Literary Figures)

Further Thinking

'The Charge of the Light Brigade' seems to try to capture the nobility of soldiers even when they are engaged in a mistaken and fruitless attack. How do you, as a modern reader, in a culture where well-known poets do not often line up to praise military achievements, respond to Tennyson's patriotic sympathy for the war and its soldiers? (You could look at some of the many poems about modern wars that can be found on the web. A site like http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/ features poems by amateur poets, many of them impressive and moving: evidently war and poetry still have a relationship.)

When you read further into Tennyson's work, or indeed the resources on this site, you might find interests and attitudes that seem a long way from the mood of his laureate works. Do you think think that the various aspects of his work can hold together, or is it better to see poems like the ones mentioned here as occasional pieces written to fulfil a brief, rather than connected parts of his main body of work?

The Crimean War was fought between Russia and an alliance involving Britain and France. It resulted from tensions over the lands of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire, and was mostly fought on the Crimea peninsular on the Black Sea, now part of Ukraine. Among the war's noteworthy incidents was the disastrous 'Charge of the Light Brigade' (see below).
The title given to Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert.
A Romantic writer might have been expected to turn down the laureateship out of allegiance to free thinking and radical politics.
wrote in his London Journal that Tennyson was 'entitled to it above any other man in the kingdom, since of all living poets he is the most gifted with the sovereign poetical faculty - Imagination' (J, Cuming Walters, p. 76). But Tennyson also had qualities which did not immediately recommend him as a public figure. He subscribed to a type of Pantheistic belief maintains that everything is part of God and God is everything; the word comes from Greek pan (all) and theos (god).
The quotation from Hill comes from Tennyson's Poetry ed. Robert W. Hill, Jr., (London, 1999) p. 294.
This incident is described in Hallam Tennyson's Memoir (London, 1897), quoted in Lives of Victorian Literary Figures, ed. Matthew Bevis, (London, 2003) vol. 3, p. 411.
On 25th October 1854 between 600 and 700 British cavalry, led by confused commanders, attacked a Russian position near Balaklava on the Crimean peninsular. As a result they took heavy casualties from artillery fire. The incident quickly became a classic example of futile bravery.
A dactyl is a unit of metre, with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The dactyls of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' mimic the charging horses' hooves.
Drayton (1563-1631), a contemporary of Shakespeare's, was a poet who aspired to become a great national poet. His 'Ballad of Agincourt' commemorated a famous victory against the French won by Henry V in 1415.
Ruskin (1819-1900) was a writer with an extraordinary range of interests and achievements, but he is best known for his work on art, architecture, and social reform.
Hallam Tennyson, Memoir
J. Cuming Walters, p. 77

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