Elegiac Tone in Alfred Lord Tennyson Poetry

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      A perfect artist by gift and temperament, Tennyson commanded a poetic technique remarkable for its perfect modulation of rhythm, its mastery over vowel-music and consonantal effects. His well chosen epithets and images imply a habit of brooding, an eye for close and sympathetic observation, a pictorial imagination and at times a passionate intensity of feeling. Not only this things, but a number of factors both personal and social combined to make Tennyson one of the greatest elegiac poets of England. The elegiac note runs thorough all his poetry and he maintains the elegiac mood fabulously. But, W.H. Auden commenting on Tennyson, said: 'there was little about melancholia that he (Tennyson) did not know; there was little else that he did'. T.S. Eliot called Tennyson "the saddest of all poets". Tennyson's poetry is, indeed, the poetry of sadness. The note of lament, or the elegiac note is very much pronounced in Tennyson's verse. Tennyson's was a temperamental melancholy, fostered and reinforced by his experience as a child and subsequently by his religious doubts and spiritual uncertainties and by the premature death of A.H. Hallam.

Solitude — A Dominant Theme

      As a child he loved solitude and in this respect one side of his childhood was not unlike Wordsworth's. A moody and introspective child, he liked to lose himself under the sky, walking all day over the wood, or roaming along the coast. Often he would walk all night, hardly conscious of his body, and rapt in the mystery of darkness and starved sky. The finest poems in the first collection, Poems Chiefly Lyrical (1830), reveal the world of Tennyson's imagination centred upon solitary and isolated figures, the intense and disturbing experiences of melancholy, frustration, horror, madness and death. In these poems, he is concerned with the evocation of deep moods, morbid states of mind and feeling, rather than playing with the ideas which became more prominent in the poems (1833). The theme of loss appeared very early in Tennyson's poetry. Even after In Memoriam, it works its magic. This fact may explain why Tennyson often seems to force himself to remember the loss of Hallam, enclosing him in the figure of King Arthur in The Idylls of the King, performing again the ritual of loss and recovery in, In the Valley of Cariteretz, Marlin and the Gleans and Crossing the Bar and implicitly in many other poems. His sense of isolation was aggravated by concern about his poetic direction, by harsh reviews, by religious problems and by the shock of Arthur Hallam's death. Thus, we can, in the main, trace the origins of his "morbid painfulness" back to the family melancholia, to the miseries of his childhood and youth, and to the death of Arthur Hallam.

Note of Pathos

      The note of Pathos and tragedy is very pronounced in most of his poems of Tennyson. The elegiac strain seems to pervade the bulk of his work. A few illustrations would make this point clear. The Lady of Sahllot is a lonely, tragic figure, 'sick of shadows', living under a curse, and finally dying a tragic death. In The palace of Art, the soul ultimately falls in despair and finds, 'no comfort anywhere'. This poems few lines show the atmosphere of despair:-

And death and life she hated equally,
And nothing saw, for her despair,
But dreadful time, dreadful eternity,
No comfort anywhere.

      The lotos-eaters are weighed down with sorrows and sufferings from as unknown melancholy. The mood of despair, frustration, and distress finds a forceful description in the 'Lotos-Eaters':

Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted O'er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be'.

      In Mariana we have the mournful aspect of a decaying house in a level waste and the varying moods of despondency of a solitary maid who looks vainly for some one who never comes:

She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not", she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!''

      In Tithonus, Tithonus is immortal but as he is rapidly growing old, he laments over his fate. All other objects ripen, decay and full. But he is to hover for ever like a shadow over the Eastern Horizon in the hands of his 'lover' Aurora. But for Tithonus, the "gleaming halls of morn" bring only the painful renewal of an existence that is no life. This very existence too is dreamlike, a merely glimmering consciousness, still agonisingly sensitive to the beauty of Nature, yet using even this beauty as a sort of anesthetic to drug the conscious mind into that trance-like condition where reality is bearable. Ulysses is sharp and precise!

There lies to port: the vessel puffs her sail.

      In Locksley Hall, it shows a very confronted irresolute figure of modern youth, depressed and bewildered by his own inability to face the bustling competition of ordinary English life, disappointed in love, denouncing a shallow hearted cousin, and nursing a momentary impulse to;

Wander far away,
On from island unto island at the gateways of this day.

      The Two Voices is one of Tennyson's most impressive poems. The arguments are vigorously and memorably expressed on both sides. The three-line-verses are wonderfully sustained, each group of lines bunched like a knot of thought to be attacked by the idea which is its negation.

There three made unity so sweet,
My frozen heart began to beat,
Remembering its ancient heat.

      We might almost regard The Two Voices as continuing in deeper philosophic key the melancholy musing of Locksely Hall, and two poems might then be labelled 'Dejection'. There is a similar disconsolate protest against the vanity and emptiness of life; there is the feeling of doubt and dissolution, the sombre self examinations and that same vague longing for the battlefield as a remedy for the morbid sensibility that haunts so many studious men, which reappear later in Mated, even though the poems ends like In Memoriam, with a revival of faith and hope under the influences of calm natural beauty, household affections, and the placid ways of ordinary humanity. In Memoriam is the longest elegy in English poetry, longest, not because it is one long, unbroken, sustained composition, but because all the moods, thoughts, questionings and pictures of Nature in diverse aspects, revolve round the person lamented. Its grief, in the sections that voice it, is more poignant than it is in other elegies. It is a lament from the depths of the singer's heart.

Break, thou deep vase of chilling tears
Which grief has shaken into frost.

      Break, Break, Break, written keeping Hallam in mind, expresses Tennyson's elegiac mood simply but effectively.

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.

Psychological Disorders — A Prominent Trait in the Making of his Characters

      Tennyson sketches most of his protagonists sad, melancholic figures, isolated and cut off; mentally deranged or suffering from some other abnormalities. So, Ulysses cannot adjust himself to the life in the island, and so must go out and wander, and Tithonus roams about like a ghost among strangers and curses his immortality. The lady of Shallot is a lovely figure, living all alone under a tragic curse, and the hero of Locksley Hall is a lovely suffering soul with no bonds of sympathy with anyone. After the death of King Arthur, Sir Bedivere is left standing all alone on the shore, and the lover of Maud is a mentally deranged person who frustrated in love, goes out to war. All these lonely melancholic figures are projections of a particular facet of the poet's personality; they reflect his own despair and loneliness of spirit.


      The intense solitude of Tennyson's soul appears abnormal even in a poet The rhetoric of passion and melancholy increases with his later years. In The Vision of Sin, we see the beginning of that melancholy which strengthens hold upon him in later years. His poetic originality of form, his individual imagination and expression, still remain unrecognised by the present age. At his best he is fabulous and many of his lyrics are flawless, too flawless perhaps for the modern ear. His sorrows were the sorrow of a great genius, who, despite the savage attacks of his critics in early life, achieved unique recognition as a poet in England. To run up, the elegiac note looms large in the poetry of Tennyson, and he is at his best in the elegiac mood.

Select University Questions

1. Write an essay on elegiac mood in Tennyson's poetry.
2. T.S. Eliot has called Tennyson "The saddest of all poets". Discuss.

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