Locksley Hall: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

Also Read


      The great and lasting success of Locksley Hall, written in about 1835 and published in the Poems, 1842, shows the power of genius in presenting an ordinary situation poetically; how it can kindle up and transform common emotions, dealing boldly with the facts and feelings of everyday life. As a composition it has great original merit: the even current of blank verse is put aside for a swinging metre, new in English poetry, with rhymed couplets, passionate and picturesque, which follow one another like waves, each of them running directly to its point and the long nervous lines sustain the rise and fall of varying moods. They stand now almost exactly as they were written originally.

The great and lasting success of Locksley Hall, written in about 1835 and published in the Poems, 1842, shows the power of genius in presenting an ordinary situation poetically; how it can kindle up and transform common emotions, dealing boldly with the facts and feelings of everyday life. As a composition it has great original merit: the even current of blank verse is put aside for a swinging metre, new in English poetry, with rhymed couplets, passionate and picturesque, which follow one another like waves, each of them running directly to its point and the long nervous lines sustain the rise and fall of varying moods. They stand now almost exactly as they were written originally.
Locksley Hall

      That a poem which is steeped in the quintessence of modern sentiment — an invective in Rousseau's vein against a corrupt society — should be connected by origin with the early poetry of the Arabian desert, is a notable example of the permanence and transmission of forms. We know from the Memoir that Tennyson took his idea (he said) of Locksley Hall from the Moallakat, the suspended poems, composed by Arab bards in or about the seventh century of our era, and hung up in the Temple at Mecca. They are on different themes, but all of them begin with a melancholic reflection on deserted dwellings or camping-grounds, that once were the scene of love and stolen meetings.


      The speaker, on a visit to Locksley Hall where he spent his boyhood and youth remembers the time when he lived there and when he used to observe the great Orion and the Pleiades at night through the window. He used to roam about the seashore and absorbed the fairy tales of science. The future as far as the human eye could see held many wonders in store for mankind.

      In spring time, when the birds put on new feathers, he confessed to his cousin Amy, that he loved her. She told him that she had loved him for a long lime and that she had been hiding her feelings for him. These words made the world more beautiful and radiant for him. The two used to wander over the moorland and by the seashore, her whispers quickening his pulse. At the touching of their lips their spirits used to rush together.

      Amy, however, proved false to him. Surrendering to the threats of her father and to the rebukes of her mother, she married somebody else. In a tone of contempt and resentment, the speaker refers to the coarseness and low intellectual level of Amy’s husband. She had agreed to marry a man of lower feelings and narrower heart than his i.e., the speaker's. She had agreed to marry a clown whose grossness would drag her down to a much lower level of thinking and feeling. Once the novelty of his passion for her was exhausted, he would treat her no better than his dog or horse. Her finer fancies and lighter thoughts would be totally lost upon him. It would have been better if the speaker had killed her with his hands than allowed her to marry a man of that kind. It would have been better if both Amy and he had died than that Amy should have married that vulgar fellow.

      The speaker vehemently criticises the social environment that makes such unmatched marriages possible. He curses the lure of gold which hides the stupidity of a man. He curses the social conventions that thwart the wishes of honest Nature. The speaker recalls the fervour of his love for Amy and says that he would have loved her more than ever a wife was loved. But he must now completely forget his love for her; he must pluck it from his heart, even if in the process the heart has to be plucked also. The Amy that he loved should be considered dead. He must regard her love as false because "love is love forever more."

      Human grief is felt all the more if one remembers happy past experiences. He urges Amy to drug her memory lest her heart should remember those lovely days. Amy will cry bitterly as she sees the drunken sleep of her husband and her widowed marriage-pillows. She will be restless and a whisper will tell her that she can never recapture the joy of the days when she was courted by the speaker.

      Perhaps her little child will comfort her troubled mind. The child will show the father a love which he does not deserve. The child will belong half to her and half to the father and it will be worthy of the two parents. The speaker visualises Amy growing older and advising the growing daughter. Perhaps Amy will urge her daughter not to heed her feelings which she will describe as dangerous guides to conduct. Perhaps Amy will perish in her self-contempt, or, perhaps she will be happy though on a lower level than she has been accustomed to.

      The speaker, at any rate, must get over his disappointment. He "must mix with action", lest he should wither by despair. But it is difficult to decide on a course of action. The times are hard. People are greedy and are driven by the commercial motive. Money rules the world and every door "open'd but to golden keys". What can the speaker do when a man's career depends upon his social status, his wealth or the patronage that he can get. It would have been much better if he had fallen in battle. "But the jingling of the guinea helps the hurt that Honour feels".

      The speaker would like to relive the wild pulsation of his younger days when he yearned for the large excitements that the future was expected to bring. He describes the vision of the world that he used to see in his younger days. He used to imagine the sky filled with commerce. But he also used to imagine aerial warfare between nations. At the same time, he could, visualise the end of all war and the emergence of "the Parliament of man, the federation of the world". All these visions of the future had been shattered by his disappointment in love which left him Avith the "palsied heart" arid the "jaundiced eye".

      The speaker, however, expresses the conviction that through the ages one increasing purpose runs, and that the thoughts of men widen with the passing of time. And yet the "increasing purpose" and the widening thought of men lack meaning for him who cannot gather the harvest of his youthful joys. The world may grow from more to more, but the individual whose heart is full of sorrow goes wretchedly towards his death.

      The speaker says that if his comrades come to know about his passion for Amy, they would make fun of him; indeed, the speaker himself is ashamed of having loved "so slight a thing" as Amy. It would be a weakness on his part to feel annoyed, with the weak Amy. A woman's brain is less developed than a man's; a woman is irrational in her pleasure and pain; woman is the lesser man. As such, all Amy's passion, as compared with his own, are what moonlight is to sunlight and what water is to wine. The speaker would like to seek some retreat in India where he was born and. where his father fell in a Mahratta battle leaving him an orphan and the ward of a selfish uncle. The speaker would, like to wander far away to tropical lands which would be like a paradise to him. He would like to settle down in some land where no trader comes, where no European flag is to be seen, where there are rich blossoms and fruits. He would. like to retire to "summer isles of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea". There would be more enjoyment in those lands than in the steam-ship, in the railway, and in the new scientific discoveries. There human passions are not suppressed, but can be expressed and fulfilled. There he will live with some savage woman who will bear him 'dusky' children. There he will bring up a race of strong children who will catch the wild goat by the hair, mimic the parrot's call and live an energetic life instead of studying books.

      The speaker goes on to abandon this project of wild adventure; he realizes its folly. He, the heir of a glorious heritage, would be lowering himself to the level of a beast if he goes to live among primitive people. The world is progressing with the help of scientific discoveries. Enlightened times are coming. The speaker feels a sudden inspiration. It no longer matters to him what happens to Locksley Hall. Courage and hope come back to him. He prepares to go, perhaps to take up some worthwhile project.


      In Locksley Hall, we are confronted with the 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 the day.

      Restlessness, ennui, impatience of humdrum existence, set him dreaming of something like a new Odyssey. But the hero of Locksley Hall is no Ulysses. The bonds of culture and comfort are too strong for him; the project of wild adventure is abandoned as quickly as it is formed; he remains to console himself with the march of mind and the wonders of scientific discovery.

      We have in Locksley Hall, the swiftly-changing moods of a young man thrown into, a sort of hysterics by disappointment in love. His rapturous pursuit of science and the marvellous story of man's progress down the ages has been suddenly interrupted by love — love for one whom he has known since they were boy and girl together. But weak-willed Amy, for all her passionate adoration of him consents, at the pressure of her worldly-wise parents, to be married off to a rich fool. The jilted lover finds that the earth has crumbled under his feet and the sky is blotted out. The poem shows his frantic efforts to reconstruct his universe and regain a foothold for positive action. In his melancholia, which recalls that of Hamlet, he curses womanhood itself and himself for his own weakness; he finds the world "out of joint" and reviews science, commerce, and war, as possible healers of his bruised soul, but dismisses each as being tainted by its characteristic evil. Can he not, he asks himself for a moment, quit England altogether and find love, home and family in the South Seas? But that would, imply receding back into the beast. He, "the heir of all the ages" in advanced Europe, "in: the foremost files of time", to mate himself with a squalid savage.! That is betraying his soul ! So he decides to join the ranks of those who contribute to the march of the human mind. A storm gathers over Locksley Hall "For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go" — which recalls Ulysses.

      Thus in Locksley Hall, the distracted lover helps to gather together the thoughts and emotions of Tennyson as they are seen scattered in his early poems — Audley Court, Aylmer's Field, and Edwin Morris. In all these poems, we see the poet "dashing his angry heart against the desolations of the world", like Averill in Aylmer's Field. Locksley Hall is thus the central poem of 1842.

      It links itself in its theme, in its opalescent moods, and the morbid character of the speaker, with Maud (1855) and Locksley Hall Sixty Years After. The three poems which form a mutual commentary, must be read together. Locksley Hall is a crayon sketch of Maud. "There is the same outcry in each against almost exactly the same social abuses: and the same distrust in science though this is more decided in the later poem: there is the same consideration of the possible benefits of commerce: of the more possible benefits of war; of patriotism as the moving spring of noble life. In each the love motive is often overmastered by some other, such as patriotism, or war....In Locksley Hall and Maud, a remedy is proposed for wounded love; in the former it is a prospect of progress due mostly to science; in Maud, where the poet's faith in science has been shaken, it lies in the energizing of a nation by war."

      The future also looms large in Locksley Hall. Ulysses sails westward and the reader's mind turns to the unknown lands that were awaiting an adventurous spirit there. The speaker of Locksley Hall, the 'I' of the poem, also thinks to set himself free from the limitations of his present life:

...to burst all links of habit—there to wander far away
On from island unto island at the gateways of the day.

      Along with his own future, he speculates about the world's, and this brings the famous verses of prophecy:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be:
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

      The lines seem to foretell in a rather marvellous way the coming of the aeroplane, of aerial warfare and of the world war, the League of Nations and U.N.O. itself. With it goes a faith that ultimately all will be well:

And the kindly earth shall slumber lapt in universal law.

      The Future and Progress are equated:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

      The lines ring and swing. They are firm, epigrammatic and memorable. They are a kind of locus classicus: what very oft was thought in Victorian England, but never so quotably expressed.

      Yet they are spoken by a desperately unstable character in a poem where again two voices are audible. One of the voices is heavy with scepticism, the voice of the palsied heart...the jaundiced eye':

Eye, to which all order festers, all things here are out of joint:
Science moves, but slowly, creeping on from point to point.

      Perhaps, moreover, the progress of science will not bring happiness, any more than knowledge inevitably brings wisdom, and, for himself, the speaker feels that happiness might even involve a reversal of progress, with its machinery and its literature, its inhibitions and frustrations, as J.B. Steane points out.

      In Locksley Hall, Tennyson employs the sweep of a new trochaic measure to express the changing moods of a young man whose thoughts are the exact reflex of his age, and whose emotions are thrown off their balance by disappointment in love. The verve and beauty of finished eloquence are not balanced by depth of thought, but its echoes never die in the mind. It is for the sheer delight of imagery, diction and cadence that we listen to the moods of the lover — the throbbing hopes of his boyhood, the ecstatic dawn of love, the sardonic picture of his Amy (who has jilted him for a wealthier man) deteriorating to the grossness of her husband, the cursing of social lies, the fancy that she will ever be troubled by his memories, the possibility of recovering his soul in modern science and commerce, or far away among the aborigines of one of the Pacific isles, and the vague call of a new inspiration. In his voice we catch the accents of the Victorian thirties — with their superficial enthusiasm for social reform, their shallow idealism, their fears about the new restlessness among the labouring classes —

Slowly come a hungry people, as a lion, creeping nigher,
Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying fire

      Their superior attitude towards women, their heady zeal for progress.

      Clusters of golden phrases and lines have become part of the currency of language. Many a statesman has embellished his oration with the roll of "the war-drum throbbing no longer, and the battle-flags being furled in the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world"; the prophetic lines that precede, about the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be — the heavens filling with commerce and the rest of it — will never tarnish with time: and even the most fastidious criticism must be thrilled by the verses of Love with the glass of Time and the harp of Life. Nor are the great lines:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range.
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change...

      With their inaccuracy merely the voice of an age that made a fetish of progress. It has the unplumbed wonder that resides in noble imagery and noble diction, and a cadence that haunts us.

      There is a subtle attunement to the temper of the hero, the landscapes, on one side, the sandy tracts on which the long rollers break and the curlews call; on the other, the moorland with dreamy gleams lying over Locksley Hall: at the close, the storm-clouds with a thunderbolt in their breast, labouring up to fall on Locksley Hall. We get a glimpse of young Tennyson nursing his eager spirit on the fairy tales of science — gazing many a night on a great Orion sloping slowly to the west and the Pleiades "glittering like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver-braid."

      John Pettigrew however points out: "Despite its popularity and many fine passages, Locksley Hall is at best a very indifferent poem. The prosodic pyrotechnics are existing, but they are also ludicrously inappropriate to their context. Form and content are at odds, the form's dominant impression is one of terrific masculine energy, but the hero is a blustering, egotistic, hysterical nincompoop. Again, while the poem's disjointed structure helps to reflect the hero's chaos of feeling, the work does not, in contrast with Maud, satisfactorily fuse its social and personal themes. Further, the purple passages, often lovely in themselves, are not only unintegrated, but so obviously decoratives to provide like the metrics, a kind of epitome of the inorganic in their clash with content.

      The weaknesses stem from Tennyson's confusion about his intention, clearly a factor of his inability to distance himself sufficiently from his hero — it is as readily understandable as it is regrettable that the poet and his hero have often been uncritically identified. Tennyson is attempting to exercise memories of an unhappy love affair by embodying them in the ravings of a clown, but he is constantly tripped up by sympathy, even self-identification, with his hero. Satiric comedy de-mands Bergson's 'anaesthesia of the heart', but Tennyson here, in contrast with Simeon Stylites, is unable to meet the demand."


      1. L. 99-104. What is that.....laid with sound — The speaker of Locksley Hall realises the need of some kind of action, and wonders what task he should undertake. The times and the circumstances, he says, are not favourable to him. He condemns the pervading Mammon worship and commercialism. He can only resent the commercial atmosphere of the times but he is unable to think of any project or course of action. It would have been better, he thinks, if he had been killed in battle. In these lines, Tennyson appears to be censuring the times. A note of melancholy is apparent in the whole poem.

      2. L. 119-128. For I dipt into the future.....the Federation of the world — The speaker of Locksley Hall here describes the vision of the future that he used to experience in his younger days spent at Locksley Hall. He used to imagine the wonders that the future would bring. He used to see in the mind's eye that aeroplanes would fill the sky and that the nations would trade with one another on a large scale. He also visualised aerial wars. At the same time, he used to hope that the wars would not last for ever, that nations would come to a peaceful understanding. The Parliament of man and the Federation of the world have been regarded as prophetic. The League of Nations, formed at the end of World War I and the United Nations Organisation, formed at the end of World War II actualised Tennyson's dream of the Parliament of man and the Federation of the World.

      3. L. 141-144. Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.....the stillness of his rest — Wisdom is slower in coming to us than knowledge. Wisdom and knowledge differ from each other. Knowledge means acquiring more facts and more information about the world, but it is wisdom that gives us the capacity to make a proper use of those facts and information. Mankind may acquire knowledge rapidly but is slow in acquiring wisdom. The world grows more and more, but the individual may fail. In its progressive march, the world does not bother about individuals. The individual may feel unhappy because of his sad experiences, but the world is indifferent to him. The speaker here refers to his own sad plight but the lines also embody a universal truth.

      4. L. 149-152. Weakness to be wrath with weakness.....and as water unto wine — Amy was a weak woman. But it would be wrong, says the speaker of Locksley Hall, for him to feel angry with her. If he feels annoyed with her, he would be betraying his own weakness. A woman, he says, possesses a narrower brain than a man. A woman's pleasure and grief are irrational. Hence, says the speaker, he should accept the situation. Being a woman, and hence inferior to a man, in every respect, Amy’s feelings and emotions are, if compared to his own feelings and emotions, what moonlight is to sunlight and what water is to wine. In other words, Amy's feelings and emotions are much weaker than those of the speaker. This is a typical Victorian male's attitude towards woman.

      5. L. 161-166. Never comes the trader.....the thoughts that shake mankind — The speaker plans to go away to some tropical land which would be a paradise for him. He will live amongst primitive people with no contact with Europeans whose life is full of artificial snobbery. He will go to some peaceful island placed in the middle of an ocean. He will live there among the birds, blossoms and fruit-laden trees. He would find more happiness there than he can in this civilized world with its steamships, its railways, and its sensational scientific discoveries. This is a brief moment in the speaker's mood in which he seems to opt for a life of adventure. But he is in reality too weak-willed to carry it through.

Previous Post Next Post