Principles & Philosophy of Alfred Lord Tennyson Poetry

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      Tennyson seemed to embody in himself all the ideals and principles which our predecessors had admired and followed. His philosophy was encrusted in Victorian mould. He had never been able to break that. It does not contain that depth which transcends the border that demarcates a period and continues to appeal the people from all ages and times.

Lack in Depth

      The reaction against Tennyson is based on two serious charges a certain want of profundity in matter, and a somewhat excessive prettiness, a sort of dandyism and coquetry in form. It is true that the philosophy that we find in In Memoriam and in other poems of Tennyson do not appeal to the modern mind, as it has lost the charm of novelty. Moreover, the moral ideas which the poetry of Tennyson embodies are rather conventional and there is nothing startling about them. Further the virtues he cares about most are mainly of one type: self-control self-sacrifice, faithfulness, loyalty to law and to obligations, personal and social patriotism, and the like. The poems which enshrine these ideas do not lack originality, and the significance of these ideas themselves is not easily exhausted: but of course they do not arrest the reader's attention to the same degree as do the ideas contained in not a few poems by Browning or Arnold. Nor do they resemble ideas which are popular now. Though Ulysses breathes the spirit of adventure in a much higher sense of that word, yet the "idea" is here adopted from Dante; and neither the adventure in Merline and Gleam nor that portrayed in In Memoriam is of the kind that would appeal to the modern mind.

His Philosophy was Dominated by his Age

      All the major incidents that took place in Tennyson's period had strongly influenced his philosophy. He was always in touch with the national feeling; he had, in most cases, foreseen the changes that were coming and were prepared, when they came, to guide, control, or stimulate public opinion. Born in the same year as Gladstone and Darwin he was always in touch with the political movements and scientific research of his time.

His Political Views

      In politics he kept that spirit of compromise which characterized the Victorian Age. In regard to the central political movement of the century the struggle for the substance of individual liberty and the broadening of the franchise, Tennyson passed from an early suspicion of democracy, through a wholesome dislike of democracy to a loathing of democracy so fierce and so violent that it "upset not only his health and his temper, but even his prosody," says Nicolson. What he meant by Freedom was the attitude that took enslavement and political subjection as part of the permanent order of things, which may change, slowly, in "ten thousand years". To agitate for rights, to disturb the placid flow of daily life for liberty or for the decencies of life were, according to him, treason to the Goddess of Freedom as he understood here. The prospect of the proletariat rebelling for bread and better life fills him with a vague apprehension:

Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nighter,
Glare at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying. (Locksley Hall)

      In, In Memoriam he goes out of his way to condemn "the red fool-fury of the Seine". He never tired of denouncing "the falsehood of extremes". Tennyson's political views are those of a hide-bound Victorian Tory who believed in maintaining the power of the old landed squires and distrusted the rising power of the new commercial aristocracy.

      He was not free from many of the prejudice of his class. He believed in the insularity of England - he was impressed with the Tentonic idea. He had not the catholicity of Browning in the matter nationalities.


      He was the first of our Imperial poets at a time when the idea of the Empire was, if embodied at all, disregarded 'I always feel with the Empire' he wrote to Sir Henry Parkes, and he realised that only in a strong federation of the constituent parts of the empire could the peace of the world be secured. At a time when retrenchment was the popular platform of politicians he raised his voice against the false economy of cutting down the naval estimates: 'The fleet of England is her all in all'. Finally he recognized the importance of India, the strength or weakness imparts to the rest of the empire; and as he grew older he was more and more attracted to the philosophy and poetry of the East.

His View on Science

      In the attitude towards science, even more than in his political opinions, Tennyson gave a lead to his generation. Scientific experts such as Tyndall, Lockyer, and Lodge had testified to his knowledge: to read in In Memoriam, and remember that it was published nine years before The Origin of Species, is to realize that Tennyson not merely an adroit adopter of other men's ideas, but a thinker of great power. He anticipated a controversy, which did. not in fact arise till ten years later, when Darwin's theory roused the opposition of the Churches — a controversy which, it is true, should not have arisen at all, but which had to be fought out once it had arisen.

      We may not now consider the position which Tennyson took up impregnable, or even strong; but we must remember that both sides have changed their ground since then "....apart from its controversial value, on its power of consolation, qualities for which his contemporaries valued it, In Memoriam will always endure as a work of art, just as Paradise Lost has endured. We need not accept the theology of Milton to admire his poetry, nor should we deny the beauty of In Memoriam because its reasoning does not convince us. Tennyson wrote in a time of doubt and restlessness; the old order was passing away, and men's minds were troubled. Some were for seeking peace by the way of emancipation from all dogma; it seemed to them better to affirm nothing than to affirm that which could not certainly be proved. They could not hope; their sole attempt was to avoid despair. Of such were Arnold and Clough. As an effectual force in life, as a factor making for happiness, there can be no doubt that Tennyson's creed was better than theirs; to 'trust the larger hope' was for him and his contemporaries the only way to keep a wholesome heart."

His Religious Views

      Tennyson's religious views can be best construed from the lines written by Compton-Rickett — "No poet was more exercised by religious problems than he; and no pact was more sensitive to scientific thought than he. But his attitude is an attitude of compromise; he propounds a via media between the materialistic science of his day and dogmatic Christianity. His solution for the heart-searching and uncertainties of the time was an undogmatic religion, that was at bottom intuitional. Historic Christianity scarcely with him at all." In Memoriam underlines his philosophy on God. The poem itself is a strong statement of God's existence, his Love and Mercy. However, science had somehow influenced his mind informing him about the persistent struggle for existence in nature, and man's helplessness in the hands of nature. It had shocking impact on his reverence for God's Omnipotence, Love and Mercy. His bewilderment is conspicuous - if God is Love how come nature is evil-like, "red in tooth and claw", and, "one with rapine", Influence of science had altered his view on spiritualism. For spiritual satisfaction he had to connect the nature with human association and human feelings.

His Views on Women

      Early and Middle Victorian England, like the other epochs and countries, looked upon woman as man's inferior in mental power and station. Her sphere was the home and her function the propagation of the race. Of course there was a great deal of "mock chivalry" but that was all gilding. When the King in The Princess says,

The bearing and the training of a child.
Is woman's wisdom

      He speaks out the general Victorian view of the matter. The father maintained the discipline of the home, very often with an iron hand, but from progressive minds there came to be heard more and more audibly, views that challenged the supremacy of the lordly male and affirmed the rights of woman to be treated intellectually and morally on the same footing as man. There was afoot, too, a project for a women's College. In his The Princess, we see Tennyson hunting with these Liberal hounds and running with the Conservative hares, and making the best of both the words. In the same breath he took care to please reactionary prejudice and his other self by rigorously confining man and woman to their respective spheres:

Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey:
All else confusion.

      This makes us wonder if it is not young Tennyson himself who speaks through the lover in Locksley Hall:

Nature made them blinder motions bounded in a shallower bruin!
Woman is the lesser man, and all thy passions match'd with mine
Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine —

      The Victorian husband looked upon marriage as an institution meant for securing his own comfort and satisfaction. 

      The typical Tennyson heroine is meek and submissive like Army (in Locksley Hall) 'whose eyes hung with a minute observance', dreaming night and day on the hero of her heart and perishing of unrequited love.


      In some ways Tennyson was ahead of his contemporaries, and many of his ideas, accepted and familiar as they are now, were to them new and almost revolutionary. The Princess may not seem to us to deal particularly well with the position of women on their higher education, but to raise this question at all was novelty from his part in that time. It was a very shrewd estimate of a future problem.

Select University Questions

1. Write an essay on Tennyson as a Thinker.
2. How far is it correct to look upon Tennyson as the prophet and interpreter of his age?

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