Poet Laureate

Happy birthday, Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson. The former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom was born on August 6, 1809.

Tennyson was the fourth of 12 children born to a rector who had an artistic bent himself, being fairly talented at architecture, painting, music, and poetry. He also attended carefully to his children’s education and had Alfred and two of his elder brothers writing poetry in their teens. A collection by the three of them was published locally before Alfred even turned 20. Both the elder brothers became poets as well, though they didn’t achieve the success of young Alfred.

Alfred published a collection of poems written with his brother Charles while he was a student at Cambridge in 1827. He was awarded the prestigious Chancellor’s Gold Medal in 1829 for his piece, Timbuctoo, and he completed his first solo collection of poems the following year. Claribel and Mariana, two of his most famous works, were included in that collection. Well-known poets of the day, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, started to take notice.

When Tennyson’s father died in 1831, Alfred was forced to leave Cambridge without a degree. He returned home to care for his family and published his second book of poems, which included The Lady of Shalott, in 1833. The volume was so heavily panned by the critics he refused to publish again for nearly 10 years. He did, however, continue to write, and the sudden death of a close friend in 1833 inspired such masterpieces as In the Valley of Cauteretz and In Memoriam A.H.H.

Tennyson went back to publishing poems in 1842, by which time he’d moved to London. He published two volumes called Poems; the first included works already published, and the second was made up almost entirely of new works. The volumes were immediately successful. In 1850, he finally published In Memoriam A.H.H. and married Emily Sellwood. They had two sons.

William Wordsworth also died in 1850, leaving England without a Poet Laureate. It was offered first to Samuel Rogers, who refused, so Tennyson was appointed to the position, which he held until his death in 1892, making him the longest-serving Laureate in the U.K.’s history.

As Poet Laureate, Tennyson was expected to churn out nice patriotic verses, and he obliged by penning The Charge of the Light Brigade, Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, and Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition. His best-known fangirl, Queen Victoria, created him Baron Tennyson in 1884, and he took his seat in the House of Lords for the first time March 11 of that year. He was the first to be raised to the British Peerage for his writing.

Tennyson continued to write into his eighties, and he died on October 6, 1892. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. He lives on through his poetry (which surely everyone who took basic English courses in college has read at some point) and also through the many phrases of his that have made their way into our common speech. These include “’Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all,” “Theirs is not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die,” and “Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers.” He’s the ninth most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.


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