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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #12: Alfred Tennyson

Updated: Jan 12

In our past poetry bee blog, you learned that the Scottish poet James Thomson was the son of a clergyman who had aspirations of becoming a minister, but soon realized that poetry was a calling he was more suited for. Now that we have shifted the subject a little from clergymen to sons of clergyman, I thought I would go over a poet who was also the son of a minister: Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was a precocious child. He was only five years old when, seated outside his father’s rectory, he was asked by his brother Charles to write a poem on the flowers in the garden. His brother left the garden and little Alfred picked up his slate and began to work. When little Alfred came to his brother with his four-line stanza written in perfect iambic pentameter, Charles commented, “You sure can write!”

Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, Alfred Tennyson enjoyed such a great popularity, he was invited to become a member of the House of Lords. His first great book of poems was composed and published at the early age of twenty-one. This volume contains one of his most enchanting poems, entitled “The Lady of Shalott.” The poem shows his early interest in the Arthurian legends, an interest that culminated in his masterpiece Idylls of the King. Like “The Lady of Shalott,” the Idylls of the King ennobles the rather encyclopedic treatment of earlier English writers, such as Thomas Malory, who copied the French stories. To receive full enjoyment of these poems, the reader must look beyond the sensory details, which are often symbolic.

After William Wordsworth’s death, Tennyson became England’s poet laureate, an official honorary title bestowed upon great poets of the nation. One official responsibility of the poet laureate is to compose poems to commemorate special occasions, a responsibility that Wordsworth declined, but Tennyson accepted. The poem (showed below) “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was written in Tennyson’s official capacity as poet laureate, and commemorates the bold and fatal deed of the British soldiers in a battle of the Crimean War. Other past poet laureates of England include Robert Southey (who preceded Wordsworth) and Robert Bridges. The current Poet Laureate of England is Simon Armitage, a writer, poet, musician, novelist and professor.

The official poets of the U.S. (called the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) have included such notables as Robert Frost, who gave an official reading after President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech (the famous one in which he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”). The current laureate of the U.S. is Ada Limon, who is of Mexican-American descent. The U.S. poet laureate receives a $35,000 stipend to oversee poetry readings at the Library of Congress and is not required to write poetry for special occasions. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, however, the then poet laureate Billy Collins was asked to compose a poem to be read in front of a special joint session of Congress. Collins’ poem was titled “Names,” which he read on September 6, 2002. You may hear the poem here.

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