Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892

Introduction | Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4 | Island 5

Island 3:
Tennyson and Religion


The third island features the background and development of Tennyson's major religious poem, In Memoriam (1850). Included is one fo the scientific works that influenced his thinking as well as work by his friend Arthur Hallam, whom the poem memorializes. The primary theme here is Tennyson's role as a religious prophet in a period of great religious turmoil, showing his imaginative involvement with the domestic pieties of Victorian England in his poems of the 1850's and 1860's.

Alfred Tennyson
In Memoriam
London: Edward Moxon, 1850.
Title page & dedication shown from the fifth edition (1851).

The most famous, most influential, and most widely-quoted of Tennyson's longer poems was also one of the most personal. In Memoriam is both an elegy to Tennyson's college friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly in Vienna in 1833, and a prolonged meditation on religious belief, modern science, and the significance of the individual life. All the early editions, like this one, were bound in purple, the color of mourning, rather than in Tennyson's usual green cloth.

Hallam as a Schoolboy
From the collection of Patrick Scott.

This photograph of a portrait of Hallam in his youth comes from an extra-illustrated copy of the fifth edition of Tennyson's In Memoriam. A manuscript notation beneath the photograph indicates that the portrait represents Hallam at age sixteen.

Julia Margaret Cameron
Alfred Tennyson (in 1865)
from Andrew Wheatcroft, The Tennyson Album
London: Routledge, 1980.

Mrs. Cameron, a neighbor of Tennyson's on the Isle of Wight, was one of the greatest of Victorian portrait photographers. She never entirely controlled the chemical processes of early photography, resulting in quite distinctive softening of the contrasts in her work, but she was a ruthless perfectionist in control over who sat for her. This portrait, somewhat coarsened by enlargement, was one of Tennyson's favorites, informally referred to as "The Dirty Monk."

Arthur Henry Hallam
"Theodicea Novissima"
in Remains in Verse and Prose, second edition
London: John Murray, 1863.
From the collection of Patrick Scott.

The religious and philosophical speculations of In Memoriamwere influenced by discussions among the Cambridge University Conversazione Society, better known as the Apostles. Hallam himself had contributed to the society this essay, projecting the religion of the future and stimulating Tennyson's own speculations.

Charles Lyell
Principles of Geology, Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation
London: John Murray, 1830-33.

Tennsyon first read this pioneering work of "uniformitarian" geology in 1836. The title-page of Lyell's second volume carried a startling epigraph about the perishing of whole species, from which Tennyson built the scientific sections LV and LVI of In Memoriam. Lyell's "Concluding Remarks" on the interchange of sea and land in the formation of river deltas influenced Tennyson's section CXXIII (cf. next item). This copy belonged to Thomas Cooper, second president of South Carolina College and namesake of the University of South Carolina's primary library; it includes many of his manuscript notes in the margins.

Alfred Tennyson
In Memoriam CXXIII
from Trinity Notebook 13
in Christopher Ricks & Aidan Day, eds., The Tennyson Archive, vol. XI
New York: Garland, 1988.

The manuscript of Tennyson's In Memoriam, given by his son to Trinity College, Cambridge, was long available to scholars only under severe restriction. Following Christopher Ricks's Longman edition in 1969, the College lifted the restrictions and the story of the poem's composition became fully known. The passage reproduced shows Tennyson's poetic response to Lyell's Principles of Geology and includes two stanzas (the second and the fourth) not included in the final published text, as well as other variants in the third stanza.


"The Influence of Religion on the World

Cecilia Tennyson Lushington
"The Influence of Religion on the World"
in Good Words 18 (1877): 308-10.

It was not just the older Tennyson brothers who became published writers but nearly all the other children also, including the sisters. Cecilia, perhaps the most difficult of the sisters, married Edmund Lushington, a fellow Apostle and subsequently Professor of Greek at Glasgow, which she found intolerable. In this article, she treats some of the same issues about world religions and the religion of the future as her brother in In Memoriam.


"The Higher Pantheism"

Alfred Tennyson
"The Higher Pantheism"
from The Holy Grail and Other Poems
London: Strahan, 1870.

Long after In Memoriam, right through to his last volumes, Tennyson continued to write poems of religious and philosophical mediatation. The poem illustrated here was read at the first meeting of the Metaphysical Society, a group of leading Victorian thinkers, scientists, religious leaders, and philosophers who met monthly for a number of years to discuss the changing nature of religious belief. It is now perhaps equally notable for having provoked the irreverent Swinburne to his parody "The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell."

Alfred Tennyson
Enoch Arden, etc.
London: Edward Moxon, 1864.

Sales of each new Tennyson volume had been steadily growing since In Memoriam, and this story, recounting the experiences of a sailor shipwrecked on a desert island who eventually returns to find his wife has remarried, was a huge publishing success, selling over 60,000 copies in less than five months.

Alfred Tennyson
"Dedication to the Queen"
from Poems, seventh edition
London: Moxon, 1851.
From the collection of Patrick Scott.

Tennyson was appointed Poet Laureate in November 1850 and, though he dutifully wrote "official" poems for royal occasions, transformed the position, previously held by Wordsworth and Southey, from a political sinecure into an active platform for contributing to public opinion. Displayed with Tennyson's dedicatory poem is a late-Victorian water-color portrait of the Queen by an unknown artist (Scott collection).

Alfred Tennyson
"The Grandmother's Apology"
from Once A Week 1.3 (16 July 1859): 41-43.

Throughout his later career, Tennyson's poems often appeared first in periodical form, as here, with an illustration by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais. As with many of Tennyson's works, "The Grandmother's Apology" was quickly reprinted in an American periodical — in this case,Harper's Weekly.


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