The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Alfred Tennyson, Early Poems

Page numbers are from Christopher Ricks's edition of the complete poems.The 1830 volume was published when Tennyson was 21 years old.

"The Kraken," (5, 246), omitted from the 1842 edition.

1. What is the tone of his response to the sea-beast? (appreciation of his sensual mystery)

2. Do you think the sea-beast has any moral significance for Tennyson?

3. Might he have found references to such beasts in any lore of the period?

4. According to which religions will the world finally be destroyed by burning?

5. What does this poem reveal about the young Tennyson's early interests? (attraction to the exotic in other cultures, the sea, sense of mystery)

"Mariana," (6, 187, quotation 187) published 1830

This is one of the few early poems which were much admired; it influenced later poetic and artistic presentations of a lonely, yearning heroine.Tennyson seems to have invented the stanza form 8/4. In general the early poems in strict stanza forms have survived best the changes in taste. This particular example of shifting rhythms seems to be Tennyson's own contribution.

1. What is Mariana's plight? On what Shakespearian situation is the poem based, and how would this allusion have shaped the Victorian audience's reading of the poem?

2. Why do you think this poem was admired? (use of emotively laden details; "gothic" description, only looks at "thickest dark")

3. Which of the poem's features seem to derive from romanticism? (use of landscape to present psychological states; use of a deserted building as a symbol of inner decay; Keatsian sensuous detail of adjective)

4. What is the effect of the stanza form? (vigor of meter contrasts with melancholy of subject) What is added by the use of a refrain? (Tennyson aided in the popularization of refrains in later Victorian poetry.)

5. Is there a progression in the poem's structure?6. Is the poem's use of a dual voice effective?

7. What are some of the poem's dominant images? What form of light appears in the poem? (twilight, sense of shroudedness; use of ambiguous or unpleasant detail associated with Pre-Raphaelitism)

"The Poet," (8, 222) published 1830.

What view of the poet do these verses present? Would this have been an influential view at the time? Which romantic poet seems to have influenced this poem? (After Shelley, legions of young men aspired to be poets who might in another time have chosen a different field.)

2. What qualities and role are ascribed to the poet? With which forms of imagery is he associated?

3. Does Tennyson's later poetry show a dedication to the poet's role as here described?

"The Poet's Mind," (10, 224) published 1830 but not republished

1. What relationship is presented between the "poet's mind" and the life of the outer world? Which vision does the narrator approve?

2. Would this view of the imaginative/worldly dichotomy have been shared by the romantic poets? By Tennyson himself in later life?

3. Why do you think Tennyson may have chosen not to reissue this poem?

"The Hesperides" This poem was omitted from the 1842 edition.

1. What are some classical sources for this poem? Why might the subject have appealed to a Victorian poet? (echoes of Christian myth; issues of desire, violation and inaccessibility)

2. What purpose is served by the preface of this poem?

3. What is necessary to ensure the security of the apples? Which qualities of the golden apples cause them to be so carefully guarded?

4. How is the myth of this poem related to the Adam and Eve myth? the Prometheus myth? Are there suggestions of other mythologies as well?

5. What seems to be the symbology associated in the poem with east and west? Do these terms evoke the Garden of Eden legend? British notions of the orient?

6. What does the apple represent? Will the theft of the apples be a fortunate or destructive event? (the apple may be seen as beneficient or malevolent; its theft as brave and heroic -- as in the Prometheus legend -- or evil, as in the bible; can be stolen and horded, or stolen to give to humans)

7. Is the apple raided? Do we know? What effect is created by presenting suspence about an event which to Tennyson's readers is already in the distant past?

8. Does the poem seem to imply a moral judgment on the sisters' attitude? On the man who will violate their retreat?

9. From this perspective, can Hercules be perceived as a hero? Would this have been a slightly unorthodox view at the time?

10. How does this poem resemble romantic works you have studied? (e. g., Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale")

11. What are some features of the poet's use of rhythm and sound throughout? What do they contribute to the final effect?

12. How would you compare or contrast this with Tennyson's other early poems, such as "The Vision of Sin," "The Lady of Shalott" or "The Palace of Art"? (cmp. its rhythms with dances in "A Vision of Sin")

13. Why do you think it attracted the members of Morris's group at Oxford in the 1850's?

14. What may have caused Tennyson to suppress in later editions such a finished effort?

15. Tennyson's early poems were criticized for their alleged lushness, Keatsianisms, and sensuality, prompting the poet to work at minimizing or distancing these qualities in his later poetry. Do you think the critics were accurate in their criticisms?

"Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere"

This early Arthurian poem embodies the beginning of Tennyson's lifelong interest in this legend.

How does its stanza form differ from that of "The Lady of Shallott," which it resembles? (here the 5th and 9th lines are not refrains)

What effect is created by the poem's bouncing rhythms? Would Tennyson have found many Romantic precedents for this choice?

Which aspects of the Arthurian legend does Tennyson choose to emphasize? Will these emphases continue in "The Lady of Shallott" and his later Idylls of the King, including "Launcelot and Elaine"?

Is the figure of Arthur important in this early poem? Is sexual feeling or romance criticized? Do we see the presence in this and other early poems of any of the political or moral allegory which characterize the poet's later work?

"The Palace of Art"

1. What does the experience of the palace as a whole seem to represent? To what extent is this presented as a positive experience?

2. If you have read poems by Shelley, can you see resemblances in the poem's rhythms and imagery with some of Shelley's work?Is the poem's view of art such as Shelley or Keats would have created? (they affirm rather than critique the Romantic vision)?

3. Were there parallels betwen descriptions of the palace and descriptions in othe poems you have read?

3. What are the contents of the palace? What are some indications that it may be morally suspect?

4. What are some of the sources of the palace's attractiveness? What types of enjoyment does it offer? (artistic and intellectual models from past; panels representing great thinkers and historic women, and so on)

5. Does this poem have a plot per se? What causes its movement and suspence? What causes the Soul to fall?

6. What do you make of the fact that the speaker seems to be male, but his Soul is gendered as female? Does the poem portray a split sensibility? A Victorian view of the limitations of women?

7. Are there parallels between this poem of ruptured isolation and the Garden of Eden myth? With other aspects of Christian doctrine? With Tennyson's other early poems? (esp. "The Hesperides")

8. What comment does the poem seem to make on notions of divinity? Why are the gods suspect for their imputed desire to avoid the sufferings common to humankind?

9. What does the poem indicate is the solution to the problem of isolated selfishness? What is the final use served by the palace?

10. Do you find these final images of repentance in a cottage and the return to a communally enjoyed palace to be satisfying conclusions to the problems posed by the poem?

11. Are there aspects of English history and the English countryside which might have suggested to Tennyson the imagery of his poem? (palace seems very like a medieval castle; during the Victorian period and later many of these were converted to social uses, such as museums, civic centers, and so on)

12. Do the poem's language, tone and imagery reinforce and embody its subject? Do you find "The Palace of Art" enjoyable to read?

13. It has been suggested that the poem represents Tennyson's own dilemma, faced with reviewers who disliked the more romantic portions of his sensibility, and who nudged him toward a "Victorian" engagement with the outer world and society. Do you find this interpretation plausible?

14. Can you find parallels between the problems engaged in this poem and those of other early Tennyson poems? ("The Lotus-Eaters," "The Lady of Shalott," "Mariana") Do all of these come to similar resolutions, or may there be different and more nuanced ways of addressing the issue complementary outer and inner worlds?

15. Is the poem's dilemma strictly a Victorian one, or might a young poet today experience similar conflicts?

"Mariana in the South," (361)

What are contrasts between this poem and the first "Mariana"? What new details are added to evoke her situation? (different landscape, unpleasant heat; plot details such as letter, broken vows)What are the associations of the title's reference to "in the South"?

What is the significance of the religious language used to describe the maiden?In your view, is the new version a better poem?

Is the poem more effective as an expression of Mariana's viewpoint or as a meditation on her plight by an observer?

Can you think of other examples of a languishing, deserted or imprisoned woman in Victorian art and literature?

"Tithonus" (1114)

This poem was written in 1833, soon after Arthur Hallam's death.

1. How is the speaker's position related to that of previous protagonists of Tennyson monologues? compare "The Hesperides," also at the limit of the world; "Locksley Hall," another presentation of an unobtainable woman of higher status than her admirer.

2. In particular, does this poem resemble "Ulysses," to which it is supposedly a pendant? The hero of "Ulysses" is also poised between life and death; here Tithonus ostensibly desires death yet the description of life creates tension and a stirring of residual desire.

3. What is the tone of the poem? Its philosophical or psychological implications? (the cycles of life are inevitable; we mourn not his lost immortality but his degeneration; Aurora, representing his past, contrasts painfully with his present self)

4. Have Tithonus and Aurora been guilty of a bit of hubris in seeking to overturn the natural order of life? What might Tennyson have thought of modern experiements in bioengineering?

5. Is there something characteristic of its period in the sense of pain in separation from a past self, or an earlier period? What would Victorians have seen as forms of sudden and undesirable forms of separation from their past?

6. What are characteristics of the poem's language and rhythms? Are these appropriate to a lament on one's own decay? (sonorous acceptance and elegiac regret are fused)

7. What seems Aurora's role in all this? Who or what is responsible for his predicament?

8. What is added by the imagery of the poem's final lines? Do the poem's final allusions create a final sense of closure?

9. The use of an elderly persona by young men was a fairly common feature of Victorian poems--in marked contrast to the Romantic poets, who tended to have young heroes. What do you make of the fact that these poems by a very young poet center so repeatedly on frustration and physical decay?

What social or psychological constraints may have contributed to this choice?What significance might the choice of older speakers have had for Tennyson in particular? (depression after Hallam's death; sense of depletion and lack of life choices; social authority granted to old men)

"The Lady of Shalott" (354)

Tennyson claimed that the source for this poem was an Italian novelette, and that he had not read of Malor's Elaine, which is plausible, as his later "Lancelot and Elaine," clearly based on Malory, is quite different in tone. He changed the sound from Scallot to Shalott for euphony. He also added many poetic and dramatic elements to the story: the presence of Arthur and the Queen, the mirror, the weaving and loom, the curse, her song, the river and the island, all features which would recur in "Lancelot and Elaine."

1. How do you interpret this poem? What does it seem to represent?

2. From whose point of view is it told, and why is this significant? How would the poem have been altered if told from the Lady's own view?

3. What are some of the poem's striking images? What is added by its visual details?

4. What are features of the poem's meter and diction? How do these add to the magical or eerie effect?

5. What seems to be the significance of her enclosure in the tower? her remoteness from daily life? the loom, weaving and ruptured web? (tapestry of medieval life) the procession of old, young and lovers?

6. What do you make of the detail that repears reaping early in the bearded barley cannot see but only hear her voice, and must whisper to each other to record its effect? Does this suggest any other remote and ethereal heroines unviewable by man in early Tennysonian monologues? ("The Hesperides")

7. How is Launcelot presented? What imagery is adduced to render him attractive?

8. What seems to be her response to him? Is hers a spiritual or physical response, do you think? What do you think is the poem's attitude toward her "love"?

9. What is added to the poem by its legendary and medieval setting? How would its effect have changed had it been set in contemporary (that is, Victorian) Britain?

10. How may the poem mirror the position of the Victorian woman, especially of the upper classes? If the poem to some degree represents constraints on women of the period, to what extent is it a fantasy, and to what extent a lament?

11. Some have interpreted the poem as an allegory of the poet's relationship with his own imagination, or artistic processes? (cmp. "The Palace of Art") Can you see any validity for this reading?

12. Is the poem a warning? A celebration of life? Is its message, if any, gendered, or may it apply to all?

13. Why do you think the Lady of Shalott became the subject of so many Victorian paintings? (Hunt, Grimshaw, Waterhouse)

"Locksley Hall," published 1832, written 1837-381.

1. What unusual effect is created by the 8-stress trochaic meter?

2. Does this poem resemble in theme other poems of Tennyson's 1842 volume? (cmp. "Tithonus," "Ulysses," "The Lotus-Eaters," ll. 153, ff.)

3. What seems to be the author's attitude toward his narrator? How critically is the speaker presented? Is he forgiven a certain amount of Byronic grandstanding because he is speaking in poetic mode?

4. What seems the speaker's attitude toward the woman who has rejected his suit? What does their plight reveal about the nature of Victorian marriage practices?

5. What seem to be the speaker's political views? Are these critiqued?

6. What compensatory thought processes enable the speaker to overcome his loss?

7. What do you think of this poem overall? What is added by the presence of the image of Locksley Hall itself?

8. Are there elements of this poem which may have been autobiographical, or at least expressive of some of the resentments of the young Tennyson?

"St. Agnes' Eve," first published 1835

How is this poem different in tone and emphasis from Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes"?

Does the pome present a sentimental, cheerful view of a martyr's painful death?

How do we expect this incident will end? Does the poem resemble in theme and tone "Mariana" and/or "The Lady of Shallott"?

Some differences between the 1832 and 1842 versions of Tennyson's poems:

"The Lotos Eaters"

In the later version Tennyson added stanza 6 and altered stanza 8 and other sections (ll. 114-32 in the present version are added, and ll. 150-73 rewritten).

What difference would these changes have made in interpreting the poem's images and theme? In judging the ideals of the Mariners?

--These new passages introduce an implied criticism, or at least a sense of a neglected alternative to their choice. The Lotos Eaters are shown as neglecting their home, families, and the arduous efforts to "settle order" (cmp. "Ulysses"), and look with godlike detachment on human anguish (here of course, both the Lotos Eaters and the classical gods themselves are criticized).

In the 1842 version, then, their choice becomes less that of an artistic vision or natural human urge toward ease, and more of an escapist and selfish neglect of duty. These changes have been interpreted as reflecting changes in Victorian taste, or the imposition of a Victorian view of maturation and duty. Note that in writing "Ulysses" Tennyson had earlier opted for the voice of the wanderer, but here his divided voice seems ambivalent and the values ascribed in "Ulysses" to Telemachus are approved of--though not rendered into poetry!

Indeed several of the 1842 poems may be interpreted as embodying a divided voice. They represent through a narrative frame or the displacements of time the dichotomy between a romantic and artistic vision and the perhaps necessary but regretted imposition of a more socially balanced viewpoint.

"The Lady of Shalott"

In the original final stanza, neither Launcelot nor the worldly court is able to sympathize with the maiden--marking complete disharmony between the social and imaginative worlds. Tennyson's change in 1842 also humanizes Launcelot, granting him some reciprocal feeling, though only for the young maiden's "lovely face," not for her spirit or past history.

"The Palace of Art"

The 1842 revisions emphasize the Soul's pride (ll. 41-44) and clarify the poem's moral allegory. Tennyson added more revisions for the same purpose in 1850 (ll. 209-212) and in 1851 (ll. 193-201). These additions are designed to emphasize that the art of the palace (otherwise perhaps too attractive for the poem's ostensible point) is culpably isolated, and aspires hubristically to rise in godlike isolation above human existence.

What are some repeated motifs and images in Tennyson's early poems? To what extent are these continued in his later work?What do you think are his greatest abilities and strengths as a poet?What differences do you see between his 1832 and 1842 poems? Between these and later works such as "In Memoriam" and "Idylls of the King"?

  Copyright © 2010 Florence S Boos, The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.
  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56