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Tennyson as a Representative of the Victorian Period

Victorian age was the age of new and newer invention and discovery. The conflict
between religion and science had greatly persuaded the people to seek new knowledge.
The desires to see the unseen, to know the unknown, the unquenchable thirst for
knowledge were the characteristics of the Victorian age. There is a reference to Odysseus
in The Lotos Eaters" who like a typical Victorian is fired with energy to grasp the
unattainable and the infinite. He is not eager to stay with the soldiers in the land of
The Victorian era is well-known for its enrichment of knowledge, expansion of empire
and growth of economy. The age had a throbbing spirit, spirit of activity. In his famous
poem “Ulysses” Tennyson reflects this indomitable spirit of the people of his society. In it
we notice that Ulysses has spent twenty years of his life in battles and adventure. He has
seen and learnt many things, yet he is not satisfied. His thirst for knowledge is
unquenchable. He comments
“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
“To rust unfurnished, not to shine in use !”
His Victorian spirit is fully reflected when he says that even in old age his ambition is
“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
The Victorian age is also marked with a note of pessimism and frustration. People of the
age felt exhausted with their never ending race against time and longed for a life of
settled order, stability and peace.
Tennyson reflects this trend of the period in his poem “The Lotos-Eaters”. Here we see
that after reaching the lotos island and eating lotos fruits, the mariners are fascinated by
the calm and quiet atmosphere of the island. Although still they have a long way to go to
reach their homeland, they wish to travel or struggle no more and plan to live in this
island in a state of permanent rest, peace and tranquility. They express their disgust at the
extremely toilsome life which they have so far lived
“Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea,
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?”
The Victorian age was an age of great problems and conflicts which could not be easily
resolved. But as they wanted to live in peace, they approached these problems obliquely
and from the gentler angle of compromise in order to avoid any grave danger to their
sense of equanimity. And Tennyson, being the representative poet of his times, embodies
this spirit of compromise in his poetry more than any of his contemporaries.
In his political opinions Tennyson shared the views of an average Victorian who believed
in the golden mean, a compromise between democracy and aristocracy.
He believed in slow progress and shunned revolution. He expressed the necessity of
change in his poem “Morte D. Arthur”
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new
And God fulfils Himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
In the field of sex, the Victorians sought a compromise between unbridled licentiousness
of previous ages and the complete negation of the functions and purposes of nature. The
Victorians permitted indulgence in sex but restricted its sphere to conjugal felicity and
happy married life. Tennyson reflects this spirit of the age in his love poems by pointing
out that true love can be found only in married life. In Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot”
we are introduced to ‘two young lovers’ walking together in the moonlight, but we are at
once reassured by the statement that these two lovers were ‘lately wed’.

During the Victorian age there was great advancement of science. However, the impact of
science did not shake the belief of the Victorians in religion, God and soul. They tried to
reconcile science and religion. This is exactly what we find in Tennyson. Thus, in “The
Higher Pantheism” he proclaims his acceptance of the legitimate conclusion of science,
but decisively rejects its further conclusion, which came to be that of the scientific
materialists of the later part of the nineteenth century:
“God in law, say the wise; O Soul, and let us rejoice,
For if He thunder by law the thunder is yet his voice
Law is God, say some; no God at all, say the fool:
For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool.”
In “In Memoriam,” he insists that we must keep our faith despite the latest discoveries of
science: he writes
“Strong Son of God, immortal Love
Whom we, that have not seen they face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace
Believing where we cannot prove.”
Tennyson also spoke to his Victorian contemporaries about issues of urgent social and
political concern. During the Victorian period women were thought inferior to men. This
faith of the Victorians in the subordinate position of women is expressed by Tennyson in
“Locksley Hall”:
“Weakness to be worth with weakness! woman’s pleasure, woman’s pain-
Nature made them blinder motions bounded in a shallower brain:
Woman is the lesser man and all the passions, match’d with mine
Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine-“
In “Locksley Hall” Tennyson satirizes the contemporary society of vanity, materialism or
artificiality. Here the speakers’ frustration over the social conventions is clear. He fell in
love with his young cousin Amy who also reciprocated his love. But her parents stood in
the way of their love and married her off with a rich person because of the speaker’s lack
of wealth and social status. As a result, he, now, curses this social snobbery which
suppresses the craving of human heart:
“Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth!
Cursed be the social lies that warp us from the living truth!
Cursed be the sickly form that errs from honest Nature’s rule!
Cursed be the gold that gilds the straitened forehead of the fool!
In “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” he speaks out in favor of a controversial diplomatic
maneuver, the disastrous charge on the Russian army by British troops in the Crimean
War. Thus, Tennyson maintained a lively interest in the developments of his day,
remaining deeply committed to reforming the society in which he lived and to which he
gave voice.
Tennyson was thus not, like one or another of his compeers, representative of the melody,
wisdom, passion, or other partial phase of the Victorian era, but of the time itself, with its
diverse elements in harmonious conjunction. In his verse he is as truly “the glass of
fashion and the mould of form” of the Victorian generation in the nineteenth century as
Spenser was of the Elizabethan court, Milton of the Protectorate and Pope of the reign of
Queen Anne.

These fundamental aspects of Victorian thought (along with such minor elements
as militant patriotism and colonialism) entitle Tennyson to be considered a
representative Victorian. He was indeed a great poet, even though his representative
value may be much greater than his intrinsic value. “It will be right,” to conclude with
Lyall, “for the future historians to treat Tennyson as a representative of the Victorian
period and to draw inferences from his work as to the general, intellectual and political
tendencies of the nineteenth century.”