The best poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson lived a long time, and wrote a great deal of poetry. The definitive edition of his Poems stretches to three large volumes. Nevertheless, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to choose ten of the best Tennyson poems, ranging from his narrative poems to lyrics and elegies and everything in between. For those who wish to learn more about Tennyson, we’ve previously treated his interesting life and work here. To enter a world of myth, magic, and emotional depth, click on the links we’ve provided to each poem. Are these the greatest poems Tennyson wrote? Obviously any link will be subjective to a point, so we welcome your thoughts below.
10. ‘The Lotos-Eaters‘. One of two poems on this list inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey (see ‘Ulysses’ below for the other), ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ was written by Tennyson following a trip to Spain he undertook with his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. It tells of the mariners who come upon ‘a land / In which it seemed always afternoon’, and, upon taking the lotus plant, enter a dreamlike state. Over a century before Aldous Huxley was opening the doors of perception, Tennyson was transforming the experience of taking drugs into literature. The poem inspired the name of the Lotus Eaters, a New Wave band from the 1980s.
9. ‘Ulysses‘. A poem about growing old, but written when Tennyson was a young man in his early twenties, ‘Ulysses’ has also been read as a response to Hallam’s death. It takes the warrior Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus) as its focus, and – using the then-new form of the dramatic monologue, which Tennyson helped to pioneer – reveals an ageing king who, having returned from the Trojan war, yearns to don his armour again and ride off in search of battle, glory, and adventure (leaving his poor wife Penelope behind, we might add!). A very popular poem, and one of Tennyson’s best poems for sure.
8. ‘Morte d’Arthur‘. Tennyson would write numerous poems based on Arthurian legend, culminating in his vast blank-verse epic Idylls of the King, although this earlier, shorter poem offers a great way into Tennyson’s Arthurian world. Like several poems on this list, ‘Morte d’Arthur’ was written shortly after the death of Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hallam, and the portrayal of kingly Arthur may owe something to Hallam (‘Morte d’Arthur’ means, of course, ‘the death of Arthur’).
7. ‘Break, Break, Break‘. This short poem from 1842, also responding to the death of Tennyson’s friend Hallam, embodies the Victorian attitude to death and mourning. It teeters on sentimentality and overblown rhetorical emotion (too much for some modern readers), but behind the public poem is a heartfelt personal grief.
6. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘. No list of the best Tennyson poems would be complete without ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, one of his best-known poems; the poem is one of the rare instances of a Poet Laureate producing a good poem while in office. He wrote the poem on 2 December 1854 in response to an article in The Times about the battle, and the poem was published in The Examiner a week later. You can listen to Tennyson reading the poem here.
5. ‘Crossing the Bar‘. A meditation on death, written when Tennyson was in old age, ‘Crossing the Bar’ is one of the shortest poems on this list. There is little more that needs saying, so we’ll let this poem speak for itself.
4. ‘Mariana‘. This early poem, published in 1830, ‘arose to the music of Shakespeare’s words’ (according to Tennyson) – the words in question being taken from Measure for Measure, in which ‘the dejected Mariana’ dwells ‘at the moated grange’. The imagery of the poem is vivid and memorable, from the ‘mouse’ that ‘behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d’ or the ‘blue fly’ that ‘sung in the pane’. It is perhaps Tennyson’s first great success as a poet, written when he was only just into his twenties.
3. ‘The Lady of Shalott‘. Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ exists in two versions: a 20-stanza poem published in 1833, and the revised version of 19 stanzas – which is the one readers are most familiar with – which was published in 1842. (We’ve linked to the definitive 1842 version above.) The poem, partly inspired by Arthurian legend (hence the presence of the knight, Lancelot) and partly by the epic sixteenth-century poem The Faerie Queene written by Edmund Spenser, has been read variously as an allegory about the world of fancy and the world of reality, and as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, with the idyllic world of magic and legend which Tennyson depicts being threatened by the arrival of new forces. Undoubtedly one of Tennyson’s greatest poetic achievements.
2. ‘Tithonus‘. Described by the poet and critic William Empson as ‘a poem in favour of the human practice of dying’, because the poem exposes the horrific reality of what it would be like to live forever, ‘Tithonus’ is based on the Greek myth of Tithonos who was in love with Aurora, goddess of the dawn. Aurora asked the gods to make Tithonus immortal, so they could be together forever, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth; thus Tithonus was destined to get older and older with each passing year, while his lover remained young and beautiful. Tennyson wrote the poem in 1833, shortly after the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, but didn’t publish it until 27 years later, when it appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860. Tennyson may have been prompted to dust off this poem, begun more than a quarter of a century ago, by a letter he received from Benjamin Jowett in 1859. Having recently visited Hallam’s grave, Jowett remarked, ‘It is a strange feeling about those who are taken young that while we are getting old and dusty they are just as they were.’ This, in essence, is the core of ‘Tithonus’.
1. In Memoriam. Published in 1850, the same year that Tennyson married and was appointed Poet Laureate by Queen Victoria, In Memoriam is a long elegy divided into 131 shorter poems or ‘cantos’. Its full title was In Memoriam A. H. H., the initials referring to Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson’s friend from his student days at Cambridge. Hallam died suddenly, aged just 22, prompting an outpouring of grief from Tennyson which culminated in this, probably the poet’s masterpiece. The phrase ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ is taken from the famous ‘dinosaur cantos’ of the poem, which engage with questions of faith and meaning which had been thrown up by geological discoveries in the mid-nineteenth century. Its most famous lines, though, are undoubtedly, ”Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.’ You can read one of the most celebrated cantos from the much larger work here, or the entire thing by clicking on the link above.
We’ve had to omit some pretty big poems. ‘What, a list of Tennyson’s best poems that doesn’t include Maud?’ And what about ‘Locksley Hall’, or ‘The Kraken‘? True, there are many others we could have included, but we’ve tried to make this an accessible selection that can act as a good introduction for the Tennyson novice. For a good edition of Tennyson’s poetry, we recommend The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).
Discover more classic poetry with our pick of the best poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, these classic William Blake poems, these Robert Browning poems, and our selection of Christina Rossetti’s best poems.
Image (top): Portrait of Lord Alfred Tennyson by John Everett Millais, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888; Wikimedia Commons.