The best poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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, follow 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‘.
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem …
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.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
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 (see below).
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‘.
So all day long the noise of battle roll’d
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur’s table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land …
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‘.
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me …
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.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred …
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‘.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea …
A meditation on death, written when Tennyson was in old age, ‘Crossing the Bar’ is one of the shortest poems on this list. Tennyson later commented of the Pilot in the poem (who we can analyse as a representative of God): ‘The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him.’ This description of seeing ‘the Pilot’ – i.e. God – ‘face to face’ recalls the lines from 1 Corinthians 13:12: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’
In other words, at the end of the journey of life, one will see the person responsible for seeing one through the voyage: God the Pilot, whom Christians believe they will see in heaven.There is little more that needs saying, so we’ll let this poem speak for itself.
With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’
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‘.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
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.
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world …
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.
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more …
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 following 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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
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.