The nineteenth-century poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) is probably the best-known poet of the Victorian era. His work was read by Queen Victoria, and he was the longest-serving Poet Laureate in the United Kingdom, holding the post from 1850 until his death in 1892.
Tennyson’s work is very quotable, and some of the phrases which appear in his work have entered common usage, as we’ll see below. Indeed, he’s been credited with introducing the phrase ‘airy-fairy’ into the language: now used to describe something whimsical and insubstantial, it was originally the description of an actual fairy, named Lilian, in an early poem with that title.
Below, we select and introduce some of Tennyson’s best and most famous quotations.
‘Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward’.
Let’s begin with some quotations from one of Tennyson’s best-known and most widely studied poems: ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, written in response to a Times article about the catastrophic charge made by the titular brigade of British soldiers during the Battle of Balaclava.
These words following the ‘Half a league’ lines quoted above: drawing on the 23rd Psalm (‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’), Tennyson underlines the very real prospect of death which faced the soldiers who took part in the charge.
‘Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them’.
Often misquoted slightly as ‘Cannon to the right of them’, these lines are also from ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and remind us that, whilst the light brigade itself was not heavily armed, the enemy was. The hapless soldiers were ‘stormed at with shot and shell’ and many were killed.
This is the fourth quotation from ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and one of the most famous in all of Tennyson’s oeuvre. The soldiers are sworn to obey their orders and do their duty for queen and country: it is not a soldier’s place to question or understand the military orders they are given. Their courage in the face of death is lauded by Tennyson as noble and honourable.
Of all of the quotations from Tennyson’s work, this is the one that has the strongest ring of the traditional proverb about it. Sure enough, the sentiment had been expressed before 1850, when these words appeared in Tennyson’s long poem In Memoriam A. H. H. (an elegy for his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died suddenly in 1833). But it was Tennyson’s wording of this familiar sentiment which became world-famous.
This is the other most famous quotation from the long elegy In Memoriam. Tennyson is talking about the brutality of the natural world, which sees one animal preying on another with its teeth, claws, or talons.
Tennyson’s vision of nature is informed by recent scientific discoveries in geology, which had revealed the mass extinction events that had taken place periodically throughout the earth’s history. Faced with such horrific knowledge, how can he hold fast to his faith in a good God?
‘In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’.
This is surely the best-known line from Tennyson’s poem ‘Locksley Hall’ (written in 1835, and published in 1842). The poem is about a rejected suitor who returns to his childhood home, the fictional Locksley Hall of the poem’s title.
‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers’.
After the above quotation, this is probably the most familiar expression found in ‘Locksley Hall’, arguing that we may learn things and then forget them, but wisdom, born of experience, is something we never forget.
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and he bears a laden breast,
Full of sad experience, moving toward the stillness of his rest.
‘That which we are, we are’.
The next two quotations on this list are from one of Tennyson’s most acclaimed dramatic monologues: his poem ‘Ulysses’, about the classical hero Odysseus, who, having returned home after fighting in the Trojan War and having various adventures on the way home, yearns for one last adventure, acknowledging that the wandering spirit is part of his nature.
‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’
This is from the same speech given by Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem of that name. Ulysses/Odysseus concludes his monologue by telling his friends and crew to accompany him on one last voyage, to seek out adventure and not to ‘yield’ to old age and death. Before Dylan Thomas entreated his father to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, Tennyson’s Ulysses was arguing something very similar.
‘The woods decay, the woods decay and fall’.
The cadence of this beautiful line was probably an influence on the twentieth-century poet William Empson, whose ‘The waste remains, the waste remains and kills’ (from his poem ‘Missing Dates’) echoes the rhythms of Tennyson’s line.
It’s the opening line of another classic dramatic monologue, ‘Tithonus’, which is about a mortal man who falls in love with Aurora, the goddess of the dawn. While he withers slowing in her arms, she remains young, fresh, and immortal. The poem is a great meditation on mortality, as well as doomed love.
This is the most famous line from Tennyson’s long narrative poem The Princess, which is not widely read now, though this song, about a sadness that stems from ‘some divine despair’ for ‘the days that are no more’, remains popular.
And here’s the second most famous line from The Princess: the opening line of a highly sensual lyric, which, like ‘Tears, idle tears’, is unrhymed, although many readers mistakenly think it does rhyme (something, perhaps, to do with Tennyson’s rhythmic mastery?). The poem is a lyric of seduction, in which fireflies and bosoms both memorably feature.
‘A lie which is all a lie may be met and fought with outright, But a lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight.’
These lines are from a later poem, the 1864 work ‘The Grandmother’, and express an idea which has only become more pertinent in the century-and-a-half since Tennyson wrote them: an outright lie is easy to refute, but a lie which is tempered by half-truths is more difficult, and more insidious.
Although the long 1855 ‘monodrama’ titled Maud is not read much these days, except perhaps by diehard Tennyson fans, this line, from the much longer work, has remained well-known:
Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.
‘The mirror crack’d from side to side’.
Let’s conclude with a memorable quotation from one of Tennyson’s best-known poems: the Arthurian narrative poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1842). This line, used by Agatha Christie as the title of one of her detective novels, sees the ‘curse’ come upon the titular lady after she looks away from the mirror and glances directly out of her window at Lancelot.