Meta Sorting

Balin And Balan

Author of work:
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Pellam the King, who held and lost with Lot In that first war, and had his realm restored But rendered tributary, failed of late To send his tribute; wherefore Arthur called His treasurer, one of many years, and spake, 'Go thou with him and him and bring it to us, Lest we should set one truer on his throne. Man's word is God in man.' His Baron said 'We go but harken: there be two strange knights Who sit near Camelot at a fountain-side, A mile beneath the forest, challenging And overthrowing every knight who comes. Wilt thou I undertake them as we pass, And send them to thee?' Arthur laughed upon him. 'Old friend, too old to be so young, depart, Delay not thou for aught, but let them sit, Until they find a lustier than themselves.'
So these departed. Early, one fair dawn, The light-winged spirit of his youth returned On Arthur's heart; he armed himself and went, So coming to the fountain-side beheld Balin and Balan sitting statuelike, Brethren, to right and left the spring, that down, From underneath a plume of lady-fern, Sang, and the sand danced at the bottom of it. And on the right of Balin Balin's horse Was fast beside an alder, on the left Of Balan Balan's near a poplartree. 'Fair Sirs,' said Arthur, 'wherefore sit ye here?' Balin and Balan answered 'For the sake Of glory; we be mightier men than all In Arthur's court; that also have we proved; For whatsoever knight against us came Or I or he have easily overthrown.' 'I too,' said Arthur, 'am of Arthur's hall, But rather proven in his Paynim wars Than famous jousts; but see, or proven or not, Whether me likewise ye can overthrow.' And Arthur lightly smote the brethren down, And lightly so returned, and no man knew.
Then Balin rose, and Balan, and beside The carolling water set themselves again, And spake no word until the shadow turned; When from the fringe of coppice round them burst A spangled pursuivant, and crying 'Sirs, Rise, follow! ye be sent for by the King,' They followed; whom when Arthur seeing asked 'Tell me your names; why sat ye by the well?' Balin the stillness of a minute broke Saying 'An unmelodious name to thee, Balin, "the Savage"--that addition thine-- My brother and my better, this man here, Balan. I smote upon the naked skull A thrall of thine in open hall, my hand Was gauntleted, half slew him; for I heard He had spoken evil of me; thy just wrath Sent me a three-years' exile from thine eyes. I have not lived my life delightsomely: For I that did that violence to thy thrall, Had often wrought some fury on myself, Saving for Balan: those three kingless years Have past--were wormwood-bitter to me. King, Methought that if we sat beside the well, And hurled to ground what knight soever spurred Against us, thou would'st take me gladlier back, And make, as ten-times worthier to be thine Than twenty Balins, Balan knight. I have said. Not so--not all. A man of thine today Abashed us both, and brake my boast. Thy will?' Said Arthur 'Thou hast ever spoken truth; Thy too fierce manhood would not let thee lie. Rise, my true knight. As children learn, be thou Wiser for falling! walk with me, and move To music with thine Order and the King. Thy chair, a grief to all the brethren, stands Vacant, but thou retake it, mine again!'
Thereafter, when Sir Balin entered hall, The Lost one Found was greeted as in Heaven With joy that blazed itself in woodland wealth Of leaf, and gayest garlandage of flowers, Along the walls and down the board; they sat, And cup clashed cup; they drank and some one sang, Sweet-voiced, a song of welcome, whereupon Their common shout in chorus, mounting, made Those banners of twelve battles overhead Stir, as they stirred of old, when Arthur's host Proclaimed him Victor, and the day was won.
Then Balan added to their Order lived A wealthier life than heretofore with these And Balin, till their embassage returned.
'Sir King' they brought report 'we hardly found, So bushed about it is with gloom, the hall Of him to whom ye sent us, Pellam, once A Christless foe of thine as ever dashed Horse against horse; but seeing that thy realm Hath prospered in the name of Christ, the King Took, as in rival heat, to holy things; And finds himself descended from the Saint Arimathan Joseph; him who first Brought the great faith to Britain over seas; He boasts his life as purer than thine own; Eats scarce enow to keep his pulse abeat; Hath pushed aside his faithful wife, nor lets Or dame or damsel enter at his gates Lest he should be polluted. This gray King Showed us a shrine wherein were wonders--yea-- Rich arks with priceless bones of martyrdom, Thorns of the crown and shivers of the cross, And therewithal (for thus he told us) brought By holy Joseph thither, that same spear Wherewith the Roman pierced the side of Christ. He much amazed us; after, when we sought The tribute, answered "I have quite foregone All matters of this world: Garlon, mine heir, Of him demand it," which this Garlon gave With much ado, railing at thine and thee.
'But when we left, in those deep woods we found A knight of thine spear-stricken from behind, Dead, whom we buried; more than one of us Cried out on Garlon, but a woodman there Reported of some demon in the woods Was once a man, who driven by evil tongues From all his fellows, lived alone, and came To learn black magic, and to hate his kind With such a hate, that when he died, his soul Became a Fiend, which, as the man in life Was wounded by blind tongues he saw not whence, Strikes from behind. This woodman showed the cave From which he sallies, and wherein he dwelt. We saw the hoof-print of a horse, no more.'
Then Arthur, 'Let who goes before me, see He do not fall behind me: foully slain And villainously! who will hunt for me This demon of the woods?' Said Balan, 'I'! So claimed the quest and rode away, but first, Embracing Balin, 'Good my brother, hear! Let not thy moods prevail, when I am gone Who used to lay them! hold them outer fiends, Who leap at thee to tear thee; shake them aside, Dreams ruling when wit sleeps! yea, but to dream That any of these would wrong thee, wrongs thyself. Witness their flowery welcome. Bound are they To speak no evil. Truly save for fears, My fears for thee, so rich a fellowship Would make me wholly blest: thou one of them, Be one indeed: consider them, and all Their bearing in their common bond of love, No more of hatred than in Heaven itself, No more of jealousy than in Paradise.'
So Balan warned, and went; Balin remained: Who--for but three brief moons had glanced away From being knighted till he smote the thrall, And faded from the presence into years Of exile--now would strictlier set himself To learn what Arthur meant by courtesy, Manhood, and knighthood; wherefore hovered round Lancelot, but when he marked his high sweet smile In passing, and a transitory word Make knight or churl or child or damsel seem From being smiled at happier in themselves-- Sighed, as a boy lame-born beneath a height, That glooms his valley, sighs to see the peak Sun-flushed, or touch at night the northern star; For one from out his village lately climed And brought report of azure lands and fair, Far seen to left and right; and he himself Hath hardly scaled with help a hundred feet Up from the base: so Balin marvelling oft How far beyond him Lancelot seemed to move, Groaned, and at times would mutter, 'These be gifts, Born with the blood, not learnable, divine, Beyond MY reach. Well had I foughten--well-- In those fierce wars, struck hard--and had I crowned With my slain self the heaps of whom I slew-- So--better!--But this worship of the Queen, That honour too wherein she holds him--this, This was the sunshine that hath given the man A growth, a name that branches o'er the rest, And strength against all odds, and what the King So prizes--overprizes--gentleness. Her likewise would I worship an I might. I never can be close with her, as he That brought her hither. Shall I pray the King To let me bear some token of his Queen Whereon to gaze, remembering her--forget My heats and violences? live afresh? What, if the Queen disdained to grant it! nay Being so stately-gentle, would she make My darkness blackness? and with how sweet grace She greeted my return! Bold will I be-- Some goodly cognizance of Guinevere, In lieu of this rough beast upon my shield, Langued gules, and toothed with grinning savagery.'
And Arthur, when Sir Balin sought him, said 'What wilt thou bear?' Balin was bold, and asked To bear her own crown-royal upon shield, Whereat she smiled and turned her to the King, Who answered 'Thou shalt put the crown to use. The crown is but the shadow of the King, And this a shadow's shadow, let him have it, So this will help him of his violences!' 'No shadow' said Sir Balin 'O my Queen, But light to me! no shadow, O my King, But golden earnest of a gentler life!'
So Balin bare the crown, and all the knights Approved him, and the Queen, and all the world Made music, and he felt his being move In music with his Order, and the King.
The nightingale, full-toned in middle May, Hath ever and anon a note so thin It seems another voice in other groves; Thus, after some quick burst of sudden wrath, The music in him seemed to change, and grow Faint and far-off. And once he saw the thrall His passion half had gauntleted to death, That causer of his banishment and shame, Smile at him, as he deemed, presumptuously: His arm half rose to strike again, but fell: The memory of that cognizance on shield Weighted it down, but in himself he moaned:
'Too high this mount of Camelot for me: These high-set courtesies are not for me. Shall I not rather prove the worse for these? Fierier and stormier from restraining, break Into some madness even before the Queen?'
Thus, as a hearth lit in a mountain home, And glancing on the window, when the gloom Of twilight deepens round it, seems a flame That rages in the woodland far below, So when his moods were darkened, court and King And all the kindly warmth of Arthur's hall Shadowed an angry distance: yet he strove To learn the graces of their Table, fought Hard with himself, and seemed at length in peace.
Then chanced, one morning, that Sir Balin sat Close-bowered in that garden nigh the hall. A walk of roses ran from door to door; A walk of lilies crost it to the bower: And down that range of roses the great Queen Came with slow steps, the morning on her face; And all in shadow from the counter door Sir Lancelot as to meet her, then at once, As if he saw not, glanced aside, and paced The long white walk of lilies toward the bower. Followed the Queen; Sir Balin heard her 'Prince, Art thou so little loyal to thy Queen, As pass without good morrow to thy Queen?' To whom Sir Lancelot with his eyes on earth, 'Fain would I still be loyal to the Queen.' 'Yea so' she said 'but so to pass me by-- So loyal scarce is loyal to thyself, Whom all men rate the king of courtesy. Let be: ye stand, fair lord, as in a dream.'
Then Lancelot with his hand among the flowers 'Yea--for a dream. Last night methought I saw That maiden Saint who stands with lily in hand In yonder shrine. All round her prest the dark, And all the light upon her silver face Flowed from the spiritual lily that she held. Lo! these her emblems drew mine eyes--away: For see, how perfect-pure! As light a flush As hardly tints the blossom of the quince Would mar their charm of stainless maidenhood.'
'Sweeter to me' she said 'this garden rose Deep-hued and many-folded! sweeter still The wild-wood hyacinth and the bloom of May. Prince, we have ridden before among the flowers In those fair days--not all as cool as these, Though season-earlier. Art thou sad? or sick? Our noble King will send thee his own leech-- Sick? or for any matter angered at me?'
Then Lancelot lifted his large eyes; they dwelt Deep-tranced on hers, and could not fall: her hue Changed at his gaze: so turning side by side They past, and Balin started from his bower.
'Queen? subject? but I see not what I see. Damsel and lover? hear not what I hear. My father hath begotten me in his wrath. I suffer from the things before me, know, Learn nothing; am not worthy to be knight; A churl, a clown!' and in him gloom on gloom Deepened: he sharply caught his lance and shield, Nor stayed to crave permission of the King, But, mad for strange adventure, dashed away.
He took the selfsame track as Balan, saw The fountain where they sat together, sighed 'Was I not better there with him?' and rode The skyless woods, but under open blue Came on the hoarhead woodman at a bough Wearily hewing. 'Churl, thine axe!' he cried, Descended, and disjointed it at a blow: To whom the woodman uttered wonderingly 'Lord, thou couldst lay the Devil of these woods If arm of flesh could lay him.' Balin cried 'Him, or the viler devil who plays his part, To lay that devil would lay the Devil in me.' 'Nay' said the churl, 'our devil is a truth, I saw the flash of him but yestereven. And some DO say that our Sir Garlon too Hath learned black magic, and to ride unseen. Look to the cave.' But Balin answered him 'Old fabler, these be fancies of the churl, Look to thy woodcraft,' and so leaving him, Now with slack rein and careless of himself, Now with dug spur and raving at himself, Now with droopt brow down the long glades he rode; So marked not on his right a cavern-chasm Yawn over darkness, where, nor far within, The whole day died, but, dying, gleamed on rocks Roof-pendent, sharp; and others from the floor, Tusklike, arising, made that mouth of night Whereout the Demon issued up from Hell. He marked not this, but blind and deaf to all Save that chained rage, which ever yelpt within, Past eastward from the falling sun. At once He felt the hollow-beaten mosses thud And tremble, and then the shadow of a spear, Shot from behind him, ran along the ground. Sideways he started from the path, and saw, With pointed lance as if to pierce, a shape, A light of armour by him flash, and pass And vanish in the woods; and followed this, But all so blind in rage that unawares He burst his lance against a forest bough, Dishorsed himself, and rose again, and fled Far, till the castle of a King, the hall Of Pellam, lichen-bearded, grayly draped With streaming grass, appeared, low-built but strong; The ruinous donjon as a knoll of moss, The battlement overtopt with ivytods, A home of bats, in every tower an owl. Then spake the men of Pellam crying 'Lord, Why wear ye this crown-royal upon shield?' Said Balin 'For the fairest and the best Of ladies living gave me this to bear.' So stalled his horse, and strode across the court, But found the greetings both of knight and King Faint in the low dark hall of banquet: leaves Laid their green faces flat against the panes, Sprays grated, and the cankered boughs without Whined in the wood; for all was hushed within, Till when at feast Sir Garlon likewise asked 'Why wear ye that crown-royal?' Balin said 'The Queen we worship, Lancelot, I, and all, As fairest, best and purest, granted me To bear it!' Such a sound (for Arthur's knights Were hated strangers in the hall) as makes The white swan-mother, sitting, when she hears A strange knee rustle through her secret reeds, Made Garlon, hissing; then he sourly smiled. 'Fairest I grant her: I have seen; but best, Best, purest? THOU from Arthur's hall, and yet So simple! hast thou eyes, or if, are these So far besotted that they fail to see This fair wife-worship cloaks a secret shame? Truly, ye men of Arthur be but babes.'
A goblet on the board by Balin, bossed With holy Joseph's legend, on his right Stood, all of massiest bronze: one side had sea And ship and sail and angels blowing on it: And one was rough with wattling, and the walls Of that low church he built at Glastonbury. This Balin graspt, but while in act to hurl, Through memory of that token on the shield Relaxed his hold: 'I will be gentle' he thought 'And passing gentle' caught his hand away, Then fiercely to Sir Garlon 'Eyes have I That saw today the shadow of a spear, Shot from behind me, run along the ground; Eyes too that long have watched how Lancelot draws From homage to the best and purest, might, Name, manhood, and a grace, but scantly thine, Who, sitting in thine own hall, canst endure To mouth so huge a foulness--to thy guest, Me, me of Arthur's Table. Felon talk! Let be! no more!' But not the less by night The scorn of Garlon, poisoning all his rest, Stung him in dreams. At length, and dim through leaves Blinkt the white morn, sprays grated, and old boughs Whined in the wood. He rose, descended, met The scorner in the castle court, and fain, For hate and loathing, would have past him by; But when Sir Garlon uttered mocking-wise; 'What, wear ye still that same crown-scandalous?' His countenance blackened, and his forehead veins Bloated, and branched; and tearing out of sheath The brand, Sir Balin with a fiery 'Ha! So thou be shadow, here I make thee ghost,' Hard upon helm smote him, and the blade flew Splintering in six, and clinkt upon the stones. Then Garlon, reeling slowly backward, fell, And Balin by the banneret of his helm Dragged him, and struck, but from the castle a cry Sounded across the court, and--men-at-arms, A score with pointed lances, making at him-- He dashed the pummel at the foremost face, Beneath a low door dipt, and made his feet Wings through a glimmering gallery, till he marked The portal of King Pellam's chapel wide And inward to the wall; he stept behind; Thence in a moment heard them pass like wolves Howling; but while he stared about the shrine, In which he scarce could spy the Christ for Saints, Beheld before a golden altar lie The longest lance his eyes had ever seen, Point-painted red; and seizing thereupon Pushed through an open casement down, leaned on it, Leapt in a semicircle, and lit on earth; Then hand at ear, and harkening from what side The blindfold rummage buried in the walls Might echo, ran the counter path, and found His charger, mounted on him and away. An arrow whizzed to the right, one to the left, One overhead; and Pellam's feeble cry 'Stay, stay him! he defileth heavenly things With earthly uses'--made him quickly dive Beneath the boughs, and race through many a mile Of dense and open, till his goodly horse, Arising wearily at a fallen oak, Stumbled headlong, and cast him face to ground.
Half-wroth he had not ended, but all glad, Knightlike, to find his charger yet unlamed, Sir Balin drew the shield from off his neck, Stared at the priceless cognizance, and thought 'I have shamed thee so that now thou shamest me, Thee will I bear no more,' high on a branch Hung it, and turned aside into the woods, And there in gloom cast himself all along, Moaning 'My violences, my violences!'
But now the wholesome music of the wood Was dumbed by one from out the hall of Mark, A damsel-errant, warbling, as she rode The woodland alleys, Vivien, with her Squire.
'The fire of Heaven has killed the barren cold, And kindled all the plain and all the wold. The new leaf ever pushes off the old. The fire of Heaven is not the flame of Hell.
'Old priest, who mumble worship in your quire-- Old monk and nun, ye scorn the world's desire, Yet in your frosty cells ye feel the fire! The fire of Heaven is not the flame of Hell.
'The fire of Heaven is on the dusty ways. The wayside blossoms open to the blaze. The whole wood-world is one full peal of praise. The fire of Heaven is not the flame of Hell.
'The fire of Heaven is lord of all things good, And starve not thou this fire within thy blood, But follow Vivien through the fiery flood! The fire of Heaven is not the flame of Hell!'
Then turning to her Squire 'This fire of Heaven, This old sun-worship, boy, will rise again, And beat the cross to earth, and break the King And all his Table.' Then they reached a glade, Where under one long lane of cloudless air Before another wood, the royal crown Sparkled, and swaying upon a restless elm Drew the vague glance of Vivien, and her Squire; Amazed were these; 'Lo there' she cried--'a crown-- Borne by some high lord-prince of Arthur's hall, And there a horse! the rider? where is he? See, yonder lies one dead within the wood. Not dead; he stirs!--but sleeping. I will speak. Hail, royal knight, we break on thy sweet rest, Not, doubtless, all unearned by noble deeds. But bounden art thou, if from Arthur's hall, To help the weak. Behold, I fly from shame, A lustful King, who sought to win my love Through evil ways: the knight, with whom I rode, Hath suffered misadventure, and my squire Hath in him small defence; but thou, Sir Prince, Wilt surely guide me to the warrior King, Arthur the blameless, pure as any maid, To get me shelter for my maidenhood. I charge thee by that crown upon thy shield, And by the great Queen's name, arise and hence.'
And Balin rose, 'Thither no more! nor Prince Nor knight am I, but one that hath defamed The cognizance she gave me: here I dwell Savage among the savage woods, here die-- Die: let the wolves' black maws ensepulchre Their brother beast, whose anger was his lord. O me, that such a name as Guinevere's, Which our high Lancelot hath so lifted up, And been thereby uplifted, should through me, My violence, and my villainy, come to shame.'
Thereat she suddenly laughed and shrill, anon Sighed all as suddenly. Said Balin to her 'Is this thy courtesy--to mock me, ha? Hence, for I will not with thee.' Again she sighed 'Pardon, sweet lord! we maidens often laugh When sick at heart, when rather we should weep. I knew thee wronged. I brake upon thy rest, And now full loth am I to break thy dream, But thou art man, and canst abide a truth, Though bitter. Hither, boy--and mark me well. Dost thou remember at Caerleon once-- A year ago--nay, then I love thee not-- Ay, thou rememberest well--one summer dawn-- By the great tower--Caerleon upon Usk-- Nay, truly we were hidden: this fair lord, The flower of all their vestal knighthood, knelt In amorous homage--knelt--what else?--O ay Knelt, and drew down from out his night-black hair And mumbled that white hand whose ringed caress Had wandered from her own King's golden head, And lost itself in darkness, till she cried-- I thought the great tower would crash down on both-- "Rise, my sweet King, and kiss me on the lips, Thou art my King." This lad, whose lightest word Is mere white truth in simple nakedness, Saw them embrace: he reddens, cannot speak, So bashful, he! but all the maiden Saints, The deathless mother-maidenhood of Heaven, Cry out upon her. Up then, ride with me! Talk not of shame! thou canst not, an thou would'st, Do these more shame than these have done themselves.'
She lied with ease; but horror-stricken he, Remembering that dark bower at Camelot, Breathed in a dismal whisper 'It is truth.'
Sunnily she smiled 'And even in this lone wood, Sweet lord, ye do right well to whisper this. Fools prate, and perish traitors. Woods have tongues, As walls have ears: but thou shalt go with me, And we will speak at first exceeding low. Meet is it the good King be not deceived. See now, I set thee high on vantage ground, From whence to watch the time, and eagle-like Stoop at thy will on Lancelot and the Queen.'
She ceased; his evil spirit upon him leapt, He ground his teeth together, sprang with a yell, Tore from the branch, and cast on earth, the shield, Drove his mailed heel athwart the royal crown, Stampt all into defacement, hurled it from him Among the forest weeds, and cursed the tale, The told-of, and the teller. That weird yell, Unearthlier than all shriek of bird or beast, Thrilled through the woods; and Balan lurking there (His quest was unaccomplished) heard and thought 'The scream of that Wood-devil I came to quell!' Then nearing 'Lo! he hath slain some brother-knight, And tramples on the goodly shield to show His loathing of our Order and the Queen. My quest, meseems, is here. Or devil or man Guard thou thine head.' Sir Balin spake not word, But snatched a sudden buckler from the Squire, And vaulted on his horse, and so they crashed In onset, and King Pellam's holy spear, Reputed to be red with sinless blood, Redded at once with sinful, for the point Across the maiden shield of Balan pricked The hauberk to the flesh; and Balin's horse Was wearied to the death, and, when they clashed, Rolling back upon Balin, crushed the man Inward, and either fell, and swooned away.
Then to her Squire muttered the damsel 'Fools! This fellow hath wrought some foulness with his Queen: Else never had he borne her crown, nor raved And thus foamed over at a rival name: But thou, Sir Chick, that scarce hast broken shell, Art yet half-yolk, not even come to down-- Who never sawest Caerleon upon Usk-- And yet hast often pleaded for my love-- See what I see, be thou where I have been, Or else Sir Chick--dismount and loose their casques I fain would know what manner of men they be.' And when the Squire had loosed them, 'Goodly!--look! They might have cropt the myriad flower of May, And butt each other here, like brainless bulls, Dead for one heifer! Then the gentle Squire 'I hold them happy, so they died for love: And, Vivien, though ye beat me like your dog, I too could die, as now I live, for thee.'
'Live on, Sir Boy,' she cried. 'I better prize The living dog than the dead lion: away! I cannot brook to gaze upon the dead.' Then leapt her palfrey o'er the fallen oak, And bounding forward 'Leave them to the wolves.'
But when their foreheads felt the cooling air, Balin first woke, and seeing that true face, Familiar up from cradle-time, so wan, Crawled slowly with low moans to where he lay, And on his dying brother cast himself Dying; and HE lifted faint eyes; he felt One near him; all at once they found the world, Staring wild-wide; then with a childlike wail And drawing down the dim disastrous brow That o'er him hung, he kissed it, moaned and spake;
'O Balin, Balin, I that fain had died To save thy life, have brought thee to thy death. Why had ye not the shield I knew? and why Trampled ye thus on that which bare the Crown?'
Then Balin told him brokenly, and in gasps, All that had chanced, and Balan moaned again.
'Brother, I dwelt a day in Pellam's hall: This Garlon mocked me, but I heeded not. And one said "Eat in peace! a liar is he, And hates thee for the tribute!" this good knight Told me, that twice a wanton damsel came, And sought for Garlon at the castle-gates, Whom Pellam drove away with holy heat. I well believe this damsel, and the one Who stood beside thee even now, the same. "She dwells among the woods" he said "and meets And dallies with him in the Mouth of Hell." Foul are their lives; foul are their lips; they lied. Pure as our own true Mother is our Queen."
'O brother' answered Balin 'woe is me! My madness all thy life has been thy doom, Thy curse, and darkened all thy day; and now The night has come. I scarce can see thee now.
Goodnight! for we shall never bid again Goodmorrow--Dark my doom was here, and dark It will be there. I see thee now no more. I would not mine again should darken thine, Goodnight, true brother. Balan answered low 'Goodnight, true brother here! goodmorrow there! We two were born together, and we die Together by one doom:' and while he spoke Closed his death-drowsing eyes, and slept the sleep With Balin, either locked in either's arm.

About the author

Alfred Lord Tennyson photo
Alfred Lord Tennyson
193 works

About the poet

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, FRS was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular poets in the English language.

Tennyson excelled at penning short lyrics, such as "In the Valley of Cauteretz", "Break, Break, Break", "The Charge of the Light Brigade", "Tears, Idle Tears" and "Crossing the Bar". Much of his verse was based on classical mythological themes, such as Ulysses, although In Memoriam A.H.H. was written to commemorate his best friend Arthur Hallam, a fellow poet and fellow student at Trinity College, Cambridge, who was engaged to Tennyson's sister, but died from a brain haemorrhage before they could marry. Tennyson also wrote some notable blank verse including Idylls of the King, "Ulysses," and "Tithonus." During his career, Tennyson attempted drama, but his plays enjoyed little success.

A number of phrases from Tennyson's work have become commonplaces of the English language, including "Nature, red in tooth and claw", "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all", "Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die", "My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure", "Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers", and "The old order changeth, yielding place to new". He is the ninth most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Early Life

Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, a rector's son and fourth of 12 children. He derived from a middle-class line of Tennysons, but also had noble and royal ancestry.

His father, George Clayton Tennyson (1778–1831), was rector of Somersby (1807–1831), also rector of Benniworth and Bag Enderby, and vicar of Grimsby (1815). The rector was the elder of two sons, but was disinherited at an early age by his father, the landowner George Tennyson (1750–1835) (owner of Bayons Manor and Usselby Hall), in favour of his younger brother Charles, who later took the name Charles Tennyson d'Eyncourt. Rev. George Clayton Tennyson raised a large family and "was a man of superior abilities and varied attainments, who tried his hand with fair success in architecture, painting, music, and poetry. He was comfortably well off for a country clergyman and his shrewd money management enabled the family to spend summers at Mablethorpe and Skegness, on the eastern coast of England." Alfred Tennyson's mother, Elizabeth Fytche (1781–1865), was the daughter of Stephen Fytche (1734–1799), vicar of St. James Church, Louth (1764) and rector of Withcall (1780), a small village between Horncastle and Louth. Tennyson's father "carefully attended to the education and training of his children."

Tennyson and two of his elder brothers were writing poetry in their teens, and a collection of poems by all three were published locally when Alfred was only 17. One of those brothers, Charles Tennyson Turner later married Louisa Sellwood, the younger sister of Alfred's future wife; the other was Frederick Tennyson. Another of Tennyson's brothers, Edward Tennyson, was institutionalised at a private asylum, where he died.

Education and First Publication

Tennyson was first a student of Louth Grammar School for four years (1816–1820) and then attended Scaitcliffe School, Englefield Green and King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1827,[4] where he joined a secret society called the Cambridge Apostles. At Cambridge Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam, who became his closest friend. His first publication was a collection of "his boyish rhymes and those of his elder brother Charles" entitled Poems by Two Brothers published in 1827.

In 1829 he was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, "Timbuctoo." Reportedly, "it was thought to be no slight honour for a young man of twenty to win the chancellor's gold medal."He published his first solo collection of poems, Poems Chiefly Lyrical in 1830. "Claribel" and "Mariana", which later took their place among Tennyson's most celebrated poems, were included in this volume. Although decried by some critics as overly sentimental, his verse soon proved popular and brought Tennyson to the attention of well-known writers of the day, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Return to Lincolnshire and Second Publication

In the spring of 1831 Tennyson's father died, requiring him to leave Cambridge before taking his degree. He returned to the rectory, where he was permitted to live for another six years, and shared responsibility for his widowed mother and the family. Arthur Hallam came to stay with his family during the summer and became engaged to Tennyson's sister, Emilia Tennyson.

In 1833, Tennyson published his second book of poetry, which included his well-known poem, The Lady of Shalott. The volume met heavy criticism, which so discouraged Tennyson that he did not publish again for 10 years, although he continued to write. That same year, Hallam died suddenly and unexpectedly after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage while on vacation in Vienna. Hallam's sudden and unexpected death in 1833 had a profound impact on Tennyson, and inspired several masterpieces, including "In the Valley of Cauteretz" and In Memoriam A.H.H., a long poem detailing the 'Way of the Soul'.

Tennyson and his family were allowed to stay in the rectory for some time, but later moved to High Beach, Essex in 1837. An unwise investment in an ecclesiastical wood-carving enterprise soon led to the loss of much of the family fortune. Tennyson then moved to London, and lived for a time at Chapel House, Twickenham.

Third Publication

In 1842, while living modestly in London, Tennyson published two volumes of Poems, of which the first included works already published and the second was made up almost entirely of new poems. They met with immediate success. Poems from this collection, such as Locksley Hall, "Tithonus", and "Ulysses" have met enduring fame. The Princess: A Medley, a satire on women's education, which came out in 1847, was also popular for its lyrics. W. S. Gilbert later adapted and parodied the piece twice: in The Princess (1870) and in Princess Ida (1884).

It was in 1850 that Tennyson reached the pinnacle of his career, finally publishing his masterpiece, In Memoriam A.H.H., dedicated to Hallam. Later the same year he was appointed Poet Laureate, succeeding William Wordsworth . In the same year (on 13 June), Tennyson married Emily Sellwood, whom he had known since childhood, in the village of Shiplake. They had two sons, Hallam Tennyson (b. 11 August 1852) – named after his friend – and Lionel (b. 16 March 1854).

Poet Laureate

After Wordsworth's death in 1850, and Samuel Rogers' refusal, Tennyson was appointed to the position of Poet Laureate, which he held until his own death in 1892, by far the longest tenure of any laureate before or since. He fulfilled the requirements of this position by turning out appropriate but often uninspired verse, such as a poem of greeting to Alexandra of Denmark when she arrived in Britain to marry the future King Edward VII. In 1855, Tennyson produced one of his best known works, "The Charge of the Light Brigade", a dramatic tribute to the British cavalrymen involved in an ill-advised charge on 25 October 1854, during the Crimean War. Other esteemed works written in the post of Poet Laureate include Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington and Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition.

Queen Victoria was an ardent admirer of Tennyson's work, and in 1884 created him Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth in the County of Sussex and of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight. Tennyson initially declined a baronetcy in 1865 and 1868 (when tendered by Disraeli), finally accepting a peerage in 1883 at Gladstone's earnest solicitation. He took his seat in the House of Lords on 11 March 1884.

Tennyson also wrote a substantial quantity of non-official political verse, from the bellicose "Form, Riflemen, Form", on the French crisis of 1859, to "Steersman, be not precipitate in thine act/of steering", deploring Gladstone's Home Rule Bill.

Tennyson was the first to be raised to a British Peerage for his writing. A passionate man with some peculiarities of nature, he was never particularly comfortable as a peer, and it is widely held that he took the peerage in order to secure a future for his son Hallam.

Thomas Edison made sound recordings of Tennyson reading his own poetry, late in his life. They include recordings of The Charge of the Light Brigade, and excerpts from "The splendour falls" (from The Princess), "Come into the garden" (from Maud), "Ask me no more", "Ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington", "Charge of the Heavy Brigade", and "Lancelot and Elaine"; the sound quality is as poor as wax cylinder recordings usually are.

Towards the end of his life Tennyson revealed that his "religious beliefs also defied convention, leaning towards agnosticism and pandeism": Famously, he wrote in In Memoriam: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." [The context directly contradicts the apparent meaning of this quote.] In Maud, 1855, he wrote: "The churches have killed their Christ." In "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," Tennyson wrote: "Christian love among the churches look'd the twin of heathen hate." In his play, Becket, he wrote: "We are self-uncertain creatures, and we may, Yea, even when we know not, mix our spites and private hates with our defence of Heaven." Tennyson recorded in his Diary (p. 127): "I believe in Pantheism of a sort." His son's biography confirms that Tennyson was not an orthodox Christian, noting that Tennyson praised Giordano Bruno and Spinoza on his deathbed, saying of Bruno, "His view of God is in some ways mine," in 1892.

Tennyson continued writing into his eighties. He died on 6 October 1892 at Aldworth, aged 83. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. A memorial was erected in All Saints' Church, Freshwater. His last words were; "Oh that press will have me now!".

He was succeeded as 2nd Baron Tennyson by his son, Hallam, who produced an authorised biography of his father in 1897, and was later the second Governor-General of Australia.

The art of Tennyson's Poetry

Tennyson used a wide range of subject matter, ranging from medieval legends to classical myths and from domestic situations to observations of nature, as source material for his poetry. The influence of John Keats and other Romantic poets published before and during his childhood is evident from the richness of his imagery and descriptive writing. He also handled rhythm masterfully. The insistent beat of Break, Break, Break emphasises the relentless sadness of the subject matter. Tennyson's use of the musical qualities of words to emphasise his rhythms and meanings is sensitive. The language of "I come from haunts of coot and hern" lilts and ripples like the brook in the poem and the last two lines of "Come down O maid from yonder mountain height" illustrate his telling combination of onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Tennyson was a craftsman who polished and revised his manuscripts extensively. Few poets have used such a variety of styles with such an exact understanding of metre; like many Victorian poets, he experimented in adapting the quantitative metres of Greek and Latin poetry to English. He reflects the Victorian period of his maturity in his feeling for order and his tendency towards moralising and self-indulgent melancholy. He also reflects a concern common among Victorian writers in being troubled by the conflict between religious faith and expanding scientific knowledge. Like many writers who write a great deal over a long time, he can be pompous or banal, but his personality rings throughout all his works – work that reflects a grand and special variability in its quality. Tennyson possessed the strongest poetic power; he put great length into many works, most famous of which are Maud and Idylls of the King, the latter one of literature's treatments of the legend of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table.

nyson excelled at penning short lyrics, such as "In the Valley of Cauteretz", "Break, Break, Break",
Show full text