Five Fascinating Facts about Alfred, Lord Tennyson

1. He was the original ‘airy-fairy’ poet.

The phrase ‘airy-fairy’ – now used as a derogatory term for something light and insubstantial – can be traced back to Tennyson’s use of it in one of his early poems, ‘Lilian’ (1830). The first line of ‘Lilian’ reads: ‘Airy, fairy Lilian…’ This phrase was taken up as a term of reproach for anything that was a bit fluffy and not grounded in reality, though the original meaning (‘now rare’, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us) was less pejorative: ‘having the ethereal qualities associated with a fairy’, ‘enchanting’, ‘magical’. This original meaning – also, of course, inspired by Tennyson’s poem – has given way to the ubiquitous sense of the phrase outlined above.

2. No English poet knew more about how to use vowel sounds – with the curious exception of the word ‘scissors’. 

Tennyson’s own son Hallam Tennyson reported that his father had a fine ear for the movement and ‘quantity’ of vowel sounds. But the word ‘scissors’ stumped him – supposedly because each of the vowels in that word is surrounded on both sides by two consonants, though it may be because ‘scissors’ doesn’t have a rhyme-word.

3. His first published book of poems was written with his brother.

No, make that two of his brothers. Poems by Two Brothers appeared in 1827 while Tennyson was a student at Cambridge, but its title is a misnomer since three Tennyson brothers actually contributed. It didn’t sell well – as a poetry collection by another trio of famous Victorian literary siblings wouldn’t some 20 years later. Tennyson – Alfred, that is – would later disown his contributions to this first volume, and the poems are undoubtedly juvenilia. However, just a few years later, in 1830, he published his first great poem, ‘Mariana’.

4. He gave us the phrase ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. 

A great successor to the Romantics, Tennyson was predominantly influenced by a second-generation Romantic poet, John Keats (1795-1821). But Tennyson – who would set the standard for much Victorian poetry – took poetry somewhere different from Keats’s, and the Romantics’, worship of nature and the senses. The culture of mourning, typified by Queen Victoria’s long period of grief following her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861, looms large in the poetry of Tennyson, who lost his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833, and wrote publicly about his grief in his long 1850 poem In Memoriam. (The same year as that poem was published, Tennyson would be made Poet Laureate – a post he would hold for a record 42 years.) Developments in science also contributed to the narrative, with poets such as Tennyson and Browning responding to Charles Lyell’s work in geology and Darwin’s theory of evolution in their work. As a result, nature became something terrifying as well as beautiful – terrifying because Lyell and Darwin would reveal that, beneath its beauty and orderliness, there lurked a dangerous and brutal world governed by the violent struggle for survival. As a result, Christian faith – including Tennyson’s own – was rocked, and Tennyson said of the Christian ending he gave to In Memoriam that it was ‘too hopeful … more than I am myself.’ Would he be reunited with loved ones after his death? Or was death the end of it all? In Memoriamcontains the memorable line that describes ‘Nature’ as being ‘red in tooth and claw’ – although, contrary to a widely held belief, this is not a response to Darwin (whose On the Origin of Species wouldn’t be published for another nine years) but to a particular school of geological thinking known as Catastrophism, which Tennyson had learnt about while a student at Cambridge back in the 1820s.

5. And the phrase ‘better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ also made its debut in the same poem.

Tennyson’s In Memoriam also gave us this phrase, though the sentiment is far older: a similar version can be found in William Congreve’s 1700 play The Way of the World: ‘Say what you will, ’tis better to be left than never to have been loved.’

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