Alfred, Lord Tennyson was an English poet writing during the Victorian period (i.e., during the reign of Queen Victoria, or 1837-1901). Tennyson was one of the most popular poets of his period and was named poet laureate in 1850, after the death of William Wordsworth. He was also given a title and a position in the nobility because of his awesomeness as a poet – "Lord" isn't his middle name; it's his aristocratic title. When he was born, he was plain old Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson deserves props for being a poet – and an incredibly popular one – during a time when the novel was the genre of choice for most people. We often call the Victorian period the "golden age of the novel," and yet here's Tennyson, producing some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in English.
So what made Tennyson so popular? Well, he wrote about a lot of things that are common to everyone: love, loss, grief, and death. You know that old saying, "It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all"? It's not really an "old saying," it's a line from one of Tennyson's most famous poems, In Memoriam. Many of his poems seemed to resonate with readers – people found what he said to seem so universal that lines like this one got taken out of context and repeated until they started to sound cliché.
Tennyson was also interested in some of the major questions of the day – new scientific ideas were being discussed, including Darwin's new-fangled theory of evolution (Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859). Tennyson's interest in science, history, mythology, and social progress – all important topics of debate in Victorian England – is often apparent in his poetry. In other words, there's something in it for everyone, from Queen Victoria herself to the scullery maids who worked in the palace kitchens to us modern readers.
"Break, Break, Break" is a short, sad, lyric poem in which the speaker mourns the loss of a friend or lover, and imagines that everyone has someone to love but him. Sad, right? Well, Tennyson really did lose a friend, and a lot of his sad poetry is about coming to terms with his grief.
Tennyson's best friend from college, Arthur Henry Hallam, died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage while traveling in Vienna in September of 1833. Hallam was engaged to be married to Tennyson's sister, so the whole family felt the loss. Tennyson took years to get over it, composing what some people consider is greatest work, In Memoriam A.H.H., in memory of his friend (the initials A.H.H. obviously stand for Hallam's name). In Memoriam was published in 1850, but Tennyson had been working on it for seventeen years – ever since Hallam died. "Break, Break, Break" was published in 1842, but was written in 1834, only a short time after Hallam's death. Even though Tennyson doesn't come out and say it, it seems like a pretty safe bet that the "vanish'd hand" that the speaker is mourning is Hallam's.
After Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, died, she was inconsolable. She famously said, "Next to the Bible, In Memoriam [by Tennyson] is my comfort." She kept Tennyson's poetry on her bedside table for years to comfort herself in her grief over her husband's death.
Everyone has lost someone. Even if you're lucky enough never to have had someone close to you die, you've at least lost someone from moving away or from a breakup. Are you still shaking your head? Well, not to be Debbie Downers, but chances are good that you probably will, someday. One of the reasons that Tennyson was so popular at the time, and the reason he's still so popular now, is because his descriptions of grief are so vivid and so universal. We read about his intense grief, and think, "wow, we're not alone."
The Victorian Web
The Victorian Web has many useful links for students of Victorian literature and culture. This is a link to the Victorian Web's Tennyson page.
The University of Rochester
The University of Rochester's library has a useful biography of Tennyson.
Compare two separate readings of the poem on this site. We think both are great, though quite different. Which do you like better?
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Here's an image of Tennyson as an old man.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Here's an image of Tennyson as a young man.
An 1857 illustration of Tennyson's poem.
The British Library in London has an online exhibition with a page of Tennyson's manuscript of his long poem, Maud. We always think it's fun to check out a writer's handwriting.
"Rhythm in English Poetry"
This article is a good place to start for students interested in Tennyson's meter. (JSTOR login required. You may be able to access this through your school library.)
"The 'Puzzling Plainness' of 'Break, Break, Break': Its Deep and Surface Structure"
Here's an article by H. Sopher about the structure of "Break, Break, Break." (JSTOR login required.)
"Calculating Loss in Tennyson's In Memoriam"
Here's an article by Irene Hsiao on grief and loss in Tennyson. (MUSE login required.)