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Tennyson, Alfred Lord (1809-1892)  
 
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Surely few literary figures so directly challenge reductive notions of sexual identity as does the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. In Memoriam is both Tennyson's greatest work and the most beautiful elegy in the English language, yet there is little doubt that Tennyson himself was sexually attracted to women.

male characters and homoeroticism abound throughout Tennyson's poetry, particularly from his early years, but he is often considered one of the stuffiest and most prudish of his generation of writers.

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So, one might ask, what does one do with Tennyson? Rather than dismissing him as an anomaly, it seems much more productive to allow Tennyson to disrupt our overly easy classifications of writers and to recognize through his work that transgression is much more common than rigid adherence to narrow, though convenient, literary and sexual categories.

Tennyson's Life and Career

Tennyson's life and career spans the nineteenth century, capturing the Victorian age in many of its complexities. Born on August 6, 1809, in Somersby, England, to an Anglican minister, George Clayton Tennyson, and his wife, Elizabeth Fytche Tennyson, Alfred demonstrated his considerable poetic talents at a very early age, composing his first lines of verse at age five and his first poem at age eight. He and his brothers Frederick and Charles produced a full book of poetry in 1827, when Alfred was barely eighteen.

After studying at Cambridge University and benefitting from the added intellectual stimulation of a literary society there called the "Apostles," his creative activity accelerated, and he published increasingly successful volumes of poetry in 1830, 1832, and 1842.

But these were also turbulent years for Tennyson; his father died in 1831, his beloved friend Hallam (for whom In Memoriam was later written) died in Vienna in 1833, he had a series of painful, unrequited romantic attachments to women during his twenties and thirties, and in 1843 he finally entered a mental hospital to recover from a nervous collapse.

But Tennyson continued writing and revising his poetry, and he recovered to receive the highest acclaim possible for his efforts. In 1845, he was granted a permanent government stipend to support his work, and by 1850, when In Memoriam was published, he had become the favorite of Queen Victoria, who named him Poet Laureate in that year, filling the vacancy left by the death of William Wordsworth.

In 1850, he also married the woman he had loved for many years, Emily Sellwood, with whom he later had two children. His successes continued, as Tennyson produced new volumes of poetry and plays (although the latter have been practically forgotten) every two or three years for the remainder of his life.

Tennyson was again honored in 1883 by being named the first Lord Tennyson, and even though his reputation among critics waned somewhat as the years passed, he continued to be widely loved and respected until his death from influenza on October 6, 1892.

Homoeroticism and Androgyny in Tennyson's Poetry

What helps make all this remarkable and Tennyson's work of immediate relevance for gay audiences is that Tennyson's extraordinary success and wide following were built on poetry that included numerous homoerotic situations and allusions.

However, it is clearly erroneous to call Tennyson a "gay" poet; the term is anachronistic when discussing the Victorian age and it is doubtful that Tennyson ever had sexual contact with another man.

Yet Tennyson's work is important to include in any consideration of a larger gay literary heritage because of its profound emotional content and stunning beauty, which can still speak to audiences today, even though it was written during a period often considered sexually and emotionally sterile.

The Arthurian Poetry

Expressions of love between men and intriguingly androgynous characters are found throughout Tennyson's early poetry. His "Mort d'Arthur" (1842) portrays the passing of the great medieval king as he is attended by his loving, though somewhat wavering, attendant Sir Bedivere; the latter cradles his dying companion in his arms and sheds numerous tears over Arthur's death and the passing of an entire age of heroism.

Similarly, "Sir Galahad" (1842) is an evocation of a period and mindset far removed from that of narrow Victorian definitions of masculinity. Calling himself a "maiden knight," Galahad describes his earnest search for the Holy Grail after seeing it once in a vision; Tennyson uses Galahad effectively and transgressively as a symbol of purity in body and spirit, a man whose "virgin heart" is given to his God.

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