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Trinity College, Cambridge
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Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson FRS (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892) was a British poet. He was the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular British poets. In 1829, Tennyson was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, "Timbuktu". He published his first solo collection of poems, Poems Chiefly Lyrical in 1830. "Claribel" and "Mariana", which remain some of 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. Tennyson's early poetry, with its medievalism and powerful visual imagery, was a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Few literary figures so directly challenge reductive notions of sexual identity as does Lord Tennyson. In Memoriam is both Tennyson's greatest work and the most beautiful homoerotic elegy in the English language, yet there is little doubt that Tennyson himself was sexually attracted to women.
Androgynous 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.
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 Arthur 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.
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. He looked to homosocial bonding as one source for positive (in the case of men) or negative (in the case of women) emotional ties that might have an effect upon the fragmentation that he saw around him.
Though heterosexual, Tennyson wrote poetry dealing with love between men that is still capable of evoking a profound response from gay audiences today and that has an important place in any consideration of gay literary history.
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