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.
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 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.
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.
Thus Tennyson clearly does not fit into convenient categories such as "radical" or even "progressive"; rather, he, like so many of his contemporaries, was an eager participant in the ongoing debates on gender roles and the place of emotion and commitment in a society that seemed obsessed with technological progress and the accumulation of wealth.
As part of his explorations of alternative forms for social organization and moral engagement, 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.
But homosocial and homosexual desire are not always easily distinguishable, and certainly in In Memoriam the boundary between platonic and actively erotic forms of love seems fuzzy.
In this way, Tennyson challenges are our own ability to classify writers as "gay" and "straight." 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.
Burial (Memorial Site): Trinity College, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England. Plot: Chapel
Author: Hall, Donald E.
Entry Title: Tennyson, Alfred Lord
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated October 10, 2005
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/tennyson_al.htm
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date October 6, 2012
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates
Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Paperback: 244 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 15, 1985)
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Hailed by the New York Times as "one of the most influential texts in gender studies, men's studies and gay studies," this book uncovers the homosocial desire between men, from Restoration comedies to Tennyson's Princess.
Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (February 17, 2005)
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"A brilliant work of social archaeology....A major historical contribution."—Adam Goodheart, The New York Times Book Review
The nineteenth century was a golden age for those people known variously as sodomites, Uranians, monosexuals, and homosexuals. Long before Stonewall and Gay Pride, there was such a thing as gay culture, and it was recognized throughout Europe and America. Graham Robb, brilliant biographer of Balzac, Hugo, and Rimbaud, examines how homosexuals were treated by society and finds a tale of surprising tolerance. He describes the lives of gay men and women: how they discovered their sexuality and accepted or disguised it; how they came out; how they made contact with like-minded people. He also includes a fascinating investigation of the encrypted homosexuality of such famous nineteenth-century sleuths as Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes himself (with glances forward in time to Batman and J. Edgar Hoover). Finally, Strangers addresses crucial questions of gay culture, including the riddle of its relationship to religion: Why were homosexuals created with feelings that the Creator supposedly condemns? This is a landmark work, full of tolerant wisdom, fresh research, and surprises.
Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford by Linda Dowling
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Cornell University Press (January 3, 1997)
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"Dowling's compact and intelligently argued study is concerned with the late-Victorian emergence of homosexuality as an identity rather than as an activity. . . . [This identity] was formed out of notions of Hellenism current in mid-century Oxford that were held to be lofty and ennobling and even a kind of substitute for a waning Christianity."-Nineteenth- Century Literature"Dowling's study is an exceptionally clear-headed and far-reaching analysis of the way Greek studies operated as a 'homosexual code' during the great age of English university reform. . . . Beautifully written and argued with subtlety, the book is indispensable for students of Victorian literature, culture, gender studies, and the nature of social change."-Choice"Hellenism and Homosexuality . . . presents a detailed and knowledgeable . . . account of such factors as the Oxford Movement and the influence of such Victorian dons as Jowett and Pater and the evolving evaluations of Classical Greece, its mores and morals. It is also enhanced by [an] analysis of Greek terminology with homosexual connotations, as to be found, for instance, in Plato's Republic."-Lambda Book Report
Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity by James Eli Adams
Paperback: 264 pages
Publisher: Cornell University Press; First Edition edition (November 30, 1995)
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A Choice "Outstanding Academic Book for 1996"While drawing on work in feminism, queer theory, and cultural history, Dandies and Desert Saints challenges scholars to rethink simplistic notions of Victorian manhood. James Eli Adams examines masculine identity in Victorian literature from Thomas Carlyle through Oscar Wilde, analyzing authors who identify the age's ideal of manhood as the power of self-discipline. What distinguishes Adams's book from others in the recent explosion of interest in masculinity is his refusal to approach masculinity primarily in terms of "patriarchy" or "phallogocentrism" or within the binary of homosexualities and heterosexualities.