‘Echo and allusion’: Tennyson and Wordsworth

by Jayne Thomas


In his 1879 essay on Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold maintains that by the publication of Tennyson’s 1842 Poems ‘the ear and applause of the great body of poetry-readers’ turn decisively toward Tennyson and away from Wordsworth, a transition of which Wordsworth himself was perhaps aware. Aubrey de Vere records a meeting between the two poets at a dinner given by Edward Moxon, Tennyson and Wordsworth’s publisher, in 1845. Tennyson was anxious to express to ‘the Old Bard his sense of the obligation which all Englishmen owed to him’. Wordsworth for his part was much pleased at the meeting, recording later in a letter to a friend:

I saw Tennyson when I was in London several times. He is decidedly the first of our living poets, and I hope will live to give the world still better things. You will be pleased to hear that he expressed in the strongest terms his gratitude to my writings. To this I was far from indifferent.

Yet, Wordsworth’s pleasure at Tennyson’s gratitude here mixes with a recognition that Tennyson is ‘decidedly’ the first of our living poets, and that the tide of public opinion is moving in his favour.

Tennyson in around 1840. Portrait by Samuel Laurence and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1850 an actual transition did take place, as Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate. On becoming Laureate, Tennyson was keen to pay Wordsworth his due respect. Pondering his first Laureate poem, ‘To the Queen’ (1851), Hallam Tennyson records his father as ‘especially thinking of a stanza in which “the empire of Wordsworth should be asserted: for he was a representative Poet Laureate, such a poet as kings should honour, and such an one as would do honour to kings”’.


The ‘empire of Wordsworth’ notwithstanding, Tennyson’s relationship with Wordsworth was ‘never quite comfortable’, however, as Stephen Gill observes. They were on the surface two quite different poets; Arthur Henry Hallam in his famous review of Tennyson’s 1830 Poems, Chiefly Lyrical drew a distinction between the two, describing Wordsworth as the poet of the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘reflective’, and Tennyson as the poet of sensation, who, like Keats and Shelley, ‘trembled into emotion at colours, and sounds, and movements, unperceived or unregarded by duller temperaments’. But Tennyson nevertheless retained a profound respect for Wordsworth. Hallam Tennyson notes his father as saying in 1883 that Wordsworth was “‘at his best on the whole the greatest English poet since Milton’”.


Respect did not inhibit Tennyson from voicing his criticisms of Wordsworth, nonetheless, particularly in relation to the earlier poet’s prosaic poetic style: Wordsworth, Tennyson claims, is “‘thick-ankled”’, his work unequal, with a ‘heaviness of style seen somewhat too often in poems, the subject of which more or less defied successful treatment’. On a short tour of Europe in 1869 Frederick Locker-Lampson remembers Tennyson as saying:

You must not think because I speak plainly of Wordsworth’s defects as a poet that I have not a very high admiration of him. I shall never forget my deep emotion the first time I had speech with him. I have a profound admiration for ‘Tintern Abbey’.

And yet, Locker-Lampson notes how ‘even in that poem [Tennyson] considered the old poet had shown a want of literary instinct’; he thought the poem, for instance, ‘too long’ and too repetitive, a poetic trait to which he himself is not averse in his own work, however. Tennyson nevertheless ‘greatly praised the famous line “Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” – “the permanent in the transitory”’, a praise he would reiterate in 1883, calling the line “‘almost the grandest in the English language, giving the sense of the abiding in the transient’”.


Tennyson remained fascinated by Wordsworth’s trope of the permanent in the transitory, reworking the themes of ‘Tintern Abbey’ in poems such as ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ (1847), ‘Tithonus’ and ‘In the Valley of Cauteretz’ (1864). ‘Tithonus’ works a ‘remarkable variation on the theme’, although ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ has to work with ‘heroic strenuousness to affirm a sense of continuity between past and present’, as Seamus Perry puts it.


Wordsworth’s poetic influence is also clearly felt in a group of poems that were later termed the English or Domestic ‘Idylls’; these include ‘Dora’, ‘Audley Court’, ‘Walking to the Mail’ and ‘The Gardener’s Daughter Or, The Pictures’. Tennyson attempts a Wordsworthian simplicity in ‘Dora’, such as that of Wordsworth’s blank verse narrative, ‘Michael: A Pastoral Poem’, which Edward Fitzgerald read to Tennyson in 1835 on a trip to the Speddings’ house, Mirehouse, by Bassenthwaite Lake, in the Lake District. Fitzgerald quotes Tennyson, in fact, as saying that he ‘remembered the time when he could see nothing in “Michael” which he now read us in admiration’. Wordsworth for his part is rather apocryphally accredited with saying of ‘Dora’: “‘Mr Tennyson, I have been endeavouring all my life to write a pastoral like your “Dora” and have not succeeded.”’ Like Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, ‘Dora’ is one of ‘those domestic tales’ (‘Michael’, I. l. 22), a ‘history / Homely and rude’ (‘Michael’, I. ll. 34-5).


Despite his criticism of Wordsworth’s prosaic poetic style Tennyson re-channels a Wordsworthian ‘ordinariness’ in his so-called Lincolnshire dialect poems, ‘Northern Farmer, Old Style’ (1864), ‘Northern Farmer, New Style’ (1869), and ‘The Northern Cobbler’ (1880). Tennyson also turns to Wordsworth’s scenes of ordinary life in the 1880 Ballads and Other Poems such as ‘Rizpah’, ‘In the Children’s Hospital’ and ‘The Village Wife’, leading to suggestions that he turns away from his own ballad experiments of the 1830s and 1840s to adapt the Wordsworthian ballad, with its emphasis on incidents and situations from common life; the title of Tennyson’s collection is itself a reminder of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800).

But there are other, subtle to connections to Wordsworth’s poetics in Tennyson’s poems, often working at the level of language and phrasing, echo and allusion. In Memoriam A.H.H., written in lament for Hallam, dead from a brain haemorrhage at twenty-two, is concerned with absence, or rather with making an absence present. The poem, an elegy, was published anonymously the year Tennyson took over the Laureateship, combining private grief with public expression, as it explores faith, God, and science in its attempt to come to terms with Hallam’s unexpected loss. Tennyson draws from Wordsworth to help find his own form of consolation in the poem, however tenuous this consolation subsequently proves to be, and therefore to make his accommodations with his faith – ‘a poor thing’, as T. S. Eliot says – and with the claims of nineteenth-century science and religion. Wordsworth helps Tennyson both to stabilise his ‘public’ voice in the poem and to develop the pastoral elements of elegy. Tennyson borrows liberally from Wordsworth’s elegies as poetic models, as poems that articulate grief and work toward consolation, weaving their language and phrasing into new configurations and connections. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst notes how ‘So many of In Memoriam’s literary echoes emerge from contexts of loss (the splintered remains of earlier elegies that rise unpredictably to the surface of Tennyson’s verse, like the debris of shipwrecks)’. Wordsworth’s elegies do not randomly rise to the surface of In Memoriam, however, and nor do they lie inert like the debris of abandoned shipwrecks; rather, Tennyson borrows from Wordsworth’s elegies to help him conceive and write the poem, weaving their language and phrasing into new configurations and connections; the poem’s trajectory toward the ‘one far-off divine event, / To which the whole creation moves’ (‘Epilogue’, ll. 143-4) is facilitated by Wordsworth in this sense.


Tennyson reading ‘Maud’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855. Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery


Tennyson’s 1855 Monodrama, Maud, ‘a drama in lyrics’, is also heavily indebted to Wordsworth. Tennyson is keen to emphasise that in portraying the speaker’s phases of passion, he is developing a new form – the monodrama or monologue – but in so doing he is unable to break away from away from Wordsworth, relying on his predecessor to shape and structure his poem. Tennyson’s revisionary borrowings ‘reinvent’ Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems and to some extent ‘The Preface to the Second Edition’ of Lyrical Ballads (1800). Maud grows out of ‘The Preface’, in its concern with passion, but Tennyson loosens the poem from Wordsworth’s affiliation of passion with morality, communitarianism and sympathy. The speaker’s passion in Maud leads to madness, distortion, murder, and a sense of community found in the abstract concept of war rather than in the community of men and women. But echoes of Wordsworth’s language and phrasing also create thematic and structural links in the poem – the ‘Lucy’ poems underpin the trajectory of the later monologue, confirming Maud’s literary heritage and Maud’s destiny.

Wordsworth’s influence in Tennyson extends to the latter’s dramatic monologues, ‘Ulysses’ (1833) and ‘Tithonus’ (1860), poems ostensibly designed to break away from Romantic subjectivity through the creation of a fictional speaker. In ‘Ulysses’, Tennyson seemingly strengthens the form of the monologue, revising the universal subjectivity of the Wordsworthian speaker; and yet Wordsworth’s presence in the monologue remains vital, a fact underlined by Ulysses’ own search for that which the poem has itself defined as lost – the Wordsworthian imagination itself. ‘Tithonus’ and, in part the earlier ‘Tithon’ on which it is based, rewrites ‘Tintern Abbey’, effects achieved through echoes or borrowings from ‘Tintern Abbey’ itself, but also through the assimilation of words and phrases from An Evening Walk (1793) and ‘Resolution and Independence’ (1807). The rewriting of ‘Tithon’ in 1860 in dramatic form comes after the publication of In Memoriam and Maud, both of which see Tennyson as grappling with the complexities of religion, science, psychology and nature. Through the borrowing of Wordsworth’s language in ‘Tithonus’, Tennyson is able to rewrite the relationship between mind and nature, of the self reencountering itself in time, as it appears in ‘Tintern Abbey’. As a result, the later poet seemingly releases himself from a Wordsworthian trope that privileges a psychologised relationship with nature.

Wordsworth remains a vital presence in Tennyson’s major poetry until the end of his career. ‘Crossing the Bar’ was written in October 1889 whilst Tennyson was crossing the Solent, coming, Tennyson was to recall, “‘in a moment”’. It engages with familiar Tennysonian themes – death and what comes after it, the separation that comes with death – as well as with familiar Tennysonian tropes, such as the threshold (both between life and death and between day and evening), and the ‘boundless deep’. The poem also echoes with Wordsworth’s language and phrasing; in coming quickly to Tennyson, the poem reveals an automatic and instinctive recalling of Wordsworth. The ‘tide as moving seems asleep / Too full for sound or foam’ responds to Wordsworth’s ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ (1807). Writing as if his ‘had been the Painter’s hand’ (l. 13) to ‘express what then I saw’ (l. 14) Wordsworth’s speaker says of Peele Castle: ‘A Picture had it been of lasting ease / Elysian quiet, without toil or strife; / No motion but the moving tide, a breeze, / Or merely silent Nature’s breathing life’ (ll. 25-8). Wordsworth’s ‘moving tide’ in Tennyson becomes a ‘tide as moving seems asleep’, as the barely susceptible ‘motion’ of the tide in ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ reaches stasis. Tennyson’s speaker hopes to be carried home for one last time on his sleeping tide, as the stanza itself, in its wave-like rhythm, mimics the action of the tide itself, simultaneously confirming yet undermining the speaker’s wishes.

Tennyson thus reveals himself equally as reliant on the ‘Old Bard’ in 1889 as he is in any of his earlier poems. It is through Wordsworth that Tennyson is able to anchor himself as poet, Poet Laureate and Victorian cultural icon. If, as Arnold suggests, Tennyson overtakes Wordsworth in the public imagination from 1842, then this is a transition that is supported and facilitated by Wordsworth himself.



Dr Jayne Thomas is the author of Tennyson Echoing Wordsworth (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019). She is a Postdoctoral Researcher, specialising in Romantic influences in Victorian poetry. She received her PhD from Cardiff University in 2014. Her article ‘Tennyson’s “Tithonus” and the Revision of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey’” appeared in Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate in 2017. She has also published book chapters on the Anglo-Irish author George Moore in 2012 and 2013 respectively.