Tennyson’s protagonists: yearning for what isn’t

As I read through Selected Poems of Lord Alfred Tennyson [1] two settings that stood out were Ancient Greece, and Camelot. Across these poems, there are multiple themes, but the one that stood out for me was yearning.

Protagonists yearning for …the days that are no more (Pg. 46), yearning to get back on the road, “…always roaming with a hungry heart” (Pg. 15), yearning to live in the light, “I am half sick of shadows” (Pg. 9).

In several of Tennyson’s poems, it’s the yearning that drives the narrative. The protagonists’ dissatisfaction with their life, with the purpose that fate has designed for them, comes through as they attempt, often at the risk of their demise, to break away.

Ulysses, the hero who is at a point between the Trojan war of Odysseus in Homer’s epic, and journey to hell in Dante’s Inferno, is a prime example. He is dissatisfied with his role as the king, to perform his day-to-day role of doling out “unequal laws unto a savage race.” (Pg. 15) He yearns to return to his travels, “to follow knowledge like a sinking star.” (Pg. 15) The ordinary life of staying in one place is “to rust unburnish’d.” (Pg. 15)

The Lady of Shalott, though “in her web she still delights” (Pg. 9) is yearning for more. She is tempted by sights and sounds of Camelot, and when she hears Lancelot sing, “she left the web, she left the room,” Pg. 10) and was pulled towards Camelot. Towards her doom.

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shalott.

(Pg. 11)

In Morte d’ Arthur it’s not so much  yearning, but the sense of loss that a certain time, the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is passing. All knights except for Sir Bedivere are dead, and Arthur is dying. The loss, which foretells yearning is evident in Sir Bedivere’s words:

…my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?

Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?

For now I see the true old times are dead…

…now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved. 

(Pg. 24) 

This theme of yearning for what isn’t is peppered throughout many of Tennyson’s poems. It’s a thread that connects pieces as different as Morte D’ Arthur and Ulysses. 

In ‘Break, Break, Break…’ Tennyson mourns once more for the time passed. 

But the tender grace of a day that is dead

      Will never come back to me. 

(Pg. 27)

Tennyson wrote “In Memoriam” after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam. Another kind of yearning. In it are those immortal lines:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost 

Than never to have loved at all.

(Pg. 55)

There are scholarly interpretations for all poetry, but when it comes down to us individuals, how we interpret poems is entirely subjective. While I noticed yearning as the most common theme amongst Tennyson’s poetry, someone else might notice something different. Tennyson himself may have intended an altogether different meaning. It doesn’t matter. Poetry, when we read it, influences us, and while the idea is to savour the words and get lost in the world the poet created, we can’t get lost without making it our own. Without projecting our subjectivity. In Tennyson’s poetry, no matter what theme you find, I believe the power of his words gives you a world that you can get lost in. Even if it’s through yearning for what isn’t. 

[1] Phoenix Poetry, Poems Selected by Michael Baron, ISBN 978-1-4072-2142-7