Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Tennyson the European’

Ann Kennedy Smith is a panel tutor at Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education. Her monograph Painted Poetry: Colour in Baudelaire’s Art Criticism was published by Peter Lang in 2011, and since then she has researched and written on Tennyson’s French reception. She is currently researching Cambridge’s university wives 1870-1914, and is a contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Her Twitter handle is @akennedysmith.



Figure 1 Alfred Tennyson, 1869, portrait by Julia Cameron

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) is often considered the most British of poets. In a recent article for The Guardian, Philip Inman claimed that Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was included on the new English GCSE syllabus to teach British schoolchildren about patriotism. Why else would Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education, and one of ‘Vote Leave’s architects in 2016, have chosen it?



Figure 2 The Charge of the Light Brigade and other poems, Dover Thrift Editions, 2000

But it would be wrong to see Tennyson as the Brexit poet par excellence. Since its inception in 2002, the ‘Reception of British and Irish Authors in Europe’ series, edited by Elinor Shaffer and published by Bloomsbury Academic, has considered how authors have been published, translated, read, reviewed, distributed and discussed on the continent of Europe. I must declare an interest, having contributed the chapter on Tennyson’s French reception to the newly published The Reception of Alfred Tennyson in Europe edited by Leonee Ormond. But it wasn’t until I had read the other chapters (on Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal) that I understood how Tennyson’s poems had an impact across Europe and, crucially, how the ways in which his poetry is read is still changing today.



Figure 3 Thomas Philips’ portrait of Lord Byron, 1813

When Tennyson’s first collections of poetry were published, in 1830, 1832 and 1842, it is fair to say that they did not make much of an impact on the continent. The main problem, as far as most European readers were concerned, was that Tennyson was not Lord Byron. Byron was seen as a deeply heroic figure, especially after his early death in 1824 in the struggle for Greek independence. His Childe Harold and Don Juan, with their clear language and heroic subjects, had struck a lasting chord with European readers and were widely translated and read. Tennyson, on the other hand, seemed tame by comparison. His youthful journey to the Pyrenees with Arthur Hallam to bring supplies to Spanish republicans was little known in his lifetime, and his poems from the expedition did not express his political views. What was worse, much of his poetry seemed obscure, difficult to understand and even harder to translate.


Figure 4 Illustration for ‘Godiva’ by William Holman Hunt, from the Moxon Tennyson 1857.

The earlier works which did attract interest were the shorter poems which had clear social messages. ‘Godiva’, with its account of the aristocratic woman riding naked through the streets of Coventry in order to persuade her husband not to increase the citizens’ taxes, was translated into German in 1846, French in 1847, Russian in 1859 and Bulgarian in 1892. ‘Lady Clara Vere de Vere’ tells the story of another, very different aristocratic woman who encourages, then rejects a poor young man who commits suicide. It was translated into French prose in the year it was published (1842), into French verse in 1859 and there were several Russian translations from 1864. In 1909 a play based on the poem was performed in Madrid, but its Spanish writer chose to change the ending to make Lady Clara see the error of her ways. Another socially aware poem, ‘Dora’, with its depiction of a modern heroine who embodied Victorian ideals of femininity, was translated into French, Italian, Flemish and Spanish between 1850 and 1890. ‘Locksley Hall’, which also deals with the social disparity between two lovers, was widely translated in Western Europe. In France, the critics Joseph Milsand and Louis Étienne maintained that this poem was equal to or surpassed ‘the best of Byron’ in its depiction of passion. But after translating long extracts from ‘Locksley Hall’ and ‘The Princess’, even Milsand (later the close friend and champion of Robert Browning) admitted that certain aspects of Tennyson’s verse might never be understood in French translation.


Figure 5 Winterhalter’s portrait of Queen Victoria,1859.

Tennyson himself was seen by Europeans as an enigma. After Queen Victoria appointed him poet laureate in 1850, he seemed an even more remote figure, and as Leonee Ormond puts it, ‘If writers were perceived as natural rebels, accepting a royal appointment was tantamount to a sell-out’ (1). One French writer joked in 1855 that ‘a Poet Laureate lives in court and is fed on wine from the Canary Islands’ (2) Other journalists and writers who visited England reported on the strange-looking poet who hid himself and his family away from public view, appearing only on rare occasions. It was known that Queen Victoria was a great admirer of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s 1850 elegy on the death of his friend Arthur Hallam and now acknowledged by many as his masterpiece, but the poem was received with little enthusiasm in many parts of nineteenth-century Europe. German critics of the 1850s found it tedious, and Hippolyte Taine, in his influential History of English Literature of 1863-4, considered it ‘cold, monotonous, and too prettily arranged’ (3), a view echoed by the first Greek commentator on Tennyson, G.M. Vizyenos, in 1891. However, Italian critics of the 1880s and 1890s defended the poem, praising its beauty and humanity, and there were more positive responses further east, in Bulgaria and Russia. Maud (1855) went largely unnoticed and the first four books of Tennyson’s Arthurian cycle of poems, The Idylls of the King, published in 1859, were regarded in some quarters as nationalistic, in others as further evidence that Tennyson was a women’s poet. They became more popular after 1867, due mainly to the international Hachette editions with Gustave Doré’s beautiful illustrations, which, many felt, almost bypassed the need for Tennyson’s poetry.



Figure 6 Gustave Doré, ‘The Body of Elaine on Its Way to King Arthur’s Palace’, 1867

In one case this is exactly what happened. José Zorilla, the poet who had been commissioned to translate the Idylls into Spanish, instead replaced Tennyson’s words with his own verse history, Los Ecos de las Montañas (The Echoes of the Mountains), rearranging Doré’s illustrations to fit his own narrative. (4) However, high production costs meant that the international Idylls were expensive, and only a relatively small number were ever sold, contributing to the eventual collapse of Tennyson’s publisher Moxon, as Jim Cheshire has shown. (5)



Figure 7 ‘Enoch Arden etc’ Tauchnitz frontispiece 1864

Everything changed after the publication of Enoch Arden in 1864. Twenty-first century readers might be surprised to learn that this, more than any other poem, did most to introduce Tennyson to European readers. It tells the story of a fisherman who spends ten years shipwrecked on a desert island. After being rescued by a passing ship, he returns home to find that his wife, assuming him to be dead, has remarried and begun a new family. Enoch decides not to reveal his identity to his wife and children, and dies impoverished and alone. An instant best-seller in Britain, it was the first of Tennyson’s poems to achieve similar levels of fame throughout Europe, aided by its simultaneous publication by Tauchnitz, the Leipzig- based publisher. The cheapness of the European edition meant that thousands of copies of the Tauchnitz Tennyson’s complete works were smuggled into Britain, leading to fewer royalties for Tennyson and added problems for Moxon.

Enoch Arden was translated into German in 1867, into French in 1868, and in 1872 it appeared as the first modern Greek translation of a complete Tennyson poem. A Bulgarian version was published in 1884, and a Russian one in 1888. Émile Zola’s novella Jacques Damour, first published in Russian in 1880, humorously reworked the story in his topical tale of a French Communard who returns to Paris after ten years’ exile thanks to a government amnesty, and tries to reclaim his wife who is notably unwilling to take him back. Zola always denied the connection, insisting that he had never read a line Tennyson, but when a dramatic version was performed on the London stage it was condemned as a ‘disgusting Enoch Arden’. (7) Bilingual translations of Enoch Arden remained an English set text in French secondary schools until 1947, which may not have made Tennyson any more loved by generations of French schoolchildren, but certainly made him a household name.

So, would Tennyson have been a Brexiteer? Probably, even though he taught himself German, Italian and French to read Goethe, Dante and Victor Hugo in their original language. But even if he could be described, then and now, as a very British poet, Europe came to love Tennyson, and continues to re-evaluate his work. In 1987 In Memoriam was included on the syllabus of the English agrégation, the prestigious competitive exam designed to select secondary school teachers in France, and a new French translation by Claude Dandréa was published in 2008. In 2011, Francisque Michel’s French translation of the first four Idylls of the King, complete with Doré’s accompanying illustrations, were reissued for the first time since 1869, this time as an inexpensive paperback.

The composer Richard Strauss’s 1897 setting of Enoch Arden as a melodrama for narrator and piano continues to be popular in many different languages throughout Europe; in 2012 Bourlos’s Greek translation was performed at the International Classical Music festival at the Cyclades on Syros.


Finally, considering its current popularity, including the placing of the last line ‘To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’ at the entrance to the London Olympic stadium in 2012, it is perhaps surprising that Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ of 1842 did not receive more attention from nineteenth-century readers. Today, however, it is the most translated and anthologized of Tennyson’s poems throughout Europe, providing proof, if proof were needed, that readers change over time and the ways in which poetry is read, distributed and translated change along with them. When it comes to literature, there are no borders, and now, more than ever, it is worth re-considering Tennyson’s poetry, not from a narrow nationalist perspective, but from the wider European point of view.


(1) Ormond, Leonee, (ed.) The Reception of Alfred Tennyson in Europe (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), p. 8.

(2) Kennedy Smith, Ann, ‘Tennyson seen from there: Enoch Arden’s French reception’ in Tennyson Research Bulletin (2014), 10.3: pp. 251–65, p. 251.

(3) Taine, H. A. History of English Literature, 2 vols ((Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1871), p. 526.

(4) Ormond, Reception, pp. 126-7.

(5) Cheshire, Jim, ‘The Fall of the House of Moxon: James Bertrand Payne and the illustrated Idylls of the King’ in Victorian Poetry, (2012) 50.1: pp. 67–90.

(6) Kennedy Smith, ‘Tennyson seen from there’, pp. 261-2.


One comment

  1. Thanks, Anne, a most interesting article, wonderfully researched.

    If anyone is interested in a detailed account of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, might I mention my essay, ‘On Not Knowing Why: Memorializing the Light Brigade’, in Helen Small and Trudi Tate, eds., Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honour of Gillian Beer (Oxford University Press, 2003).

    The essay suggests that the poem is more complex than is generally recognised. Tennyson has quite a nuanced sense of the issues he addresses: sacrifice, class, army reform, etc.

    Best wishes,
    Trudi Tate

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *