Tennyson and the Fabrication of Englishness

Sherwood, Marion Frances (2011). Tennyson and the Fabrication of Englishness. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000f1e1


Nineteenth-century preoccupation with the meaning of Englishness began with the origin of the term in 1804. By the late nineteenth century, an ideology of Englishness had been established which was both reflected in and shaped by cultural forms and emerging myths in general and Tennyson’s poetry in particular.

Critics identified Tennyson as an English poet from the first reviews of his published poems in the late 1820s. As Poet Laureate for over forty years, Tennyson became the authoritative public voice of English poetry. This thesis examines Tennyson’s ‘domestic poetry’ - his portrayals of English nature and landscape, monarchy, medievalism, and the ‘English Empire’ - written throughout his career and in their changing nineteenth-century context - to confirm that many representations of England and the English were more idealized than real, hence fabrications.

However, the thesis argues that Tennyson’s representations of Englishness are complex and often conflicting fabrications, revealing ideological and personal faultlines. Although Tennyson’s oeuvre reveals an enduring love of English nature and landscape, poetic imagery suggests a qualified commitment to the developing ideology of rural England. His poems of monarchy mirror and enhance increasing public veneration of monarchy and fail to acknowledge the continuing co-existence of radical and republican sentiment. Tennyson’s Arthurian poems reveal that emerging gendered moralities were mythologized and both supported and qualified by revived interest in medievalism. Nineteenth-century concepts of Englishness were increasingly shaped by the imperial project and related questions of race. Tennyson’s attitude to the ‘English Empire’ changed from early ambivalence to resounding defence of ‘ever-broadening England’. Ultimately therefore Tennyson attained an imperial position in poetry in both senses of the term.

This study confirms that the poet both reflected and shaped defining ‘moments of Englishness’ throughout his career and concludes that a significant defining moment of nineteenth-century Englishness was the birth of Alfred Tennyson in 1809.

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