English Literature » Notes » Tennyson’s Use of Myths and Legends
Alfred Tennyson

Tennyson’s Use of Myths and Legends

Tennyson’s use of myths and legends in Ulysses, The Lotos-Eaters, Locksley Hall, Tithonus, Morte D’Arthur.

Tennyson is a veteran poet of Victorian age. He is called the voice of his time. In the canvas of his poetry all the contemporary problems are reflected. Sometimes Tennyson has used different myths and legends in his poetry only to offer a kind of solution o the modern problems. In this way the poet has made a connection between the past and the present.


In the civilization of the past, there were problems and there were solutions as well. Based on the knowledge of the past myths and legends the present-day problems can be solved. Tennyson has used myths and legends in his poetry in this regard.

Tennyson has used myths from Greek mythology in the poem Ulysses. Actually, Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus, king of Ithaca. He was an adventurous man. He participated in the legendary war of Troy along with other kings and heroes. They had to fight a fierce battle against mighty defending Trojan soldiers; even against the gods and goddesses.

When the war of Troy ended, Ulysses with his ships, was stranded and lost his way to Ithaca. It took another ten years for him to arrive home. But this return journey was not easy. He had to fight against monsters, giants, enchanters at different islands and finally arrived home.

So, it is very much obvious that he was a man of adventure. Even after arriving home, he was adamant to undertake another adventure for the discovery of new island and new country. He wants to gather knowledge, to see the unseen and know the unknown. And for this, he promises to go beyond the sunset. He wants-

To follow knowledge…
………. of human thought.

Through this poem, Alfred Tennyson actually motivates his countrymen to follow the philosophy of life of Ulysses. He motivates his countrymen to go for discovery, inventions and search for knowledge. As Ulysses thinks that life is like a sword, Tennyson inspires his countrymen o use the sword for noble purpose of mankind. Every moment of time should be used to bring something new for the development, dynamicity of human civilization. This is the demand of Victorian time and as nationalistic and patriotic poet, the urges his people to follow the life of Ulysses.

The Lotos-Eaters

During this adventurous return journey, Ulysses had to lose huge chunk of soldiers fighting against the giants and cruel weather. And after a time, Ulysses with the mighty soldiers arrived at a new and strange island.  It was the island of ‘Lotos Eaters’. This myth has been treated in the poem The Lotos-Eaters. |It was the land of laziness. Some companions of Ulysses ate lotos plants and they became lethargic and decided to stay on the island. Through their statement, we get some philosophical ideas about life. They say everything on this earth… bird, beast and plant has rest in their life. But they have no rest in life. They only suffered and suffered doing adventures. That is why they have now decided to take rest. They go on to say that if death is inevitable, there is no point in working and toiling only. Through the statement of the mariners, Tennyson actually wanted to remind the Victorian people who were so busy in their materialistic life. The poet wants to remind them that to make life peaceful, rest is necessary.  It is Tennyson’s own opinion through the mouth of the soldiers when they say-

Death is the end of life; oh, why
Should life all labour be?

The theme of this poem seems to be totally opposite to that of Ulysses. But if we consider the message of the poem The Lotos-Eaters very deeply, we can realize that Alfred Tennyson is a poet of compromise. He is not an extremist in any philosophy of life. He wants advancement and progress of his country and at the same time he doesn’t want that people of his country will be too much materialistic, too much money obsessed and too much machine like. So the message of the poem is very much obvious to the Victorian people.

Locksley Hall

In Locksley Hall, we have modern legendary story of love. Here in this poem, we see the speaker has fallen in love with his cousin Amy. But the love could not go to happy union of marriage because the guardians dismissed their love. Amy’s parents were too much materialistic and they did not allow the lover who is falling short of money to marry their daughter. The lover was in total frustration and mental agony. He cursed money obsessed Victorian society where man’s feeling is valueless and defeated by the money of the fools. However, at last the lover becomes promise bound to start a new chapter of life of dynamicity and progress. Through this poem, we see that Tennyson is a man of gentle progress and advancement. He does not like too much hankering for money and gold that disrupt the happy natural condition of life.


In his distinguished poem Tithonus, he has used the myths of Tithonus, a character taken from Greek mythology. He was a mortal, a handsome young man and Aurora, goddess of dawn fall in love with him. Tithonus became proud as he was loved by a goddess. Being proud he sought immortality from the goddess and she smilingly conferred upon him the immortality. But Tithonus made a gruesome mistake. Man cannot be immortal and this is the Ordinance of god. Tithonus violated the order of god and wanted to be immortal and thus he crossed the boundary ordained by god for human beings. For his ambition and pride, he was caught and punished by the omnipotent. He go only the immortal life not the immortal youth. So with the passage of time, he becomes old and turns into just skin and bone, and he suffers the pangs of old age. Now he desired to die like other common human beings. But being immortal, he cannot die. From the palace of Aurora, Tithonus observed human beings on earth. They are coming to the earth and after a time they are dying. Tithonus laments over his fate. Now he suffers and suffers only.

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

Tithonus desired to be immortal which is beyond human trait. He achieved what he wanted, but it came with an endless suffering. Tennyson wanted through the poem to give a message to his readers that if anybody wants to be as ambitious as Tithonus, he will suffer endlessly like Tithonus. Now Tithonus realises that man should not desire to be different from human condition. He pathetically says-

Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,

Morte D’Arthur

In his famous poem Morte D’Arthur, Tennyson employed the legend of King Arthur,  a renowned king of England in the past. He made as many as 150 knight in his palace. All the knights were men of chivalry. All of them were equal to King Arthur. That is why, he made a round table for all of them. The round table also signifies that every knight is special to him.  In the table, there is no classification.

However, at one stage, with the treachery of Sir Modred, the nephew and knight of king Arthur, a fierce battle started with Sir Modred and in the battle, all knights of Arthur’s round table fell down fighting. It was very painful and pathetic time for Arthur. He himself fought with the enemy and defeated and killed Sir Modred. But in the process, king Arthur himself was wounded and later died.

Before his death, Arthur advised his only surviving knight Sir Bedivere to throw away his magical sword Excaliber. But Sir Bedivere disobeyed the king and the king rebuked him severely for his failure. Actually. Sir Bedivere wanted to preserve the sword in memory of the king. He wanted to preserve the golden olden aristocracy. This was also the tendency of the Victorian people. They wanted to preserve the old customs and rules. Through this legend Tennyson criticizes the Victorian mentality. Alfred Tennyson indicated the political change also of the Victorian period. At that time democracy was coming. But some could not welcome the changes in the society. But Tennyson through the mouth of King Arthur-

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

King Arthur advises Sir Bedivere to throw away the sword which symbolizes old customs. But Sir Bedivere cries before Arthur and he asks the King where he should go now. Now that king Arthur is gone, his government is gone and he is shelterless in the midst of new faces. But king Arthur advises Sir Bedivere to adjust himself in the new environment. And he says that in every society change must come and it should be welcomed. Thus, Tennyson uses the legend of king Arthur.

Victorian age was the time of religious doubts and disbeliefs. Alfred Tennyson motivates his countrymen to be religious through his poetry. In this poem, Morte D’Arthur, Sir Bedivere weeps at the departure of king Arthur. But king Arthur suggests Sir Bedivere to pray to god. The king says that many things are gained through prayers and human beings are the only creature who should follow the rule of religion and pray to god. Praying to god is not for the animals and beasts. Thus, Tennyson through the mouth of king Arthur has given importance on religious life.

On the light of above discussion, we can say that Tennyson is a poet of outstanding genius. He has successfully used the myths and legends in his poetry to give message to the modern Victorian people.

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