Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

21 Study Questions, Activities, and Resources

Study Questions and Activities

The Lady of Shalott

“The Man Behind the Lady.” An interesting exhibit about “The Lady of Shalott,” with several paintings on the subject.

  1. After looking at both published versions of the poem, might you, as did George Eliot, express a preference for any of the original lines, published in 1833? If so, which ones would you wish Tennyson had not revised?
  2. What are features of the poem’s meter and diction? How do these add to the magical or eerie effect?
  3. What might the striking image of the tower symbolize? the mirror? What is significant about the lady’s being  enclosed in a high tower?
  4. What was the result of Sir Lancelot’s adulterous relationship with King Arthur’s queen, Guinevere?
  5. What irony is associated with Lancelot?
  6. After looking at the link above—isolate some details that support the contention that the poem deals with “the Woman Question”;  that is, the position of Victorian women?
  7. What details might support an allegorical interpretation pertaining to art versus life?
  8. Why do you think the Lady of Shalott became the subject of so many Victorian paintings (Hunt, Rossetti, Waterhouse)? First, see the link above:  “The Man Behind the Lady.”
  9. Listen to Loreena McKennitt’s musical adaptation of “The Lady of Shalott,”

QR Code Lady of Shalott

Short Essay Topics

  1. Houghton and Stange interpret the poem as an allegory about art versus life: that the artist must remain in aloof detachment, observing life only in the mirror of the  imagination, not mixing in it directly. Once the artist attempts to lead the life of ordinary men, his poetic gift, it would seem, dies. Do you agree or disagree with this interpretation?
  2. Does “The Lady of Shalott” address the “Woman Question”? Does it uphold patriarchal assumptions about gender relationships as in, say, the words of the king in Tennyson’s The Princess: A Medley, published in 1847, five years after the appearance of the revised version of “The Lady of Shalott”?:

Man for the field and woman for the hearth: Man for the sword and for the needle she: Man with the head and woman with the heart: Man to command and woman to obey; All else confusion. (“The Princess,” V, 427–31)

The Lotos-Eaters

  1. Are the first two lines meant to be a commentary on the rest of the poem?
  2. Who is the “he” of line 1?
  3. What is the dominant rhyme scheme in the many 9-line stanzas? Compare this pattern with that of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book II, canto 6 (Phaedria’s Isle and Lake of Idleness.)
  4. Give examples of sibilance, onomatopoeia, repeated masculine end rhymes, sensuous imagery. What is their effect?
  5. Why do the Lotos-Eaters wish to resemble the gods? What aspects of divinity do they project onto these deities? How might a Victorian reader have been expected to react to this notion of “godhead,” and how would this have affected his or her view of the Lotus-Eaters’ choice?
  6. The second stanza of the choric Song (sung by the mariners who had eaten of the lotos): “We only toil, who are the first of things” (ll. 57-69) recalls similar lines in F.Q., II, Canto 6, Stanza 17, “Why then dost thou, O Man, that of them all/Art lord…” What point is being made in both poems?
  7. In what ways do both “The Lotos-Eaters” and Spenser’s F.Q., II, Canto 6 invite comparison/contrast with parts of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:25-34, especially “Take… no thought for the morrow” (34), which is echoed in Tennyson’s l. “…takes no care” in l. 73 of “The Lotos-Eaters”?
  8. How do you interpret the mariners’ complaint in the Choric Song, VI: “Is there confusion in the little isle? Let what is broken so remain. . . ’Tis hard to settle order once again.” Is this line referring to Britain? Is the line ironic?
  9. What is the poem’s theme? Contrast this poem with “Ulysses”?


  1. Tennyson is quoted as saying that “Ulysses” was “written soon after Arthur Hallam’s death, and gave my feeling about the need of going forward, and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in ‘In Memoriam’” (Memoir, I, 196). To which section of “In Memoriam” is “Ulysses” most parallel?
  2. Some critics argue that the poem is not wholly a dramatic monologue. Looking at it section by section (i.e., ll. 1–32; ll. 33–43, and ll. 44–70), which section is most clearly a dramatic monologue?
  3. In a short essay, compare and contrast “The Lotos-Eaters” and “Ulysses.”

Break, Break, Break

  1. What feelings of loss does the speaker feel?
  2. How does the speaker’s state of mind contrast with those of the fisherman’s boy and the sailor lad?
  3. How do the breaking waves symbolize the speaker’s melancholy?

From the Princess

See Princess Ida – from Tennyson to Gilbert

  1. Read the relevant portion of the table that contrasts Tennyson’s poem and W.S. Gilbert’s “per-version” of the poem (i.e., Pt VII). Do you agree with the author’s assessment of Tennyson’s view of the relations between the sexes—“often cited as a key text in debates about Victorian constructs of masculinity and femininity?” [NAEL, 9, 1184].
  2. In what way is Gilbert’s “per-version” of “The Princess” just that, in terms of theme?

In Memoriam

  1. Download Gatty’s A Key to In Memoriam as well as a searchable Project Gutenberg e-text of In Memoriam:
  1. In her excellent notes on In Memoriam, Professor Florence Boos states, “According to Tennyson, the poem fell naturally into the following 10 sections, with 1–77; 78–103; and 104–131 forming the three main sections:
    • Sections 1–8, ending with a sense of hope; 9–20, ending with a sense of hope; 21–27, ending with a sense of hope; 28–49, ending with a sense of despair; 50–58; 59–71; 72–98; 99–103; 104–131; Epilogue.
  2. Find examples to support the following assertion. “Whereas the first Christmas (28–77) was marked overwhelmingly by grief, the second cycle (78–103) beginning with the second Christmas since Hallam’s death, marks a turning point in the poem, as from here on the poet begins to move more steadily towards hope and consolation”. Compare sections 30 and 78, as well as 7 and 119, in particular.
  3. Look in a glossary of literary terms and then find examples of anaphora in Parts 11 and 101.
  4. The Cambridge History of English Literature (CHEL), (XIII, II, 3) states that Ben Jonson and Lord Herbert of Cherbury used the so-called “In Memoriam stanza” before Tennyson. Find one example of Jonson’s and Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s use of the “In Memoriam stanza.” See Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary (Google books). See also Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, I, 305 for Tennyson’s own discussion of what is now known as the “In Memoriam stanza.” Be sure to use quotes before and after your search terms when using the “search inside” box inside the Memoir.

Essay Topics

  1. Focus on sections 75, 87, 89, 95, 107, and 109–114 to discuss Tennyson’s characterization of Hallam.
  2. Does Tennyson move beyond the bleakness of the survival of the fittest view of the universe in 55 and 56? What does he offer to contradict the vision of a seemingly purposeless universe?
  3. Analyze section 118 as a kind of key to the science versus religion aspect of the poem.
  4. Compare elegiac elements in In Memoriam and either one of the following elegies: Milton’s “Lycidas”; Shelley’s “Adonais”, Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis.” Essay Topic on Tennyson and Imperialism
  5. Read Tennyson’s 106-line poem, “The Defence of Lucknow”, written in 1879. In an essay, discuss whether you think Tennyson avoids the larger ethical questions underlying European Imperialism and instead gives in to typical Victorian imperialist sentiments.



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English Literature: Victorians and Moderns Copyright © 2014 by James Sexton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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