Much of his verse was based on classical or mythological themes. Idylls of the King (1859) takes its subject from Arthurian romance. Later in his career, he attempted drama, but his plays enjoyed little success even in his lifetime.
He was born in Lincolnshire, a rector's son. His father had fallen out with his family and been disinherited; he drank heavily and became mentally unstable. Alfred and two of his elder brothers were writing poetry in their teens, and a collection of poems by all three was published locally when Alfred was only seventeen. One of those brothers, Charles Tennyson Turner, later married Louisa Sellwood, younger sister of Alfred's future wife. Educated at Louth grammar school and at Trinity College, Cambridge, Alfred Tennyson published his first solo collection of poems in 1830. Although decried by critics as over-sentimental, his verse soon proved popular. One of his best-known poems, The Lady of Shalott, appeared in his second collection in 1833.
After Tennyson's father died, he shared the responsibility for his widowed mother and her large brood of children. They were allowed to stay in the rectory for some time, but later moved to Essex. An unwise investment in an ecclesiastical wood-carving enterprise resulted in the loss of much of their money, and this may have been one of the reasons why Tennyson was so late in marrying.
It was in 1850 that Tennyson reached the pinnacle of his career, being appointed Poet Laureate in succession to William Wordsworth and in the same year producing his masterpiece, In Memoriam, dedicated to a friend from his student days, Arthur Hallam, who was to have been married to Tennyson's sister, Emilia. In the same year, Tennyson himself married Emily Sellwood, whom he had known since childhood. They had two sons, Hallam -- named after his late friend -- and Lionel.
He held the position of Poet Laureate from 1850 until his death, turning out appropriate but mediocre verse, such as a poem of greeting to Alexandra of Denmark when she arrived in Britain to marry the future King Edward VII. Other works written as Laureate include Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington and Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition.
Recordings exist of Tennyson declaiming his own poetry, but they are of poor quality.
Tennyson's death was widely mourned, and he was buried at Westminster Abbey. He was succeeded to the barony by his son, Hallam, who produced an authorised biography of his father in 1897, and was later Governor-General of Australia.