Enjoying "Timbuctoo"
by Alfred Tennyson

Ed Friedlander MD

No texting or chat messages, please. Ordinary e-mails are welcome.

Uh... human beings and space-aliens living together throughout the galaxy?

And we colonized outer space because of our poets?

And what the poets told us wasn't true?

In 1829, nineteen-year-old Alfred Tennyson (he went by "Fred") won the Chancellor's Medal for poetry at Cambridge. The assignment was to write a poem on the subjet of "Timbuctoo."

The subject was not really surprising. This was the beginning of European colonization of the interior of Africa. There were legends of a great civilization in what is now Mali. Timbuctoo had been visited by a modern European for the first time in 1826, by the Scottish explorer, A.G. Laing, who was murdered soon after.

Tennyson's father urged him to enter, writing "You're doing nothing at the university; you might at least get the English poem prize."

Tennyson reworked a poem which he had written at age 15 ("Armageddon") to meet the subject requirement. "Armageddon" includes a vision of the distant human future, in outer space, followed by a vision of a lifeless earth and a final impending battle of the good and evil spiritual powers.

Entries were expected to be in heroic couplets, but Tennyson's entry was in Miltonic blank verse. Nevertheless, he won.

Tennyson didn't think his poem was any good, and called it "a wild and unmethodized performance". He was too embarrassed to read it himself at commencement, so the previous year's winner did it for him. For the rest of his life, he forbade publication of "Timbuctoo."

Tennyson did not sing the praises of England's world conquest. But he did not express any objections it, either. And Tennyson's later poetry showcases the "modern" expectation that the human race, guided by reason and science, would come together and build a better world for everyone. If you are a postmodernist, you won't like Tennyson.

Instead, "Timbuctoo" is about how fantasy helps the human race make progress. Whether or not we share Tennyson's optimism about the ultimate triumph of human wisdom, goodness, and science, we have all built castles in the air. Tennyson would write much better verse as an adult. But the theme of "Timbuctoo" is still remarkable.


Deep in that lion-haunted inland lies
A mystick city, goal of high emprise.

      -- Chapman

I stood upon the Mountain which o'erlooks
The narrow seas, whose rapid interval
Parts Africa from green Europe, when the Sun
Had fall'n below th' Atlantick, and above
The silent Heavens were blench'd with faery light,
Uncertain whether faery light or cloud,
Flowing Southward, and the chasms of deep, deep blue
Slumber'd unfathomable, and the stars
Were flooded over with clear glory and pale.

Lines 1-9:

I gaz'd upon the sheeny coast beyond,
There where the Giant of old Time infixed
The limits of his prowess, pillars high
Long time eras'd from Earth: even as the Sea
When weary of wild inroad buildeth up
Hugh mounds whereby to stay his yeasty waves.
Lines 10-27:

And much I mus'd on legends quaint and old
Which whilome won the hearts of all on Earth
Toward their brightness, ev'n as flame draws air;
But had their being in the heart of Man
As air is th' life of flame: and thou wert then
A center'd glory-circled Memory,
Divinest Atalantis, whom the waves
Have buried deep, and thou of later name
Imperial Eldorado roof'd with gold;
Shadows to which, despite all shocks of Change,
All on-set of capricious Accident,
Men clung with yearning Hope which would not die.

Lines 16-27:

As when in some great City where the walls
Shake, and the streets with ghastly faces throng'd
Do utter forth a subterranean voice,
Among the inner columns far retir'd
At midnight, in the lone Acropolis,
Before the awful Genius of the place
Kneels the pale Priestess in deep faith, the while
Above her head the weak lamp dips and winks
Unto the fearful summoning without:
Nathless she ever clasps the marble knees,
Bathes the cold hand with tears, and gazeth on
Those eyes which wear no light but that wherewith
Her phantasy informs them.
Lines 28-39:

Where are ye
Thrones of the Western wave, fair Islands green?
Where are your moonlight halls, your cedarn glooms,
The blossoming abysses of your hills?
Your flowering Capes, and your gold-sanded bays
Blown round with happy airs of odorous winds?
Where are the infinite ways, which, Seraph-trod,
Wound thro' your great Elysian solitudes,
Whose lowest deeps were, as with visible love,
Fill'd with Divine effulgence, circumfus'd,
Flowing between the clear and polish'd stems,
And ever circling round their emerald cones
In coronals and glories, such as gird
The unfading foreheads of the Saints in Heaven?
For nothing visible, they say, had birth
In that blest ground but it was play'd about
With its peculiar glory.
Lines 40-56:
Then I rais'd
My voice and cried, 'Wide Afric, doth thy Sun
Lighten, thy hills enfold a City as fair
As those which starr'd the night o' the elder World?
Or is the rumour of thy Timbuctoo
A dream as frail as those of ancient Time?'

Lines 56-61:

A curve of whitening, flashing, ebbing light!
A rustling of white wings! The bright descent
Of a young Seraph! And he stood beside me
There on the ridge, and look'd into my face
With his unutterable, shining orbs.
Lines 62-66:

So that with hasty motion I did veil
My vision with both hands, and saw before me
Such colour'd spots as dance athwart the eyes
Of those, that gaze upon the noonday Sun.
Lines 67-70:

Girt with a Zone of flashing gold beneath
His breast, and compass'd round about his brow
With triple arch of everchanging bows,
And circled with the glory of living light
And alternation of all hues, he stood.
Lines 71-75:

'O child of man, why muse you here alone
Upon the Mountain, on the dreams of old
Which fill'd the Earth with passing loveliness,
And odours rapt from remote Paradise?
Thy sense is clogg'd with dull mortality,
Thy spirit fetter'd with the bond of clay:
Open thine eyes and see.'
Lines 76-83:

I look'd, but not
Upon his face, for it was wonderful
With its exceeding brightness, and the light
Of the great Angel Mind which look'd from out
The starry glowing of his restless eyes.
Lines 83-87:

I felt my soul grow mighty, and my Spirit
With supernatural excitation bound
Within me, and my mental eye grew large
With such a vast circumference of thought,
That in my vanity I seem'd to stand
Upon the outward verge and bound alone
Of full beatitude.
Lines 88-94:
Each failing sense
As with a momentary flash of light
Grew thrillingly distinct and keen. I saw
The smallest grain that dappled the dark Earth,
The indistinctest atom in deep air,
The Moon's white cities, and the opal width
Of her small glowing lakes, her silver heights
Unvisited with dew of vagrant cloud,
And the unsounded, undescended depth
Of her black hollows.
Lines 94-103:
The clear Galaxy
Shorn of its hoary lustre, wonderful,
Distinct and vivid with sharp points of light,
Blaze within blaze, an unimagin'd depth
And harmony of planet-girded Suns
And moon-encircled planets, wheel in wheel,
Arch'd the wan Sapphire.
Nay - the hum of men,
Or other things talking in unknown tongues,
And notes of busy life in distant worlds
Beat like a far wave on my anxious ear.
Lines 103-112:

A maze of piercing, trackless, thrilling thoughts,
Involving and embracing each with each,
Rapid as fire, inextricably link'd,
Expanding momently with every sight
And sound which struck the palpitating sense,
The issue of strong impulse, hurried through
The riv'n rapt brain;
Lines 113-119:
as when in some large lake
From pressure of descendant crags, which lapse
Disjointed, crumbling from their parent slope
At slender interval, the level calm
Is ridg'd with restless and increasing spheres
Which break upon each other, each th' effect
Of separate impulse, but more fleet and strong
Then its precursor, till the eye in vain
Amid the wild unrest of swimming shade
Dappled with hollow and alternate rise
Of interpenetrated arc, would scan
Definite round.
Lines 119-129:

I know not if I shape
These things with accurate similitude
From visible objects, for but dimly now,
Less vivid than an half-forgotten dream,
The memory of that mental excellence
Comes o'er me, and it may be I entwine
The indecision of my present mind
With its past clearness, yet it seems to me
As even then the torrent of quick thought
Absorbed me from the nature of itself
With its own fleetness.
Lines 130-140:
Where is he that borne
Adown the sloping of an arrowy stream,
Could link his shallop to the fleeting edge,
And muse midway with philosophic calm
Upon the wondrous laws, which regulate
The fierceness of the bounding Element?

Lines 140-145:
My thoughts which long had grovell'd in the slime
Of this dull world, like dusky worms which house
Beneath unshaken waters, but at once
Upon some Earth-awakening day of Spring
Do pass from gloom to glory, and aloft
Winnow the purple, bearing on both sides
Double display of starlit wings which burn,
Fanlike and fibred, with intensest bloom;
Ev'n so my thoughts, erewhile so low, now felt
Unutterable buoyancy and strength
To bear them upward through the trackless fields
Of undefin'd existence far and free.

Lines 146-157:

Then first within the South methought I saw
A wilderness of spires, and chrystal pile
Of rampart upon rampart, dome on dome,
Illimitable range of battlement
On battlement, and the Imperial height
Of Canopy o'ercanopied.
Lines 158-163:

In diamond light upsprung the dazzling cones
Of Pyramids as far surpassing Earth's
As Heaven than Earth is fairer.
Lines 163-166:
Each aloft
Upon his narrow'd Eminence bore globes
Of wheeling Suns, or Stars, or semblances
Of either, showering circular abyss
Of radiance.
Lines 166-170:
But the glory of the place
Stood out a pillar'd front of burnish'd gold,
Interminably high, if gold it were
Or metal more etherial, and beneath
Two doors of blinding brilliance, where no gaze
Might rest, stood open, and the eye could scan,
Through length of porch and valve and boundless hall,
Part of a throne of fiery flame, wherefrom
The snowy skirting of a garment hung,
And glimpse of multitudes of multitudes
That minister'd around it - if I saw
These things distinctly, for my human brain
Stagger'd beneath the vision, and thick night
Came down upon my eyelids, and I fell.
Lines 170-183:
With ministering hand he rais'd me up:
Then with a mournful and ineffable smile,
Which but to look on for a moment fill'd
My eyes with irresistible sweet tears,
In accents of majestic melody,
Like a swoln river's gushings in still night
Mingled with floating music, thus he spake:

'There is no mightier Spirit than I to sway
The heart of man: and teach him to attain
By shadowing forth the Unattainable;
And step by step to scale that mighty stair
Whose landing-place is wrapt about with clouds
Of glory' of Heaven.
Lines 191-196:
With earliest light of Spring,
And in the glow of sallow Summertide,
And in red Autumn when the winds are wild
With gambols, and when full-voiced Winter roofs
The headland with inviolate white snow,
I play about his heart a thousand ways,
Visit his eyes with visions, and his ears
With harmonies of wind and wave and wood,
-- Of winds which tell of waters, and of waters
Betraying the close kisses of the wind --
And win him unto me: and few there be
So gross of heart who have not felt and known
A higher than they see: They with dim eyes
Behold me darkling.
Lines 196-209:
Lo! I have given thee
To understand my presence, and to feel
My fullness; I have fill'd thy lips with power.
Lines 209-211:

I have rais'd thee nigher to the spheres of Heaven
Man's first, last home: and thou with ravish'd sense
Listenest the lordly music flowing from
Th' illimitable years.
Lines 212-215:
I am the Spirit,
The permeating life which courseth through
All th' intricate and labyrinthine veins
Of the great vine of Fable, which, outspread
With growth of shadowing leaf and clusters rare,
Reacheth to every corner under Heaven,
Deep-rooted in the living soil of truth;
So that men's hopes and fears take refuge in
The fragrance of its complicated glooms,
And cool impleached twilights.
Lines 215-224:
Child of Man,
See'st thou yon river, whose translucent wave,
forth issuing from the darkness, windeth through
The argent streets o' th' City, imaging
The soft inversion of her tremulous Domes,
Her gardens frequent with the stately Palm,
Her Pagods hung with music of sweet bells,
Her obelisks of ranged Chrysolite,
Minarets and towers? Lo! How he passeth by,
And gulphs himself in sands, as not enduring
To carry through the world those waves, which bore
The reflex of my City in their depths.
Lines 224-235:

O City! O latest Throne! Where I was rais'd
To be a mystery of loveliness
Unto all eyes, the time is well-nigh come
When I must render up this glorious home
To keen Discovery: soon yon brilliant towers
Shall darken with the waving of her wand;
Darken, and shrink and shiver into huts,
Black specks amid a waste of dreary sand,
Low-built, mud-wall'd, Barbarian settlements.
How chang'd from this fair City!'

Lines 236-245:

Thus far the Spirit:
Then parted Heaven-ward on the wing: and I
Was left alone on Calpe, and the Moon
Had fallen from the night, and all was dark!
Lines 245-248:


Fred imagined himself standing on the Rock of Gibraltar, looking from Europe to Africa. The sun had just set, the sky was dark, and Fred thought about how nobody knows how deep ocean canyons go.

    Tennyson fabricated the quotation and attributed it to George Chapman, the poet.
Lines 1-9

Fred looked for some of the old monuments that are described in Greek mythology. They weren't there.

    "Gone like the sand dunes." Actually, they never existed.

    Atlas was the giant who supposedly stood on the African side and held up the heavens. You can visit the Atlas Mountains on the African side. And the rocks on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar were supposedly the "pillars of Hercules", set up by the hero during his travels.

Lines 10-27:

Fred thought about mythology. Myths inspire people, even though people make them up. And people keep pursuing imaginary places.

    El Dorado, of course, was the make-believe land in the New World where gold was supposed to be plentiful. It motivated exploration, especially by people who simply wanted to loot the Americas rather than build nations. And the stupid quest for a golden city cost plenty of Europeans their lives.

    The theme of people going to look for imaginary places for nobody-knows-why reappears in Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses". According to Dante, which is the source for Tennyson's poem, Ulysses's last voyage accomplished nothing except killing him and his crew. (At least Laing accomplished something.)

    In "The Charge of the Light Brigade", Tennyson honors the hundreds of soldiers who were sent to their deaths by their commander's stupidity.

    "Whilome" means "once upon a time."

Lines 16-27:

Fred compared mythology to somebody clinging to the image of a make-believe god during an earthquake, in spite of the rest of the town calling her to get out of the building.

    This is an "epic simile", a comparison story-within-a-story. You can find them in the Iliad, Beowulf, "Paradise Lost", and the other great western epics. They showcase the themes of the writers, applying to other experiences. Tennyson is saying his poem is serious and of great importance.

    Other people who have written about "Timbuctoo" have focused on this section, and seen this as testimony of his willingness to believe in traditional religion even as it collapsed in light of the scientific discoveries of his era.

    Perhaps Tennyson is clinging to the memory of a mystical experience that convinced him that deep faith is not a delusion. Perhaps he is wondering whether he is deceiving himself.

    During an earthquake, you don't want to be inside a large place of worship. (Do you know the story of the Lisbon earthquake?) The priestess can end up dead.

    "Nathless" means "nevertheless".

Lines 28-39:

Fred wondered whether there really are, or could be, any fantastic places in our world. If they exist, how is it possible?

    "Thrones of the Western wave" are the kingdoms of Atlantis, which either sank or never existed.

Lines 40-56:

Looking over at Africa, Fred wondered about the legendary city of Timbuctoo, supposedly a high civilization in the interior of Africa.

    Lines 56-61:

    As Fred was thinking about all of this, an angel of bright light came down from heaven and faced him.

      Lines 62,66:

      Dazzled, Fred closed his eyes. He saw afterimages of the bright light.

        Notice that we seem to see afterimages, even though they are not real.

      Lines 67-70:

      The angel was surrounded by shifting rainbows.

        And notice that we seem to see rainbows, even though they are not real, either. A "zone" is a belt or girdle.

      Lines 71-75:

      The angel said, "Why keep thinking about the mythologies of the past? Look around you."

        Tennyson sees the mythology of 1829 -- a gloroius civilization awaiting discovery by the conquering Europeans.

      Lines 76-83:

      Fred's eyes were suddenly opened.

        The angel made some kind of mind-contact with him.

      Lines 83-87:

      Supernatural power flowed into Fred. Suddenly he could see everything at once.

        This begins the main passage taken from "Armageddon". The theme of the original poem was the poet's experience of supernatural sight, which also included the final apocalypse, the earth lying dead under cold stars, and then a universal spiritual cataclysm that was left undescribed.

      Lines 88-94:

      All of Fred's other senses became hyperacute as well. He saw cities on the moon, with cloudless peaks and incredibly deep canyons.

        Fred knew there was no water on the moon. Hence there are no clouds.

      Lines 94-103:

      Then Fred could see our entire galaxy, with all its stars and planets around them. And then Fred heard human beings and other life-forms. They were living, talking, and carrying out their business on far-away planets all across the Milky Way.

        The galaxy no longer looked fuzzy, but each star was sharp and distinct. It still mades an arch across the night sky ("arch'd the wan sapphire.")

        Again, this came from "Armageddon". Tennyson described seeing space travel as if it were an actual vision of the human future. At the time, he was not pondering the influence of myths and poetic fantasy on human progress. If Tennyson actually heard the human race's future in space, it was not while he was thinking about the themes he chose for "Timbuctoo".

      Lines 103-112:

      Fred's thoughts came incredibly fast. He seemed to know all manner of things and to understand their interconnectedness.

        Other people who have reported mystical experiences have said the same thing.

      Lines 113-119:

      This is a roundabout way of describing ripples in a pond, making an epic simile. Tennyson's experience was like groups of ripple patterns in a lake, coming together and producing interference patterns.

        Notice how Fred uses water as a symbol for the deep mind.

        You've seen interference patterns when two layers of nylon stocking are moved across each other. The gridwork in each produces the semblance of complex lines. Interference / maoire patterns seem real too, but aren't.

      Lines 119-129:

      There was no way that Fred could put this experience into words, or describe it accurately, and he cannot remember most of it anyway. It was like being caught up in the onrush of a river.

        Lines 130-140:

        Caught up, Fred felt like he was shooting the rapids in a canoe. There was no time to think.

          Another epic simile. Again, water is the deep mind.

        Lines 140-145:

        Fred's experience changed his entire way of thinking.

          There is an epic simile of a caterpillar suddenly becoming a butterfly. Fred's mind was growing its wings.

        Lines 146-157:

        And then Fred saw the magical land of Timbuctoo.

          These lines do not come from "Armageddon". Tennyson switches from a vision of the actual future to a vision of today's poetic dreams.

          "Pile" is a fabric of interconnected threads, like the "pile" of a rug.

        Lines 158-163:

        The Timbuctoo that Fred saw was a fantastic, glowing city.

          Notice that Tennyson contrasts "Timbuctoo" to "Earth". Of course there's no such place on our planet.

        Lines 163-166:

        Timbuctoo was a little universe, with its own stars and planets.

          Lines 166-170:

          Finally Fred saw a central sanctuary, which recalled a famous Old Testament vision of God on His throne.

            This strongly echoes Isaiah 6, where God sits on a throne and his garments hang down. He is surrounded by his servants, and he commissions Isaiah, just as Fred is about to be commisioned as a poet.

          Lines 170-183:

          Happy and sad at the same time, the angel identified himself as the spirit of Fable, or Fantasy. His job is to sway the human heart, by make-believe, so that the human race will make progress.

          The future in outer space may have been the real human future. Timbuctoo is today's make-believe, which inspires people to look for better worlds.

            Lines 191-196:

            Fantasy makes people imagine and believe in things they cannot see. Even ordinary folks sense the transcendent, and express it in mythology.

              Lines 196-209:

              The angel commissioned Fred as a poet for the human race.

                Lines 209-211:

                The angel told Fred that people would always be guided by the visions of poets.

                  Is heaven our "first home" as well? Does the soul pre-exist? (Wordsworth had thought so.) Or does human life begin in imagination, because people fall in love and get married, or baby's thinking begins with dreams? If so, is our last home also our hopes of an afterlife? Or maybe fantasy is "our first, last home" because of Plato's idealized forms or something.

                Lines 212-215:

                Fantasy and fable are based on reality, and they give people a way to make sense of their hopes and fears.

                Lines 215-224:

                The Timbuctoo River reflected the city. And it carries that reflection out toward the rest of the world. But now... the river has begun to dissipate in the Sahara desert.

                  It stops because Tennyson's community was just finding out that the real Timbuktu was never magic.

                Lines 224-235:

                For better or worse, the actual, real-world Timbuctoo is about to be discovered by Europeans. The city is nothing more than a bunch of mud buildings in the middle of the Sahara desert.

                  Tennyson often deals with the question of what mystics, visionaries, religionists, and people who love mythology do when confronted with science. In "In Memoriam" (cxxiii), Tennyson writes about knowing the geologic evidence for an old earth, but deciding to believe in young-earth creationism for emotional reasons.

                  When Tennyson wrote about the passing of King Arthur, he told how Sir Bedivere kept refusing to throw the magic sword back into the lake. When he finally does so, he sees the promise of a better future. We must abandon the things of the pre-scientific age, but there is a promise of something better still to come.

                  Space travel awaits us.

                Lines 236-245:

                Fred was left alone in the dark with his thoughts.

                  Tennyson started off wondering whether the twilight was "fairy light" or not. Whatever it was, it's gone now.

                  The suggestion is that Tennyson, now commissioned as a poet, needs to find answers for his society, after they can no longer believe in the magical land of "Timbuctoo".

                  For the rest of his life, he would wonder about how the here-and-now world described by science relates to art, religion, and mysticism.

                  "Calpe" is just an archaic name for Gibraltar.

                Lines 245-248:

                Tennyson's "Timbuctoo" Experience...
                "What's it all about, Alfie?"

                Poetic license?


                    It was customary for people to present works of the imagination as visions. The whole medieval genre of dream-vision used this technique to create allegorical worlds.

                    Tennyson might have read accounts of mystics to create, or at least embellish, his own supposed experience.


                    Tennyson recalls that he only remembered some of these things dimly.

                Cosmic consciousness?


                    Throughout history, rare individuals have reported suddenly being aware of the great secrets of the universe. They see the world transfigured, full of meaning and importance. Other famous people from Plotinus to Berlioz have described experiences of "cosmic consciousness" happening spontaneously or after practice.

                    The best introduction to this type of experience is the classic study by William James. If you are a student, this would be a good link to follow now.

                    As a kid, Tennyson discovered he could bring on a "kind of waking trance" by repeating a single word over and over. After a while, he would experience an expansion of his mind, with a hightened sense of who he was followed by a sudden change in which only the infinite seemed real. Mystics agree that these experiences can't be put into words.

                    Tennyson seems to be writing about this in "Armageddon", the poem which he wrote at age 15 and which he cannibalized for "Timbuctoo".

                      I wondered with deep wonder at myself,
                      My mind seem'd wing'd with knowledge and the strength
                      Of holy musings and immense Ideas
                      Even to Infinitude. All sense of Time
                      And Being and Place was swallowed up and lost
                      I was part of the Unchangeable,
                      A scintillation of Eternal Mind,
                      Remix'd and burning with its parent fire.


                    The "cosmic consciousness" experience usually shows all things brought into harmony in love, by the power of God. It transforms life, makes bad people good and good people better, and lays to rest a lifetime of doubts on religious subjects.

                    If this had happened to Tennyson, it is surprising that he later became the great poet of the ongoing struggles of faith and doubt.

                Ordinary dream?


                    Creative artists have drawn on their vivid dreams from time to time.


                    I don't think anybody could take his ordinary dreams this seriously.

                On drugs?


                    Thomas DeQuincy wrote at length about his opium hallucinations. Coleridge claimed (maybe falsely) that his "Kubla Khan" vision of a fantastic city came to him in an opium dream. We can't be sure what was in their opium, and this stuff was widely available in his society.

                    And who knows what might have been available to Fred, in school with some of the more enterprising teens of his era? Mescaline and psilocybin are only two possibilities.


                    Opium visions as reported by DeQuincy were fragmented and meaningless.

                Mental illness?


                    Patients with schizophrenia, a poorly-understood syndrome, may report sudden raptures of seeing everything, or many things at once, inbued with tremendous beauty and meaning. Those of us (including myself) who have cared for these people often wish we could share these experiences, at least for a short time.

                    In addition to his father, Tennyson had several other close relatives who suffered from major mental illness. Tennyson had already begun to suffer from episodes of despondency.

                    Elsewhere, I have argued that William Blake was schizophrenic, and kept the process under control through his work as an engraver, and by his artistic genius. This has gotten me a lot of personal attacks, but no counter-arguments beyond that fact that we have insufficient information to fit researcher's criteria. Mr. Blake wrote an account, in a personal letter, of a seeing-everything experience similar to Tennyson's.


                    Tennyson was in public view for most of his life, and was never considered even to be eccentric. He was treated for what seems to have been a major depression, but there are no reports of hallucinations, delusions, or the thought disorder seen in schizophrenia.

                    This is in sharp contrast to Blake, whose contemporaries talked about how his genius and his madness went together.

                Something else?


                    Tennyson's experience does not fit neatly into any of the above categories.


                    I'd like to hear your ideas.

                My best answer:

                • I suggest that young Tennyson, who practiced a simple form of meditation, had a mystical experience. Like many of these experiences, it had apocalyptic content. This was preceded by the sounds of the human race spreading in triumph across the galaxy and meeting other life forms. Tennyson was left with a sense that he really had seen the real human future.
                • Tennyson wrote "Armageddon" to record his experience. Because the experience was so personal (and bizarre), he decided finally to keep both poems private.
                • Even at age 15, Tennyson questioned whether what he had seen was real. These doubts formed the basis for much of his later focus on whether religion is true.
                • When he decided to enter the contest, Tennyson decided to use his unpublished poem. He could relate the subject of visionary experience and the future of humankind to the subject of "Timbuctoo." It was easy. The real Timbuktu had just been discovered, and wasn't at all like the fantasy Timbuktu of legend. Tennyson decided to ask a favorite Romantic-era question, "What's the value of make-believe?" (His friend Arthur Hallam submitted his entry on this theme, too.)
                • Tennyson drew on his old poem, which asked, "Here's what may be the human future. Can I really be seeing this?" He changed the theme to that of Timbuctoo, "If I can't believe what I'm imagining, is it still of value? Yes -- works of the imagination inspire human progress."
                • Tennyson described seeing people in outer space as a real prophecy in "Armageddon", then incorporated it into a poem on a different theme for the contest. People who believe in the supernatural (as I do) often link it to mystical experiences. If space travel is possible, then most of human history will take place in outer space.
                • Tennyson was to become the spokesman for his society and his generation. He would put into words what it's like to try to maintain religious faith in an era of science. I'd like to think that he was granted a true vision of what is still the human future -- Space Travel.

                More on Tennyson

                Tennyson's best buddy (Arthur Hallam) died suddenly of a berry aneurysm. Tennyson's poem, "In Memoriam", deals with the perpetual human search for an answer for death.

                His lines:

                  'Tis better to have loved and lost
                  Than never to have loved at all.

                have probably prevented at least a few suicides following failed relationships.

                "Locksley Hall" includes a vision of war in the air and planes dropping bombs on cities. (Did Tennyson see the future once again?) It was followed (as we can hope it will be in our era) by the good people of the world uniting and finding how to live in peace.

                Tennyson became poet laureate, and was made a baron for his literary work as spokesperson for his era. You'll hear him called Alfred Lord Tennyson.

                Tennyson -- send a poem to a friend
                The Lady of Shalott -- also by Ed
                Tennyson -- Brown U.

                Other Dream-Visions And So Forth

                Piers Plowman. Fictional dream-vision by a proto-Protestant. Among other subjects, there is an allegory ("Maid Meed") of how Christians are to respond to the rise of free enterprise and the profit motive.
                Lamia Part I and Part II, by Keats. A rational philosopher ruins the lovers' happiness by pointing out it's all a lie.
                The Triumph of Life, an unfinished manuscript poem by Percy Shelley, is a good read. "The world won't accept my progressive social ideas. So is life with living? Is my answer to withdraw into mysticism?"
                Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay. More cosmic consciousness?

                The Real Timbuktu

                Timbuktu is in what is now Mali. The name means "mother with the big navel." Once it was a trading center and the home of a Muslim institute. There were salt mines to the north, and gold mines to the south. All that remains is a small desert community.

                Leo Africanus description of the medieval city
                Jewish Roots in Timbuktu
                Mr. Dowling
                High on Adventure
                Saga Tours, customized for visitors to Timbuktu
                Early European explorations
                Timbuktu Books, no longer online, was a group of African-American specialty booksellers. Again, Timbuktu is an ideal for good living.

                To think about:

                Don't write me asking for answers. I don't know.

                • "Timbuctoo" followed soon after the great days of Romantic poetry. and repeats its themes. Goethe would glorify Faust's striving for the unattainable even-he-doesn't-know-what. Tennyson's "Ulysses" would die in the same kind of quest. You would enjoy looking at the themes of the Romantic era, which are very much issues today as well. Ask your instructor whether "Timbuctoo" is "romantic", "post-romantic", or whatever.
                • Before he sees the imaginary Timbuctoo, Tennyson sees cities on the moon, and humans colonizing space. Are these the real future to which poets inspired us, or are they also fantasy? In other words, does Tennyson foresee space travel or science fiction?
                • The contest was obviously inspired by European imperialism in Africa. Most of Tennyson's contemporaries probably saw the conquest of "the dark continent" as bringing a better life for its people. Today reasonable people disagree about whether colonialism did more good or harm. If Tennyson had shared the enthusiasm of many of his contemporaries for European colonialism, he would surely have said something when he wrote about "keen Discovery". If Tennyson had foreseen the abuses and wrongs that would be inflicted on the African people during this era, he would surely have said something. What does Tennyson's silence tell us? Could Tennyson be saying that dreams of a wonderful future (the European colonialists, today's right-wing apologists and left-wing critics) are fantasies too? Or is the poem apolitical?

                • Tennyson's society identified itself as Christian, and students at Cambridge were expected to profess the Christian religion. Does Tennyson seem to be a Christian by your definition? Or is "Timbuctoo" actallly anti-Christian? "In Memoriam" begins by praising, invoking, and trusting Jesus Christ. Then it records all the doubts of ordinary secular-minded people. In the vision of the throne room of Timbuktu, Tennyson clearly echoes the most famous Biblical vision of God. Is Tennyson saying, "Maybe the religion of the Bible is all fantasy?" Or is the angel the Holy Spirit, guiding the human race in ways that are only dimly understood?
                • In conservative-Christian bookstores today, you can buy accounts of earth science and natural history which are pretty much identical to secular science books. They acknowledge that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and that living things have a common ancestry. There is usually just a section early-on about how "life could not have arisen by chance". Whether or not you are a Christian, it's clear that today's believers have come to terms with science; this was done mostly in Tennyson's era, but is still ongoing and part of the experience of each new Christian. How have you seen people do this?
                • Tennyson's father is thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder (manic-depression) and drank heavily, and many of Tennyson's siblings suffered various symptoms of major mental illness. People who grow up in confusing environments sometimes have a major issue with fantasy vs. reality. You might try to learn something about Tennyson's relationship with his father and with the rest of his family.

                • You would enjoy reading The Lady of Shallot. It seems to me to be Tennyson's allegory of a poet removed from reality, seeing the ordinary world from a protected vantage point. When the poet tries to be part of the ordinary world, or even look at it squarely, the poet is destroyed. Can you relate this to the theme in "Timbuctoo"?


                New visitors to www.pathguy.com
                reset Jan. 30, 2005:

                If you'll e-mail me a good short poem on the subject of Timbuktu, I'll place it here!


                Tennyson's poem on Timbuktu still wins the prize, but there are other good offerings. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce's effort (sometimes attributed to Thackery) is well-known...

                    If I were a cassowary
                    On the plains of Timbuktoo
                    I would eat a missionary
                    Cassock, band, and hymn-book too.

                Meet Ed

                The last is a naughty joke. If you've gotten this far, you're old enough. But please stop reading here if this will be a problem for you.

                In 1970, as an English major at Brown, I was introduced to Tennyson's life and work. I made up this joke. Others must have done the same independently. I have heard it from time to time, though never with reference to Tennyson.

                Every year, the Ivy League holds a contest to see who has the best poet. Last year, the two final contestants were the poet from Brown and the poet from _____.

                The master of ceremonies opened his envelope and announced, "For the final round of the Ivy League Poetry Contest, each of you must recite an extemporaneous poem on the subject of Timbuctoo."

                The poet from Brown thought for a moment, and said...

                  As I was walking by the sea,
                  A little ship sailed up to me,
                  A silver ship, with sails all white
                  That sparkled in the morning light.
                  A gentle breeze was on the air,
                  I climbed aboard that ship so fair
                  And sailed away the ocean blue
                  To the far shores of Timbuctoo.

                The poet from _____ thought for a moment, and said...

                  Me and Tim was hunting deer.
                  Three lady hunters done appear.
                  Me and Tim knowed what to do.
                  Me buck one and Tim buck two.

                Try one of Ed's chess-with-a-difference java applets!