Nonfiction elements in Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Sailor Boy”

While Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Sailor Boy” is considered to be fictional, largely because of its involvement of fantastical elements, I believe the poem is rooted in the struggles Tennyson experienced in his childhood and adolescence, giving the fictional some non-fiction influences. The Sailor Boy recounts the story of a boy running away from home, and setting off to sea on his own. While some claim that the boy does this due to boredom or longing for adventure, looking at the piece from a more non-fictional perspective, the boy’s motivation can be interpreted as a need to escape due to a feeling of helplessness in his own home.

Tennyson was born the fourth of twelve children, and lived in England during the 1800s. Much of his family was plagued by mental illness, including his father, who was an abusive alcoholic, as well as several of his siblings. Every one of his siblings had a mental breakdown at some point in his or her life, some leading to drug use, and one to hospitalisation(“Lord”). Being raised in such a household would create stress, uncertainty, and a feeling of helplessness in one’s own life. These types of feelings are portrayed throughout “The Sailor Boy,” and I believe are a reflection of Tennyson’s adolescent emotions.  The poem was published in 1861, making him 52 at the time of its publication, which would make the poem a reminiscent expression of Tennyson’s decision to leave home at age 18. While Tennyson did not leave to become a sailor, he did leave to face the challenges of the outside world on his own, much like the speaker of the poem.

The speaker, like Tennyson, feels he has no control over his own life, and is helpless to stop the misfortunes that plague his family. This drives his need to escape home, as is evidenced by the lines, “But I will never more endure/ To sit with empty hands at home” (Tennyson 15-16). His hands represent action, or an ability to do something for others- as in the phrase “to lend a helping hand.” He feels there is nothing he can do for those at home, that he is useless in helping his family. Tennyson chose the word “endure,” meaning “to undergo (as a hardship) especially without giving in”(“Endure”). Doing nothing is not simply an unfortunate effect of his boring life; it is a hardship- something he must endure. He must sit and watch his family fall apart, time and time again, helpless to stop it. This helplessness, in part, convinces the speaker he must leave his home and go out to sea, or in Tennyson’s case to the outside world. He must seek a place where he has a say in what happens in his life, and where he is not doomed “to sit with empty hands” (Tennyson 16). This evidences a more non-fictional view of the poem, and shows it may, in fact, be based more in fact than in fiction.


“Endure.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

“Lord Alfred Tennyson.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

Tennyson, Sir Alfred Lord. “The Sailor Boy.” Poetry Lovers’ Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.

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