“The Owl” by Alfred Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson was a celebrated 19th century English poet whose life and work largely coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria. He was in many ways the embodiment of the Victorian literary tastes and widely recognised as Britain’s leading poet of the time, not the least through being honoured with the title of the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom for an unprecedentedly long period – from 1850 to 1892.

Lord Alfred Tennyson

The short poem I have chosen for this post is titled “The Owl”. After you read it, have a look at a couple of comprehension questions below. English language learners can also do the  accompanying vocabulary exercise.

When cats run home and light is come,
And dew is cold upon the ground,
And the far-off stream is dumb,
And the whirring sail goes round,
And the whirring sail goes round;
Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.

When merry milkmaids click the latch,
And rarely smells the new-mown hay,
And the cock hath sung beneath the thatch
Twice or thrice his roundelay,
Twice or thrice his roundelay;
Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.


  1. Can you tell which season is the setting for this poem? Which lines and specific words indicate it? What about the locale – is it urban or rural?
  2. Some lines in both stanzas repeat. What do you think Tennyson wanted to achieve by that?
  3. The poet mentions the owl’s ‘five wits’. What do you think those are? (It might be helpful to draw a distinction between the five wits and the five senses.)
  4. How is the owl portrayed in the poem? What characteristics does the poet ascribe to it?


Find the words in the poem with the following meaning:

  • a simple song with a refrain
  • a bell tower
  • cut grass, used as animal food
  • three times
  • a British English word for what is ‘a rooster’ in American English
  • exceptionally, remarkably well (archaic) 
  • a small river
  • happy
  • tiny drops of water that form on the ground during the night
  • unable to speak, silent

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