Tennyson

By Hughes, Linda K. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Tennyson


Hughes, Linda K., Victorian Poetry


Books by Kathryn Ledbetter and Kirstie Blair form the most notable contributions to Tennyson studies in 2006. In Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals: Commodities in Context (Ashgate, 2007 [released December 2006]), Kathryn Ledbetter examines sixty-two poems authorized by Tennyson to appear in thirty-two periodicals. Ledbetter not only takes up material ignored in earlier publishing histories by Edgar Shannon (Tennyson and the Reviewers, 1952) and June Steffenson Hagen (Tennyson and His Publishers, 1979) but also revises some well-established reference points in Tennyson studies. As her chapter on Tennyson's contributions to literary annuals demonstrates, his "Ten-Years' Silence" was not so silent after all. Instead Tennyson followed the practice common to William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, and others of speaking slightingly of annuals in letters or conversation while seeking berths as contributors. If several of Tennyson's contributions ("O that 'twere possible," "Come not, when I am dead," "St. Agnes' Eve") resulted from his network of well-connected friends such as Arthur Henry Hallam, whose work on Tennyson's behalf Ledbetter compares to that of a literary agent, Ledbetter also persuasively argues that his appearance in widely read annuals brought Tennyson useful notice from reviewers at the outset of his career and helped him hone a feminine aesthetic that characterizes much of his early verse.

Ledbetter makes extensive use of Tennyson's letters and publishing records to track his engagement with serial publications over his entire career. Tennyson's collected correspondence has been available since 1990, but the clear evidence of Tennyson's immersion in periodicals has remained largely invisible until Ledbetter originated the idea to look for it. Tennyson's vaunted hatred of all publicity and high conception of art give way in Ledbetter's study to a far more nuanced view of a poet who was quite savvy about strategically adopting periodical publication and who read widely in contemporary newspapers and magazines. In the chapter on Tennyson's political poetry, for example, Ledbetter retraces the news reports on which Tennyson drew to show how deliberately he wove contemporary references into poems. Above all, she demonstrates his knowingness about his celebrity and the stature of his poetry, which was already "branded" (to use Gerhard Joseph's term in "Commodifying Tennyson: The Historical Transformation of 'Brand Loyalty,'" VP 34, no. 2 [1996]) in periodicals at mid-century. Emily Tennyson, incidentally, comes off less well: she insisted that Tennyson stay aloof from periodicals--a directive he honored in the breach--to avoid the taint of commercialism while reasoning that he could obtain higher profits through book contracts.

Tennyson could be virtually assured of placing his poems in periodicals whenever he cared to, since his poems augmented sales and a periodical's prestige. He could also rely on his authorship being detected even when he wrote pseudonymously. For example, he signed "The New Timon and the Poets" (Punch, February 28, 1846) "Alcibiades" when he retorted to Bulwer Lytton's attack on his Civil List pension. Ledbetter suggests that a February 7, 1846 Punch poem critical of Bulwer Lytton may have encouraged Tennyson to write his own squib and in any case assured that readers detected Tennyson behind the screen of "Alcibiades." As she persuasively adds, his retraction of "Literary Squabbles" in the March 7, 1846 Punch would have been pointless had he assumed that most people were ignorant of his authorship. Throughout her book, including her chapters on his spate of 1868 publications, his laureate verse, and transatlantic publications, Ledbetter demonstrates the function of Tennyson's periodical poems as Victorian commodities and the importance of reading the layout, illustrations, and surrounding periodical context of poems as guides to the significance they held for readers.

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