Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Poetry in the Victorian Marketplace: The Illustrated Princess as a Christmas Gift Book

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Poetry in the Victorian Marketplace: The Illustrated Princess as a Christmas Gift Book

Article excerpt

In December 1859 Emily Tennyson recorded the arrival at Farringford of the illustrated Princess (1) whose complicated, prolonged, and treacherous birth had almost killed Tennyson's decades-long relationship with the House of Moxon the previous year. "Beautifully got up," Emily admitted, "but the Illustrations we cannot admire." (2) In contrast, the critics received the illustrated volume with open arms, predicting a deserved popularity: "Mr. Moxon has produced, as a Christmas-book, the Laureate's 'Princess,' with twenty-six drawings from the hand of Mr. Daniel Maclise--an exquisite medley of imagination, lovingly and thoughtfully illustrated by a poet of form," declared the Athenaeum. "This will evidently be the Christmas favourite." (3)

The illustrated Princess was not only the Christmas favorite of 1859; it remained so for the next ten years. Reissues sold well and reviewers continued to praise it as the ne plus ultra of the seasonal gift book. (4) This is a remarkable fact in the Golden Age of Illustration (1855-1870) when wood-engraved books of poetry dominated Christmas sales, but what is even more remarkable is how a book so central to Victorian publishing could disappear from critical view in the almost 150 years since. With the exception of the Moxon Tennyson of 1857, literary critics of our own day have paid scant attention to the illustrated editions of Tennyson's work. The immensity of this oversight shows how committed we remain to Tennyson's own romantic ideology of poetry as the creative expression of individual genius--the disembodied voice and inspired breath of the poet. But breath cannot exist outside a living body, and bodies are always enmeshed in human social relationships. The work of many makers, a book is both a material object and an event whose process through time and space is ongoing. Considering the illustrated Princess as an historical event gives us insight into a critical moment in Tennyson's career and the changing conditions under which poetry was produced and received in an emergent mass market. Examining the illustrated Princess as an object opens up interpretation to the weight and heft of its material form and cultural context. As I hope to demonstrate, the production of The Princess as a Christmas gift book bears very materially on its textual and social meanings as a multi-media, worldly event. Manufactured as a package deal of poetry and pictures by an enterprising publisher for a target market, the illustrated Princess illuminates a significant shift in poetry's distribution within the Victorian system of cultural production while self-reflexively commenting on the power relations embedded in its own pages.

I

Most critics would identify Moxon's publication of the first series of Tennyson's Idylls of the King as the poetic event of 1859. The appearance of this important work was delayed, however, because disputes over the illustrated editions of the Poems (1857) and the yet-unpublished Princess strained relations between publisher and poet to the breaking point. Disagreements began in the months following Edward Moxon's untimely death in June 1858, reached a climax around Christmas, and continued unresolved through the winter and spring of 1859. In April Emily Tennyson complained to Edward Lear that although Tennyson's four Idylls were ready and "waiting to be published," his "endless trouble with publishers these ten months" meant that "his poems have no publisher." (5) The parties finally reached an uneasy truce in late spring of 1859. In June, Moxon published the wildly successful Idylls of the King. In November, the firm brought out the illustrated Princess, the "bone of contention" (6) that almost drove poet and publisher apart permanently the year before.

The contiguous, and contingent, publishing relation between Idylls of the King and the illustrated Princess usefully demarcates two divergent directions for poetry in the late 1850s, each a response to its small share of the market relative to other genres, particularly fiction. …

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