Letters, Scraps of Manuscript, and Printed Poems: The Correspondence of Edward FitzGerald and Alfred Tennyson

By Barton, Anna Jane | Victorian Poetry, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Letters, Scraps of Manuscript, and Printed Poems: The Correspondence of Edward FitzGerald and Alfred Tennyson


Barton, Anna Jane, Victorian Poetry


"Well, 'My Master,' you need not reply to all this." (1)

Edward FitzGerald begins the concluding paragraph of his final letter to Alfred Tennyson by relieving him of any obligation to write back. In so doing he draws the history of their correspondence to an appropriate close. Over the course of nearly half a century of friendship, FitzGerald had learnt not to expect replies to his regular letters. After 1850, when Tennyson's marriage removed him from London and out of the company of his friend, FitzGerald wrote at least every six months, obedient to a wish, expressed by Tennyson in his first letter to FitzGerald, that he should "'write often whether I answer or no.'" (2) FitzGerald's earlier letters often request replies, always with the expectation of disappointment: "Do let me have a line from one of you one day.... There was a very low purple Campanula (I think) on the Down by you, which I should like a bit of in a letter: but you won't send it." (3) These requests are punctuated by remonstrance and complaint: "Nobody writes to me--Nobody's fault but my own; for, though I write to Somebody, he doesn't think me worth answering by Letter." (4) Tennyson's rare letters often make excuses for his silence, sometimes blaming circumstance--"If you had known how much I have gone through since I saw you, you would pardon perhaps my ungracious silence"--and regularly referring to his own hatred of letter-writing: "but then I know that you like writing which I hate mortally." (5) Their opposite attitudes to letter-writing have received some biographical attention, but it seems worth reconsidering in view of the rising profile of print culture in the study of Victorian literature, as it delineates a nostalgic commitment to literature in manuscript alongside a modern, although sometimes regretful, commitment to print. This article will examine the epistolary relationship of the poet and the man of letters in the context of each man's attitude to institutional hegemonies of print that came to dominate all aspects of literary production in the nineteenth century. It will go on to read "To E. FitzGerald," Tennyson's belated print-epistle to his old friend, as an attempt by the laureate to recapture the literary ethic that FitzGerald had embodied.

My discussion of the difference between FitzGerald's "old" (amateur, private, manuscript) literary ethic and Tennyson's alignment with "new" (professional, public, printed) literatures shares some ground with two other critics who have recently discussed the relationship between these two friends in terms of old and new. "Larger Hopes and the New Hedonism: Tennyson and FitzGerald" by Norman Page compares In Memoriam with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, two poems that "share an impulse to commemorate an intimacy terminated in its prime." (6) Page's reading identifies a strain of Byronic hedonism in FitzGerald's work that is at odds with the "unrelenting seriousness" of Tennyson's work after 1842 and that proved to be an increasingly popular anachronism during the latter decades of the Victorian period. While Page suggests that FitzGerald was a late Romantic born after his time, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's article, "Young Tennyson and 'Old Fitz,'" argues that FitzGerald was old before his time. (7) Douglas-Fairhurst describes how FitzGerald achieved, through his friendship with Tennyson, a vicarious involvement in the modern world, from which his "old age" excluded him, while always expressing a preference for the "young Tennyson" and disapproval of the path that the laureate's career had taken. In their descriptions of the relationship between Tennyson and FitzGerald both Page and Douglas-Fairhurst describe Tennyson as a modern Victorian, willingly engaging with the rapidly changing social and cultural life of nineteenth-century Britain, and FitzGerald as an old man or an old Romantic whose reclusive way of life and taste for nostalgia signal a retreat from the age in which he found himself. …

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