Writing in 1842 to his friend Alfred Domett, who had emigrated to New Zealand, Robert Browning enclosed ‘Tennyson’s new vol. and, alas, the old with it – that is what he calls old’. Browning was referring to the two-volume Poems of 1842, whose first volume consisted of heavily revised versions of poems published in 1830 and 1832. ‘You will see, and groan!’ Browning went on.
The alterations are insane. Whatever is touched is spoiled. There is some woeful mental infirmity in the man – he was months buried in correcting the press of the last volume, and in that time began spoiling the new poems (in proof) as hard as he could. ‘Locksley Hall’ is shorn of two or three couplets. I will copy out from the book of somebody who luckily transcribed from the proof-sheet – meantime one line, you will see, I have restored – see and wonder! I have been with Moxon this morning, who tells me that he is miserably thin-skinned, sensitive to criticism (foolish criticism), wishes to see no notices that contain the least possible depreciatory expression – poor fellow! But how good when good he is – that noble ‘Locksley Hall’, for instance – and the ‘St Simeon Stylites’ – which I think perfect ... To think that he has omitted the musical ‘Forget-me-not’ song, and ‘the Hesperides’ – and the ‘Deserted House’ – and ‘everything that is his’, as distinguished from what is everybody’s!
Browning knew what he was about; he knew that Tennyson was worth knowing in depth and detail, that the way he wrote was of interest, that variant readings of his poems were precious. Now we have Ricks’s three volumes of the poems, expanding the original one-volume edition of 1969, and presenting Tennyson, like the lavish set-piece of a Victorian banquet, in a sauce of his own innards (variants from notebooks, from letters, from trial editions, from other printed editions; drafts, second thoughts, cancelled readings and emendations), accompanied by a fanfare of notes; Susan Shatto’s edition of ‘Maud’, devoting yet more minute attention to this single work (it is unhappily labelled ‘a definitive edition’ – what on earth is the indefinite article doing there?); and the highly-praised Lang-Shannon edition of Tennyson’s letters, continuing its march down the years of Tennyson’s established public fame – a march which, like the great man himself, is lively and stately in equal measure.
Ricks’s 1969 edition, at 1835 pages, strained the Longman single-volume format nearly to breaking point; it was not even considered for the forthcoming editions of Browning and Shelley. The expansion of one volume into three works out like this (not counting prefatory material, appendices etc.; the numbers are those given by Ricks to the poems): Nos 1-224 ... 582 pp. in 1969; 638 pp. in Vol. 1 of 1987. Nos 225-356 ... 635 pp. in 1969; 722 pp. in Vol 2 of 1987. Nos. 357-477 ... 547 pp. in 1969; 573 pp. in Vol. 2 of 1987. Vol. Two has ‘The Princess’, In Memoriam and ‘Maud’; it has grown as much as the other two volumes together. In Memoriam alone is 20 pages longer in 1987 than in 1969. Much of the new material comes from the manuscripts at Trinity College, Cambridge, finally available for transcription. Connoisseurs of the 1969 edition will recall the maddeningly-repeated announcement on the editorial tannoy, ‘There is another version of these lines in T.MS, which may not be quoted,’ and rejoice that the College has, as Ricks puts it, ‘chosen one form of piety over another’. The remark shows something like superhuman restraint when you consider that the ban was lifted later in the same year that his edition was published, out-dating it at a stroke.
The Trinity MSS (along with recently-discovered manuscripts in other collections, letters etc) have yielded a small number of new poems and fragments (some of which were separately published when the ban was lifted). More important than the handful of new poems is the huge increase in variant readings, including an intermediate (1842) manuscript of In Memoriam and the fullest manuscript of ‘Maud’. The ramifications of Tennyson’s self-borowings can be followed more accurately and usefully; as for revision, two brief examples from ‘Maud’ may suffice to show the richness of the added material. In I iv the speaker has a vision of cruel and violent Nature: ‘And the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and prey.’ The Trinity MS has ‘full of plunder and prey’, empty in comparison; the published reading strengthens both alliteration and idea (the ‘little’ wood is a microcosm of the great world; at the same time the wood is the ‘whole’ world to those small creatures that inhabit it). In I xiii the speaker is ‘Gorgonised ... from head to foot/With a stony British stare’ by Maud’s brother; in the Trinity MS ‘British’ was merely ‘execrable’. To attend to these variant readings is to witness the scrupulous weighings and siftings of Tennyson’s intelligence about language and rhythm, an intelligence not unerring but always alive and instructive.
The Trinity MSS, though they have attracted most notice and figure on the title-pages of the new edition, are of course not the only source of added material. Nearly twenty years’ scholarship, some of it Ricks’s own, has had to be taken into account. The 1969 edition was a miracle of compressed exposition and allusion; 1987 repeats the feat, particularly in the headnotes, as anyone who compares ‘The Palace of Art’ in 1969 and 1987 will discover.
It is illuminating in this context to compare Ricks’s ‘Maud’ with Susan Shatto’s. With nearly three hundred pages to 70 in Ricks, Shatto can afford a more spacious introduction and fuller annotation, complete collations and bibliographical descriptions of the numerous manuscripts and printed texts, and a list of minor variants running to 36 pages. The 1837 text of ‘Oh! that ’twere possible’, published in The Tribute, is given separately. The extra detail in Shatto about manuscripts and drafts is worth paying attention to: Ricks reports that II ii (‘See what a lovely shell’) was composed in the 1830s; Shatto describes the manuscript evidence and argues that the early date applies only to the first three stanzas.
Which edition would you recommend? That would depend on whether you wanted to put the emphasis on Tennyson or on ‘Maud’. Concentrating on the particular text, Shatto has some advantages, while, with Ricks, the whole edition underpins the strength of each part, however important the part might be. Shatto is undoubtedly easier to read; Ricks writes in Longman Annotated, a dialect designed for economy (with facts, not truth) and which takes the reader some time to grasp. There is less to look up in Shatto: Ricks notes that W. Collins ‘notes the influence of a pamphlet, Points of War, by T.’s friend Franklin Lushington’; Shatto quotes three stanzas of one of Lushington’s poems. On the other hand, Shatto sometimes wastes words: her note to I i 39 (‘And chalk and alum and plaster are sold to the poor for bread’) opens, ‘The sale of adulterated foodstuffs and poisonous drugs had caused widespread complaint since the eighteenth century’; Ricks has ‘A notorious scandal’. Shatto can also be eccentric in her choice of what to quote: she has made good use of Emily Tennyson’s journal (which Ricks ignores), but in her note to III vi 13-14 (‘Mars/As he glowed like a ruddy shield on the Lion’s breast’) she quotes Emily’s entry for 16 March 1854 – ‘Our Lionel born. A. when he heard of it was watching in the little study under the bedroom and saw Mars in the Lion culminating’ – rather than, as in Ricks, Tennyson’s own note, made the next day: ‘A boy was born last night – a stout little fellow. Mars was culminating in the Lion – does that mean soldiership?’ If you had to choose, Tennyson’s note is surely more pertinent to the military rhetoric which dominates the end of the poem: but a reader might appreciate both, so pointed is their juxtaposition.
Shatto and Ricks each pick up allusions that the other misses. Some of these are of minor importance – Shatto finds ‘monstrous eft’ (I iv) in a review by Kingsley, Ricks notices the witty conflation of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the King Charles spaniel in I ix – but others are of real significance. Ricks doesn’t cite Tennyson’s revealing comment that the narrator’s belief in the innate patriotism of the commercial classes (‘For I trust if an enemy’s fleet came yonder round by the hill ... That the smooth-faced snubnosed rogue would leap from his counter and till’) was not disdainful enough: ‘He is wrong in thinking that war will transform the cheating tradesman into a great-souled hero, or that it will sweep away the dishonesties and lessen the miseries of humanity.’ But Ricks does draw attention to a striking reminiscence in I xviii of a sonnet, ‘The Garden Trees’, begun by Tennyson in 1831 and given to Hallam to finish: an important witness not just to a local influence but to a continuing pattern of remembering and returning which confirms, throughout the pages of the edition, Ricks’s terse statement, in the headnote to In Memoriam, of the impact of Hallam’s death: ‘No event in T.’s life was of greater importance.’
Where matters of judgment are concerned, Ricks has the edge; he doesn’t make too much of a dubious parallel, or slide from suggestion to assertion, as Shatto occasionally does: in her note to II v, the ‘mad scene’, she has a lengthy note citing Poe’s story ‘The Premature Burial’ as a definite influence, arguing that the gift of an edition of Poe coincided with the period of composition of this section. Even if this is so, the story is quite unconvincing as a source: the speaker in ‘Maud’ is not terrified of premature burial, but dead (as he madly imagines); he does not want to get out, but to be buried deeper. Yet Shatto has Tennyson composing the passage ‘with Poe’s tale fresh in his mind, and perhaps actually in front of him’, despite the fact that the original reference to reading Poe (in Emily Tennyson’s journal) refers to poems, not stories, and that there is no evidence that Tennyson knew this particular story. Do you read through every book given to you as a present?
Philip Larkin, reviewing Ricks’s 1969 edition, singled out the lines ‘O why have they not buried me deep enough’ as shapeless and unrhythmical; he managed to find a Larkinesque side of Tennyson to admire (‘Northern Farmer, New Style’), but the general verdict was puncturing, and ‘Maud’ (those interminable and self-congratulatory readings – not Larkin’s style) might be thought to epitomise the vein of the preposterous in man and poet alike. Larkin would probably have concurred with Carlyle’s famous knocking together of the two heads of Victorian poetry: ‘Browning has more ideas than Tennyson, but is not so truthful. Tennyson means what he says, poor fellow.’ In Browning’s ‘poor fellow’ too (quoted above), there lurks the sense of Tennyson being a poor-spirited fellow, as well as deserving sympathy for his susceptibility to ‘foolish criticism’: yet Browning knew the value of Tennyson and of ‘Maud’. ‘People in general appear very unfavourably impressed by this poem, very unjustly, Robert and I think’: so Elizabeth Barrett Browning shortly after its publication. Larkin’s judgment in 1969 was very unjust to the body of the work. What predominates in a writer’s image is not necessarily the same as what makes that writer worth reading. Moncure Conway, along with many others, found Tennyson ‘in every way different from the man I expected to see’ (Letters, p. 331: Lang and Shannon’s edition is enriched by dozens of passages from other letters, journals and memoirs). The poetical ‘Tennyson’ (grand, simple, musical, sincere, not very bright) is part of Tennyson the poet, but only in a shot-silk fashion: turn the fabric another way to the light and you get other colours – subtler and darker, yes, but also unexpected. The man who read ‘Maud’ to the Brownings ‘in a voice like an organ, rather music than speech’ is also the one who supplied this note to the phrase ‘branch-work of costly sardonyx’: ‘the Parisian jewellers apply graduated degrees of heat to the sardonyx, by which the colour is changed to various colours. They imitate thus, among other things, bunches of grapes with green tendrils.’ Tennyson’s passion for accuracy of detail is alive even in his excesses and absurdities: the description of a steamboat which he dropped from both ‘The Gardener’s Daughter’ and ‘Audley Court’, ‘The snoring funnel whizzed with silver steam,’ has nothing inexact about it. Like Browning’s desert-crossing in ‘Sordello’ (‘Each camel churns a sick and frothy chap’), it is comic precisely because it combines sharpness of observation with the perfection of a manner.
Browning might well have argued for the retention of the snoring funnel, as characteristic of ‘everything that is his, as distinguished from what is everybody’s’: but he might also have blenched at the thoroughness with which posterity has gleaned the textual field, and the thought of similar treatment being meted out to him (as it has been and will be) would have made him mad. He resolutely destroyed his own drafts and jottings, made frantic attempts to recover early poems which had been copied by friends (only two survive), and kept quiet about the authorship of his first, anonymous publication, ‘Pauline’, for over thirty years, until the threat of piracy forced him to acknowledge it. He disliked the idea of annotation, too: ‘Years of study of dictionaries and the like would make the student learned enough in another direction but not one bit more in the limited direction of the poem itself,’ he wrote to a friend. Indeed there is something disquieting, as well as exhilarating, about the activity of scholarship: not that we ‘murder to dissect’, but that, on the contrary, the body we are examining proves strangely fertile, and multiplies under the knife. A poem by Tennyson in Ricks’s anthology corresponds to the popular notion of what a poem is: a single, stable, determined text: ‘St Simeon Stylites’, for instance, which opens the Tennyson section and which Browning thought ‘perfect’. In Ricks’s edition, on the other hand, we read that 1.2 of the poem, ‘From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin’, went through the following versions:
Plunged to the throat in crime – polluted, blurred,
Blained, rank, corrupt, one crust of noisome filth ...
Plunged to the throat in slough of crime – pollute,
Blained, blurred, corrupt – one crust of noisome filth ...
Sloughed to the throat in crime – from scalp to sole
Blood, bone, breath, sinew, pulse and motion, sin ...
In addition, we learn its sources in Deuteronomy, Job and Isaiah: we are thus able to see how the single compressed resonant line of the final version evolved both from Tennyson’s reading and from his own process of writing; alternatively (though more painstakingly), we can reconstruct the earlier versions if we prefer them, as Browning suggests we should; in either case, we are confronted with problems which the anthology reader is deliberately spared, problems of definition and demarcation between composition (with its attendant crossings-out and interpolations) and revision. The poems in Ricks’s edition have no fixed identity, as they do in his anthology; the flat-seeming space of the text is plunged, by the process of reading, into the dimension of time: lines are haunted by the knowledge of their origin, by memories of their displaced or aborted precursors. Editors like Ricks allow us to appreciate how nothing in poetic creation is given. Like the x-ray pictures of paintings, they reveal the hidden outlines of earlier texts – sometimes the existence of a different painting altogether. What are we to make of such information? How is it to affect our reading? Add the questions of biographical and critical interpretation to that of textual scholarship, and you conclude that two quite separate kinds of reading are proposed and presumed by edition and anthology. A small sign of this difference is the fact that anthology readers are expected either to know, or not to care about not knowing, the Classical and Biblical tags, or occasional quotations in other languages (e.g. the Gaelic epigraph to Yeats’s ‘Cradle Song’), which an academic editor would routinely identify and translate (English dialect, on the other hand, is glossed where necessary). Another, and perhaps more potent example: In Memoriam appears in the anthology not just in extracts (unavoidable) but without its full title and subtitle:
In Memoriam A.H.H.
The initials were at any rate thought significant enough to be included in the headline in the edition: but the reader of the anthology is left unaware of whether the poem is based on a real or an ideal loss, and loses the pointed, the stylised gravity of the inscription (reinforced by knowing the first publication was anonymous). Are there readers who are ignorant of Arthur Henry Hallam and all that? Well, yes, there are, as any teacher of Victorian literature has cause to lament. The question arises: what does it mean to read such a poem without even the beginnings of contextual knowledge? It may be argued that the anthology is predicated on the existence of the edition (though only for writers of Tennyson’s stature): but to say that anthologies address themselves to a cultivated public who can look up the textual and critical details if they are interested begs the question of what such distinctions mean for the practice of reading in our society.
The case of ‘Maud’ is even more problematic than that of In Memoriam, whose length, like that of Aurora Leigh or The Ring and the Book, absolutely ruled out inclusion in toto. (From the tone of the introduction, I suspect that Ricks lost an argument with OUP about printing at least Book One of Aurora Leigh complete.) But ‘Maud’ is not all that long – 1322 lines, less than a hundred lines longer than Clough’s Amours de Voyage, which is one of the ‘four substantial masterpieces’ printed in full, the others being FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Lewis Carroll’s ‘Hunting of the Snark’. (The list has attracted comment: it is clearly polemical, and reviewers who objected to ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ as lightweight were exposing the very prejudice its inclusion challenges; Goblin Market fittingly rebukes the scandalous omission of any of Christina Rossetti’s poems from the Longman anthology edited by Bernard Richards. I merely puzzle over the fact that Browning’s ‘Caliban upon Setebos,’ only five lines shorter than ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, is in the anthology but doesn’t make a fifth in the list.) Clough’s magnificent tragi-comedy, whose inclusion is the happiest stroke in an anthology full of such stimulating judgments, would have made a fascinating comparison and contrast with ‘Maud’, of which instead we get no more than the expected plums (‘O let the solid ground’, ‘Come into the garden, Maud,’ etc).
Personally I could have spared the overblown and pseudo-plangent Rubaiyat, which appeals to the worst English taste for the mock-Oriental: and I wish that Browning’s fierce sonnet ‘To Edward FitzGerald’ had been chosen amongst the many ‘readings’ of poets by each other which are a feature of the anthology. In Ricks’s edition ‘Maud’ occupies 70 packed pages, some of them with a (justifiably) Falstaffian disproportion between text and notes; Tennyson thought it one of ‘the finest things I’ve written’, and even if Ricks doesn’t agree, his treatment of it acknowledges its centrality. Indeed, it would arguably have been better to leave the poem out of the anthology entirely than to reprint only the – to call them by their ugly name – anthology pieces. In the case of Browning’s ‘Pippa passes’, Ricks has rightly chosen not to select Pippa’s first song (‘God’s in his heaven/All’s right with the world’), which saddled Browning for decades with a reputation for mindless optimism, since no one who encountered it outside its dramatic context realised that it is sung outside the window of a house where a woman and her lover brood over the murder of her husband. But the dramatic context of‘Maud’ is equally vital – not just that of its story (which cannot be deduced by the anthology reader), but the abrupt swings of mood and tempo, mediated by expressive changes of rhythm, which govern the speaker’s lyric self-consciousness. Hasn’t ‘Come into the garden, Maud’, not to mention its musical settings, done as much to set up ‘Lawn-Tennyson’ as ‘God’s in his heaven’ has to set up Browning the Victorian Optimist?
The treatment of ‘Maud’ is one of Ricks’s rare false steps in the anthology. It has been an illuminating experience to read through it, and a rare one too, I suspect. Anthologies are meant for browsing, a dilettantish pleasure in which the serious reviewer cannot indulge. What struck me most forcibly as a general impression was how lopsided the period appears in Ricks’s idiosyncratic method of arrangement (poets not by date of birth, but by date of publication of their earliest included poem). The first half of the book has (in order) Tennyson, Emily Brontë, William Barnes, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Clare, Carroll, Clough, Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, and Arnold, who, fittingly, is the pivotal figure. After this, though big names are not lacking, their contribution weighs less, in several cases because so much of their best work was done outside the period, and there is a preciosity, old-fashioned though it may be to say so, about the poets who conclude the volume: if Tennyson weighs heavily on Swinburne, how much more heavily does Swinburne weigh on Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson! I noticed a flourishing of dedications of exquisite lyrics to speck-like personages: ‘Terre Promise’ ‘For Herbert P. Home’, ‘Les Demoiselles de Sauve’ ‘To S.A.S. Alice, Princesse de Monaco’, ‘Mishka’ ‘To Henri Texeira de Mattos’ (the absence of Hallam from the title of In Memoriam looks even odder beside these scrupulously preserved gestures). In his Introduction, quick and acute, Ricks notices that Victorian poets suffered from the anxiety of not being influenced by their immediate precursors, in the sense that these precursors – Keats, Shelley, Byron – died before they could engage in the critique of their own earlier work which the Victorians were left to carry out on their own. But Tennyson and Browning, in their turn, did live long enough to prompt ‘the dialogue of the mind with its past self’, a dialogue as fruitful in their case as Ricks argues it would have been for Keats or Shelley or Byron: and yet the beneficiaries of this process, with the single (admittedly luminous) exception of Hardy, were none of them either Victorian or English: it is Yeats, Eliot and Pound who reaped the imperial harvest. It is the difference between subordination, however talented, and creative authority, however flawed. Take the following:
Silence on silence treads at each low morn.
Pain and new pain, some glimpse of painless sleep,
And waking to old anguish and new day ...
Not Tennyson: but its author had read ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Tithonus’. Or this:
Listen; a clumsy knight, who rode alone
Upon a stumbling jade in a great wood
Belated. The poor beast with head low-bowed
Snuffing the treacherous ground. The rider leant
Forward to sound the marish with his lance.
You saw the place was deadly ...
Not Browning: but its author had read ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’. Both are by John Leicester Warren, Lord de Tabley. Not that he doesn’t write well, but the well-made poem is not what Eliot and Pound made of Tennyson and Browning. What is most individual in the anthology is that which lies outside the orbit of the great names: James Henry’s ‘Out of the frying pan into the fire’, a savagely funny account of a dream of damnation, all in one hectic tumbling sentence; and his superb rough ballad about a mining disaster:
Two hundred men and eighteen killed
For want of a second door!
Ay, for with two doors, each ton coal
Had cost one penny more.
And what is it else makes England great
At home, by land, by sea,
But her cheap coal, and eye’s tail turned
Toward strict economy?
This is not the only topical poem in the volume: Dickens’s re-writing of ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’, ‘To be said or sung at all Conservative Dinners’, strikes a chill after 11 June:
The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the land,
In England there shall be dear bread – in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, rally round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English Tory days;
Hail to the coming time!
Such poems remind you of the vigour of public poetry in the period: a pity, incidentally, that Tennyson’s public voice is mute here, except for ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. I would especially like to have had ‘To Virgil’, one of the finest tributes ever paid by one poet to another, and written to order; it is also, in a sense, Tennyson’s ‘Recessional’, and compares far better with Kipling than ‘On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria’ (‘Fifty years of ever-broadening Commerce!/Fifty years of ever-brightening Science!/Fifty years of ever-widening Empire!’), Conventional notions of the sentimentality and unreal affectations of Victorian lyric poetry are generally overturned: the volume is peppered with light verse, from Browning’s ‘Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of “The Judgment of Paris” ’ (‘He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,/Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed’) to another beady glance at childhood innocence, Frederick Locker-Lampson’s ‘A Terrible Infant’:
I recollect a nurse call’d Ann
Who carried me about the grass,
And one fine day a fine young man
Came up, and kiss’d the pretty lass.
She did not make the least objection!
Thinks I, ‘Aha!
When I can talk I’il tell Mamma.’
– And that’s my earliest recollection.
Artifices of sentiment are equally repelled by the more serious poems: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s unflinching sonnet, ‘Grief, is the touchstone here, though perhaps the sharpest impact comes from the generous sample of Meredith’s pitiless and compelling sequence, Modern Love:
At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.
Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps
The Topic over intellectual deeps
In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.
With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:
It is in truth a most contagious game:
HIDING THE SKELETON, shall be its name.
How the capital letters rattle the bones! Such poems strengthen, rather than weaken, what Ricks sees as his major change of emphasis in comparison with preceding Oxford anthologies: his bringing forward what he calls ‘the true voices of feeling’, a group which gathers Emily Brontë, John Clare, William Barnes, and Christina Rossetti along with Hardy. ‘Feeling’ as Ricks understands it is the reverse of sentimental, and Meredith is answered (not evaded) by Clare’s ‘Love Pains’, by Emily Brontë’s ‘It will not shine again’, by Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’.
It’s a shame that major period anthologies should so rarely form part of academic courses; their inclusion is felt to be somehow cheating. So it would be if students were expected to gain all their knowledge of a period’s central figures from such sources: but where are students (or teachers) to acquire their sense of the range and variety of Victorian poetry, if not from such collections? And where are they, in common with all readers, to find their prejudices challenged and their eyes unscaled? I am ashamed to put down the number of poets here whose very names I had never encountered. As with Tennyson, so with the period to which he is wedded in our minds: Ricks’s art is to make the fixed features of the portrait come alive and turn towards us its surprising countenance.