Tennyson’s Text

Danny Karlin

  • The Poems of Tennyson edited by Christopher Ricks
    Longman, 662 pp, £40.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 582 49239 4
  • Tennyson’s ‘Maud’: A Definitive Edition edited by Susan Shatto
    Athlone, 296 pp, £28.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 485 11294 9
  • The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Vol.2: 1851-1870 edited by Cecil Lang and Edgar Shannon
    Oxford, 585 pp, £40.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 19 812691 3
  • The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse edited by Christopher Ricks
    Oxford, 654 pp, £15.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 19 214154 6

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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