How to become the most loved poet of the Victorian period
I reviewed a reissued Rose Macaulay book They Went to Portugal for Prospect’s summer issue. What I haven’t written about for some time is homeschool. That’s because my wife now has a blog about that subject,—and she actually does the homeschooling. So if you’re interested, head over there. It’s really quite good.
The Tennyson book club is on 10th August, 19.00 UK time. We are discussing the Morte d’Arthur and the final book of Idylls of the King, ‘The Passing of Arthur’, in which Tennyson expanded and altered the original. I’ll also have something to say about The Lady of Shallott. You should also read ‘The Epic’ the short poem that frames the Morte d’Arthur.
In anticipation of our forthcoming Tennyson book club, this is the first essay I shall write about the great Laureate. The next one will be about Tennyson and Victorian medievalism. There is a lot of good modern criticism about Tennyson’s career, his sales figures, and his circle. Today I’m going to summarise some of that research to give a picture of Tennyson’s fame. We’re going to see how exactly he became the most famous Victorian poet. As you’ll discover, it takes more than just writing great poetry.
This essay is for paid subscribers. The first few paragraphs are free to see but after that there is a paywall.
Tennysonians in 1842
“Every body admires Tennyson now, but to admire him fifteen years ago or so, was to be a Tennysonian.” So said one reviewer in 1859, on the publication of the first four books of Idylls of the King (‘Enid’, ‘Vivien’, ‘Elaine’, and ‘Guinevere’.) Tennyson’s breakthrough year is traditionally supposed to be 1850, when he published In Memoriam and became Poet Laureate. But the Tennysonians had been enthusiastic since at least 1842, when he published Poems in two volumes. And they weren’t such a small band as the reviewer above makes them seem. The 1842 book became a word of mouth success, steadily establishing Tennyson as a major poet, who sold more books than he or his publisher expected.
And no wonder. The Poems of 1842 is the book with some of his most enduring work: ‘Mariana’, ‘The Lotos Eaters’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘Locksley Hall’, ‘Sir Galahad’, ‘Break, Break, Break’ and, of course, ‘The Lady of Shalott’. So many of these poems have been quoted by later poets, memorised by schoolchildren, referenced in films. They are so often the poems people name when they enthuse about Tennyson.
Sensational print runs: from five hundred to five thousand
Tennyson’s first collections, a decade earlier, had smaller print runs of a few hundred copies. The 1842 collection started with a run of eight hundred. Then word spread. Print runs increased in size. In 1848, two years before In Memoriam and the Laureateship, a run of three thousand copies was made. Another run of the same size was made in 1850. In 1853 there was a print run of five thousand copies. When the first run sold five hundred copies in a few months, Tennyson and his publisher Moxton thought it was “sensational.” Imagine how they felt when they started print runs in the thousands.