Victorian Poetry 43.1 (2005) 53-73
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Tennyson's "Indecent Exposure" in the Periodicals
Five poems in seven periodicals comprised Tennyson's entire list of publications for the year 1868: "The Victim" in Good Words (January 1); "The Spiteful Letter" in Once a Week (January 4); "Wages" in Macmillan's Magazine (February); "1865-1866" in Every Saturday (U.S., February 22) and Good Words (March); and "Lucretius" in Macmillan's Magazine (May) and Every Saturday (U.S., May 2). The output worried Swinburne, who pleaded to Lord Houghton: "Cannot you, as a friend of Mr. Tennyson prevent his making such a hideous exhibition of himself as he has been doing for the last three months? I thought there was a law against 'indecent exposure'?"1 Such attitudes suggest that periodicals generally published inferior literature, and that writers whose works appeared in them devalued both literary quality and reputation through unsophisticated exposure in the mass media. Tennyson outwardly concurred, repeatedly claiming to hate publishing in periodicals. He typically returned a negative answer to editors' requests, as in this letter to an unidentified correspondent on May 25, 1859: "It is so contrary to the wont of my whole life to write in Magazines that I cannot accept your proposal, but I will become your subscriber—at least for a year."2 Upon learning that Thackeray was to be the editor of a new monthly magazine, the Cornhill, Tennyson wrote to him on November 6, 1859:
I am sorry that you have engaged for any quantity of money to let your brains be sucked periodically by Smith, Elder and co.: not that I don't like Smith . . . but that so great an artist as you are should go to work after this fashion. Whenever you feel your brains as the "remainder biscuit" or indeed whenever you will, come over to me and take a blow on these downs where the air as Keats said is "worth sixpence a pint."
He tells American publisher James Ripley Osgood, who may have been soliciting poems for any of the publications owned by Ticknor and Fields (April 4, 1867): "I am not in the habit of inserting poems in the English Magazines, and why should I in the American?—particularly as in this unhappy condition of [End Page 53] international Copyright law the English Magazines would immediately pirate any thing of mine in yours"(Letters, 2:457 and n.).
In spite of Tennyson's frequent public complaints about periodicals, from his first adolescent contributions of "Timbuctoo" to the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal (July 10, 1829) and early poetry for literary annuals (The Gem, 1831; Friendship's Offering, 1832 and 1833; Yorkshire Literary Annual, 1832; The Keepsake, 1837; and The Tribute, 1837), periodicals brought Tennyson exposure to new readers, improved his financial status with increasingly higher fees, and, later when he became Poet Laureate and literary celebrity, provided him with an outlet for trumpeting opinions on his latest political cause. Indeed, Tennyson's entire career is inseparable from a dependence on the very format he supposedly hated, and generations of scholars have largely ignored or devalued important contexts provided by periodicals, misled by Tennyson's protestations and prejudice against the genre. Tennyson and Victorian periodicals were partners and interdependent commodities, sharing in the profits, the popularity, and the proliferation of culture.
Yet scholars continue to speculate about Tennyson's occasion for comparatively prolific periodical publications in 1868. For example, Charles Tennyson suggests that "feeling uneasy at his long lack of contact with the public, and not yet ready with enough work for a new volume, he published a series of poems (the fruits of his increased activity) in periodicals."3 Alternately, Robert Bernard Martin cites the fear of financial distress caused by the recent purchase of Aldworth and plans for a new house. According to Martin, Tennyson was also
genuinely worried about the dry season of his creativity, which sometimes made it seem possible there would never be another volume of poetry. It was common gossip at the time that Tennyson...