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  • Charles (Tennyson) Turner and the Power of the Small Poetic Thing
  • Valentine Cunningham (bio)

Charles (Tennyson) Turner was the sonnettomaniac's sonnettomaniac, his huge output of sonnets—342 of them in the posthumous Collected Sonnets Old and New brought out by his nephew Hallam Tennyson (1880), all now gathered by F. B. and M. Pinion in The Collected Sonnets of Charles (Tennyson) Turner1—an astonishing record even for the Victorian era of sonnettomaniacs. But for all that, or them, he never stopped feeling himself overshadowed by his more famous younger brother the Laureate, whose mounting reputation was built, like his commanding presence, on increasingly bulkier and bulkier poetic items. The thirty-four year gap between Turner's Sonnets and Fugitive Pieces (1830) and his Sonnets (1864) was attributed to his sense of Alfred's "perfect work" and fame. His sense of himself as minor poet could not help being fueled by the feeling he apparently shared that his chosen mode, the sonnet, was small beer, a minor business, feebletonianism, beside the larger forces of the epic, of poems with a longer story to narrate, indeed of any other generic thing with more than a mere fourteen-lines-a-time to work with. Turner's at times crushing melancholy about his poetic achievements as weighed beside those of his mighty younger brother was almost as if he anticipated his own disappearance from, or indeed his never entering-into, the canon—an absence cognate with his disappearance from the Tennyson tribal register: the original Tennyson being smothered in Turner, the surname he adopted to ensure an inheritance from his great uncle, the Reverend Samuel Turner.

Arrestingly, though, Turner's perennial defensiveness about sonneteering, his own and other people's, is marked by a kind of genteel militancy about what the sonnet can or might do. The period's great sonneteers—Alfred Tennyson, Hopkins, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina G. Rossetti, J. A. Symonds—are commonly self-conscious, theoretical even as we might say, about their mode's activities and possibilities, but no sonneteer was more self-conscious than Turner. And like his sonneteering betters he is, in fact, a great worker with the mode—a considerable practical demonstrator of what this tiny form is capable of, constantly revealing the actual power of this small poetic thing. In other words, he constantly makes [End Page 509] the best of the sonnet's given, predictable, dictated smallness. Clearest of his canny dealings is the way he exploits the natural affinity of this small, tight, bounded mode with the small, contained subject. Turner's recurrent subject is small creatures, small persons, small objects, dinky things, and especially bounded, made works of art or craft (in other words, he works notably with the sonnet's traditional ekphrastic proclivities). His sonnets are determined to build on the sonnet's traditional desire to make big business, to render a large account, by means of the form's necessary small scope and small means.

Of course Turner continually humbles himself and disparages his favored mode. He makes no bones about the humble station he alleges the "sonneteer" occupies. The epigraph for his Sonnets and Fugitive Pieces volume is a Wordsworth phrase proclaiming "The sonnet's humble plot of ground" (Pinion, p. 31; actually a mis-memory of "the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground" in Wordsworth's sonnet "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room"). Turner's tableaux are openly small ones. Small Tableaux is his title of 1865. The Latin epigraph of Small Tableaux (1865) runs "Hasce breves, oro pictor, ne sperne tabellas" [I beg you, you painter, not to despise these small tableaux] (p. 107). (The epigraph is ascribed to "M. S.," a Roman poet who seems not to exist; which suggests it is Turner's own.) In that volume's opening poem, "My First and Last Strophe: On Being Asked to Write an Ode by a Friend" (CXLVIII), Turner says he would like to do a "soaring ode," but cannot. The "Pindaric clutch" disables him. He feels "my want / Of force." He is too belated, or simply disenabled, for generic sublimity; it is too late in the day, he says, for...


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