Tennyson’s Poems: New Textual Parallels by R. H. Winnick
R. H. Winnick’s study of the parallels between Alfred Tennyson’s poems and the work of earlier writers is a remarkably revealing publication. Earlier critics and editors have noted Tennyson’s debt to others, but this volume presents a breath-taking number of examples. Winnick dedicates his book to Christopher Ricks, whose three-volume edition of the laureate’s poems, published in 1987, directs readers to a large number of echoes and influences. Winnick also acknowledges his debt to a phenomenon not available to Ricks, the “proliferation of digitized texts and the related development of powerful search tools over the three decades since that edition was produced” (1). This, Winnick explains, helped him to extend the range of examples in his text, and in fact, the “Index of Antecedent Writers and Works Discussed” covers no less than sixty-one pages. Many entries for specific poems begin with a reference to Ricks and are followed by Winnick’s additional sources. Winnick agrees with Ricks that there is “a range of possible likenesses. At one end is conscious allusion to another [End Page 811] poet, then unconscious reminiscence; then phrasing which is only an analogue and not a source” (2, n3).
Winnick follows a chronological pattern, indicating, where possible, the date Tennyson wrote the poem. Other poems are listed by date of publication. Not surprisingly, the echoes and direct references are frequently to the poet’s greatest forebears, including Roman poets like Horace, Ovid, and Virgil and the Greek Homer. Notable British predecessors include Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, William Cowper, and Walter Scott. Those whom we now call the Romantic poets are also present in many examples, as he echoes Lord Byron, William Blake, John Keats and, to a great extent, William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley.
More striking are Tennyson’s extensive references to less famous writers, and this is one of the remarkable and original features of the book. For example, he referred to women writers—mainly poets, but also writers in prose. Anna Barbauld, a writer of both poetry and prose from the generation before Tennyson’s, is one example; another is seventeenth-century dramatist Aphra Behn. Poet Letitia Landon (“L. E. L.”) is echoed on eight occasions. Most surprising of all, Tennyson borrowed from the work of another writer from the previous generation, Felicia Hemans. Hemans is quoted or echoed on more than forty occasions, outnumbering references to Tennyson’s contemporary Robert Browning. Given that Tennyson’s father and one of his brothers were clergymen, it is perhaps predictable that Winnick’s longest list of antecedent works is that for the King James Bible. Winnick also carefully notes books known to have been held in the libraries of the poet himself and his father, some of which can be found in the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln. However, he makes it clear that the Centre does not contain all of the volumes from the family collections.
This remarkable study inevitably raises questions about the precise context in which Tennyson introduced these quotations. Did the poet, we are left to wonder, knowingly include these echoes of other writers, or were they lodged in his mind from earlier reading? Tennyson passionately objected to any suggestion that he copied another writer. Winnick relates the poet laureate’s rage at John Churton Collins’s “A New Study of Tennyson,” published in three parts in the Cornhill Magazine in 1880 and 1881. Collins listed numerous examples that he believed were taken from Tennyson’s predecessors, and Winnick quotes a number of these in his preface. In some ways Winnick’s book confirms Collins’s examples, and it should be noted that Collins always insisted that he was not accusing Tennyson of plagiarising. Some doubt whether Tennyson actually described Collins to Edmund Gosse as a “jackass” and “a Louse on the Locks of Literature,” but there can be no doubt that Collins infuriated Tennyson (5–6). [End Page 812]
Tennyson did, of course, sometimes deliberately echo other poets. His “Frater Ave atque Vale,” written in 1880 after the death of his poet brother, Charles, borrows its title from a poem written by the Roman poet Catullus as an elegy for his own brother. Tennyson wrote it as a “Prefatory Poem to My Brother’s Sonnets” (207). This poem, with its clear reference to an earlier work, does not fall within the scope of Winnick’s “New Textual Parallels.” However, he does include another reference to Catullus in a less well-known and much earlier poem, “Amy,” written between 1828 and 1830 but never published by Tennyson. This love poem, addressed to a woman “high-minded and pure-thoughted, chaste and simple,” tells us that “the silver tongues of featherfooted rumour / Ne’er spake of thee to me” (65). Winnick identifies a parallel line in Catullus, “adde huc plumipedas uolatilesque [add to this the featherfooted and swift],” from Carmina 58b (65). In a characteristic example of the splendid scholarship of this study, Winnick then refers us to three other examples of the use of “feather-footed,” in James Shirley’s The Triumph of Peace (1634), Aaron Hill’s Advice to the Poets (1731), and Joseph Warton’s Ode to Sleep (1748).
Notably, for what is perhaps Tennyson’s best-known poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854), Winnick has found no obvious sources. However, for another favourite, “Crossing the Bar” (1889), he quotes John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Seeking of the Waterfall” (1878), with the lines “Along the rugged slope they clomb, / Their guide a threat of sounds and foam” as a parallel to Tennyson’s “But such a tide as moving seems asleep, / Too full for sound and foam” (218). While it seems clear that Tennyson is echoing Whittier’s reference to “sound and foam,” it is not possible to establish precisely when he read “The Seeking of the Waterfall.” There are three volumes of Whittier’s poetry in the Tennyson Research Centre. Two date from 1866, and the third, At Sundown—a gift from Whittier himself—was privately printed in 1890.
Winnick’s study is a challenging and very valuable work for Tennyson scholars. We have been given the parallels and antecedents, and in many of the examples, we must make up our own minds about which we find the most likely to have influenced the laureate’s published poetry. [End Page 813]
Leonee Ormond is a professor emerita of Victorian studies at King’s College, London. Her particular area of interest is the relation between literature and the visual arts. She has published volumes on George du Maurier, Frederic Leighton (with Richard Ormond), J. M. Barrie, Alfred Tennyson, and Linley Sambourne.