Tennyson and the Victorian Literary Canon: New Manuscript Uncovered by Michael J. Sullivan

Image credit: Alfred Lord Tennyson, British Library

A rediscovered revision copy of The Golden Treasury reveals the enduring influence of Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the English literary canon.

Michael Sullivan, a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of English, has discovered a revision copy of Britain’s best-known poetry anthology, The Golden Treasury, which sheds new light on the development of the English literary canon and on the significance of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in shaping it.

Sullivan was examining manuscripts and rare books at the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln Central Library. He was studying a copy of The Golden Treasury, one of four held by the research centre, which was catalogued among the books of Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson’s eldest son. Since the book had not been catalogued among the poet’s own library, it had been overlooked in existing literary scholarship. Sullivan identified the book as a copy of the 1881 imprint with annotations by the anthology’s editor, Francis Turner Palgrave, and by Alfred and Hallam Tennyson. According to Sullivan, the existence of this revision copy indicates that Palgrave and Tennyson were working on a revised edition of The Golden Treasury earlier than has hitherto been claimed.

However, it is only when read in conjunction with the manuscript of a letter sent from Palgrave to Hallam in October 1883 that the full significance of the revision copy for the development of an English literary canon can be understood.

The Golden Treasury is an anthology of English-language poetry first published by Palgrave in 1861. It was intended to be a complete record of the best songs and poems in the English language, rather than simply a selection, and it was therefore a crucial influence on our modern conceptions of lyrical poetry. Tennyson played a significant role in the book’s inception and the final selection of poems; according to Palgrave, the book ‘fairly represents his taste’. The Golden Treasury became one of the most significant anthologies of English poetry ever printed, and was widely circulated throughout the Anglophone world until the Second World War, reaching more than half a million copies. It was most recently republished in 2011 to celebrate its 150th anniversary, following a sixth revised edition by Oxford University Press in 1994.

From its initial publication to its first major revisions in 1897, the selection of poems remained largely unchanged, going through over 15 imprints in its first 22 years. During this time the only important revision was a small appendix of new poems added in 1884. It was not until 1897, 5 years after Tennyson’s death, that Palgrave made significant changes to the selection of poems. The standard narrative is that Palgrave had been reluctant to make any changes. However, Sullivan argues that the existence of the annotated revision copy of 1881-83 demonstrates not only that The Golden Treasury’s editor was considering substantial amendments earlier than scholars have assumed, but it was Tennyson who argued strongly against his friend’s proposed revisions. Sullivan’s findings confirm Tennyson’s deep involvement both with the original selection and the prevailing aesthetic direction of the anthology.

These findings are substantiated by a letter from Palgrave to Hallam Tennyson, who, having returned from Cambridge, was acting as his father’s secretary. The annotations in the 1881-83 revision copy are mostly in Palgrave’s hand, and that of Hallam, who was writing his father’s responses to Palgrave’s suggested changes. Thus, The Golden Treasury remained largely unchanged not solely because of pragmatic publishing decisions made by Palgrave, but also because of Tennyson’s lasting satisfaction with his choice of what he considered to be the ‘Best songs and lyrical poems in the English language’.

Tennyson’s role as final arbiter in selecting the poems, Sullivan argues, provides new insights into the poet’s own artistic preferences and influences. What is noteworthy is the prominent place given to the Romantic poets and their contemporaries, whose poems account for nearly half of those in the anthology (over 123 poems), a strikingly high number particularly when contrasted with the poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (55 and 49 poems respectively). The anthology can also be credited with cementing the reputation of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had 22 poems included in the anthology, behind only William Shakespeare (32) and William Wordsworth (41).

Wordsworth was the poet who benefited most from Tennyson’s involvement in the selection of poems for the anthology. In contrast with previous scholars, who asserted that Tennyson’s regard for Wordsworth waned over the course of his life, Sullivan argues that the ongoing prominence of Wordsworth’s poems in the anthology – more than any other poet – shows that Tennyson retained ‘a very high admiration of him’ even though he could be very frank about what he felt were the poet’s shortcomings.

Sullivan claims that there are notable similarities between Tennyson’s own poems and a sizeable number of those he selected for The Golden Treasury. It appears that the key criteria underpinning Tennyson’s selection of individual poems were linked to their musicality. Moreover, it shows how Tennyson learnt from and adapted techniques from previous poets.

The Golden Treasury maintained its immense popularity until well after the Second World War. It remained the authoritative anthology of poetry throughout the English-speaking world despite later entries into the market by rival publications. It informed subsequent generations of poets, including Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Philip Larkin and Anne Stevenson. T.S. Eliot used the anthology for his teaching in the late 1910s, and A.E. Housman heavily annotated and, in a number of cases, deleted entries, revealing how subsequent poets engaged with The Golden Treasury. The anthology’s influence on poets and writers throughout the twentieth century reveals the enduring influence of Tennyson’s aesthetic tastes on a literary canon that still informs our sense of poetry today.

Michael J. Sullivan is a doctoral candidate at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 2015/16 was Rodney G. Dennis Visiting Fellow in the Study of Manuscripts at the Houghton Library, Harvard. His research conducts the first book-length study of Tennyson’s manuscript revisions, and their role in the development of his style. From October 2017, he will take up a Junior Research Fellowship at Christ Church, Oxford.


Both articles are free to access via the below links.

‘Tennyson and The Golden Treasury’, Essays in Criticism, 66/4 (Oxford University Press, 2016), 431-443 – https://eic.oxfordjournals.org/content/66/4/431.full.pdf+html

‘Tennyson and The Golden Treasury: A Rediscovered Revision Copy’, Literary Imagination, 18/3 (Oxford University Press, 2016), 230-238 – http://litimag.oxfordjournals.org/content/18/3/230.full.pdf+html

Parts of this news item are drawn from these articles.

News item prepared by Nadine Lewycky