The Victorian Poet and His Readers: The Strange Case of Tennyson’s «The Princess»

by Magdalena Pypeć (Author)
©2016 Monographs 131 Pages


The author follows the interpretative pursuits of nineteenth-century readers and analyses Tennyson’s The Princess through the prism of their critical ideas. She analyses Tennyson’s reconsideration of gender binaries and women’s rights as well as the poem’s reliance on the aesthetics of the grotesque and its metapoetic games. The book rests on the premise that literature cannot be studied in isolation from its immediate socio-historical context. As such, poetry becomes an outcome of social and cultural negotiations, moving «in a strange diagonal» between the author and his public.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on the text
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter One: Victorian Poetics – A Context for Tennyson and The Princess
  • Chapter Two: The Princess and the Reviewers
  • Chapter Three: “Wild places” – The Princess and the Grotesque
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

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The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be
found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and
delighting us, as nothing else can.

Matthew Arnold, from The Study of Poetry (1880)

This book rests on the premise that literature cannot be studied in isolation from its immediate socio-historical context. It relies heavily on the new-historicist principles of interpreting literary texts which are not only created by individual authors, but also by broader cultural forces and controversies of the age. For new-historicists, literary texts influence their socio-historical context to the same extent as the socio-historical world influences literary texts. They shape and reshape each other in a continual cycle of influence and exchange which Stephen Greenblatt called “the circulation of social energy” (Shakespearean Negotiations 1). The journal Representations was founded “to encourage a new community of scholarship among all who explore the way artefacts, institutions, and modes of thought give a heightened account of the social, cultural and historical situations in which they arise” (Fraser 9). Thus, new historicism is interdisciplinary and intertextual, concerning the dynamic dialogue between various texts within a given historical time period. It has enabled scholars to cross well-guarded boundaries separating literature, art, history, and politics, as well as other disciplines and sciences. The boundaries, to use Greenblatt’s words, “are contested, endlessly renegotiated, permeable” (Representing the English Renaissance vii). “Literary and non-literary texts circulate inseparably,” H. Aram Veeser argues, “Circulation, negotiation, exchange – these … metaphors characterize new historicists’ working vocabulary” (xi, xiv). Contrary to the traditional historical approach, new historicism does not treat history as an unchangeable background separate from the text which reflects it. For the text also “creates the culture by which it is created, shapes the fantasies by which it is shaped, begets that by which it is begotten” (Montrose 56). Such an approach invites “unsuspected borrowings and lending among … metaphors, ceremonies, dances, emblems, items of clothing, popular stories – previously held to be independent and unrelated” (Veeser ed. xii). Moreover, since no historical period is uniform in its character, the text is not analysed as if it had one historically determined interpretation: “the new historicism studies the dialectic interplay between literary and other kinds of texts in a way that liberates rather than controls meaning” (Fraser 7, emphasis added). This is possible because, as Greenblatt explains – ← 13 | 14 →

… the work of art is not a passive surface on which the historical experience leaves its stamp but one of the creative agents in the fashioning and re-fashioning of this experience (Representing the English Renaissance viii).

A new historicist critic does not approach texts as a physician who examines them and subsequently gives a diagnosis. Instead, texts should be regarded as his accomplices, not as patients, argues Gayatri Spivak (277–292). Such an approach seems to be in accordance with Victorian literary criticism in which poetry is always discussed in a broad cultural context.

Thus the key words of this book are circulation, negotiations and exchange. Its aim is to discuss the final version of Tennyson’s blank verse poem – The Princess. A Medley as a result of long-standing social negotiations between the poet and his readers. Ever since the publication of his first collection of poetry, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in 1830, he was selected by his closest circle of friends, and later by a growing number of readers, to be the representative voice of the age. His poems were frequently discussed in Victorian periodicals and journals, and Tennyson often revised them relying on the strictures of his readers. This happened to Poems published in 1830 and 1833, which were revised and reissued in 1842 together with previously unpublished poems. The reviewers urged the poet to enter more directly into the spirit of the day and mirror the richness of contemporary life and thought. The young poet took his readers’ judgments very seriously as the newspapers and magazines had a huge influence in shaping the literary taste of the public. The following passage recorded by Hallam Tennyson in Materials for a Biography of A. T. serves as an illustrative example of the external influence over Tennyson’s poetry:

Yet to a certain extent he took advice and was now inclined to rest [his poetry] more on the “broad interests of the time and of universal humanity,” although no doubt it was harder to idealize common associations than things that never acted but upon the imagination. … My father pondered all that had been said, and after a period of utter prostration from grief, his passionate love of nature and humanity drove him to work again, with deeper and more real insight into human nature and the requirements of the age (quoted in Shannon 58).

Alfred Tennyson’s two-volume collection of 1842 was proclaimed to be the cornerstone of the poet’s fame. The Princess, eagerly anticipated by the reading public, was extensively revised under the influence of its reviewers since its first publication on the 25th of December, 1847. It soon advanced the poet’s growing reputation among his contemporaries and became the most worked-over poem of Tennyson’s literary output. The “medley” had five revised editions during six years, the final version, apart from some minor changes made later, was ← 14 | 15 → published in 1853. Similar to the poet, the narrator of The Princess is bound to reconcile the varying demands and opinions of his audience regarding the genre, characters and final shape of the poem with his own authorial ideas:

And I, betwixt them both, to please them both
And yet to give the story as it rose,
I moved as in a strange diagonal,
And maybe neither pleased myself nor them.
(Conclusion, ll. 25–28)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
metapoetry cross-dressing Victorian periodicals the grotesque
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 131 pp.

Biographical notes

Magdalena Pypeć (Author)

Magdalena Pypeć teaches English literature at the Warsaw University, Poland. Her research focuses on Victorian poetry and prose.


Title: The Victorian Poet and His Readers: The Strange Case of Tennyson’s «The Princess»
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134 pages