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

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Magdalena Pypeć

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.
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In A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1896) an important late Victorian literary critic George Saintsbury named Victorian periodicals a defining genre of the age. Journals and periodicals much contributed to the circulation of Tennyson’s poetry and offered the poet a wide range of readers who eagerly reviewed, interpreted and reinterpreted it. They were also a popular medium where nineteenth-century readers engaged in dialogues concerning Victorian poetics, prosody, genre and “negotiated” their ideas with the poet who was bound to take their opinions seriously if he desired to advance his career and literary recognition. Studying the case of Tennyson’s The Princess one may inadvertently observe how much critical reviews influenced its content, genre and subject matter. The Victorian literary criticism is also a rich source of contemporary reading strategies and interpretative ideas which are innovative and original, like for instance Tennyson’s reconsideration of gender binaries in The Princess, the poem’s reliance on the aesthetics of the grotesque, its metapoetic games with the reader and the picture of poetry as an outcome of social and cultural negotiations – moving “in a strange diagonal” between the author and his public. The book seeks to extend the discussion of Tennyson’s “Medley” to the topic which seems also inscribed in its title. Tennyson’s poem can be considered as an important stand on the Victorian poetry of the mid-nineteenth century. In The Princess Tennyson appears to be responding to the most urgent preoccupations of contemporary poetic theory, namely defining the new role of poetry...

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