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Tennyson and the Revision of Song



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Sullivan, Michael Joseph Plygawko 


Writing in the 1890s, in an early account of Tennyson’s poetry, the Victorian anthologist F. T. Palgrave was keen to maintain the myth of the spontaneous singer. ‘More than once’, he recorded, Tennyson’s ‘poems sprang’ from a ‘nucleus’, ‘a brief melodious phrase’ or ‘song’, which, if not transcribed immediately, ‘fled from him irrecoverably’. It has long been the case with poets of ‘lyrics’ and ‘songs’ that their skills have been depicted as improvisatory, fleeting, or inspired. Their skills have been understood, variously, as indicative either of the most dexterous of intellects, or of brilliant but uncontrolled visions, a ‘flash’ of prophetic insight or revelation – a feel of what Shelley likens to ‘the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own’. For many poets, however, the reality is one of inspiration that gives birth to intense manuscript activity and revision. It is now well known that Tennyson revised and re-revised, even after publication, until only weeks before his death; and yet no book-length study has pursued the significance of his manuscript revisions for the development of his style. This thesis traces the poet’s stylistic evolution through his notebooks, drafts, and printed volumes. Uncovering new literary manuscripts from Harvard, Lincoln, Cambridge, and New York, the study offers a more comprehensive picture of the poet’s craft: one alert to his evolving ambitions, and to the immense shifts that he effected in the landscape of English verse.

The thesis begins by excavating how the notion of poetic ‘song’ fuelled a creative process at the heart of Tennyson’s revisions. In tracing the diverging fates of ‘lyric’ and ‘song’ across his notebooks, the opening chapter restores an important discourse for Tennysonian sonority that has comparatively declined in recent years. Chapter II examines Tennyson’s aesthetic control over the Victorian lyrical canon, drawing on a new manuscript of ‘The Golden Treasury’, the most significant anthology of the nineteenth century. Chapter III studies the notebook containing Tennyson’s first collection of verse, ‘Poems, by Two Brothers’. It reveals how much of the poor punctuation that sparked vehement attacks – and which is reproduced in modern editions – was not, in fact, inserted by the poet. Chapter IV explores how Tennyson’s most famous early songs and lyrics, published in ‘Poems, Chiefly Lyrical’, developed in tandem with his blank verse style. Chapters V and VI illuminate Tennyson’s ‘ten year silence’, which witnessed profound innovations in form, the revision of his 1832 Poems into his celebrated collection of 1842, and the creation of ‘In Memoriam’. Chapters VII and VIII piece together the notebooks, proofs, drafts, and revision copies of ‘The Princess’, Tennyson’s medley of songs and voices, lyrics and blank verse. By its end, the study reveals how the ringing qualities of his works emerged through manuscript revision: in the interplay between sonorous forms and narratives that came, over decades of change, to shape the distinctive drama of Tennyson’s style.


This thesis is under permanent embargo.




Leighton, Angela


Alfred Tennyson, manuscripts, revision, poetic form, song, lyric, The Golden Treasury, In Memoriam, The Princess, Poems Chiefly Lyrical, Palgrave, Wordsworth, anthologies, Nineteenth Century, Victorian, Romantic


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Award