[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “T” for Vanity FairGeorge P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial T

his book usefully synthesizes biographical, publishing, and interpretive studies to provide a handy reference work arranged alphabetically by topic. As such it will interest anyone who teaches, studies, or is merely interested in Tennyson. Purton and Page's dictionary fulfills two different functions. It is a dictionary proper for all contextual material — the people Tennyson knew (including his doctors), the places he went, the books he read. For individual poems or collections of poems, it works something like a scholarly edition, for its headnotes not only set forth the "facts" of composition history, sources, and relevent personal contexts but also advance judgments about themes and achievement. The dual terms of the title, then, are quite apt: this book is both a dictionary and a literary critical work informed by fresh analysis and judgments.

If these last make it more interesting for the experienced Tennyson scholar (and reviewer) by presenting some new perspectives on poems or connections among them, teachers will also want to keep in mind that students will often be guided toward specific conclusions. In Tennyson's late poem "The Ancient Sage," for example, Purton and Page find Tennyson's older, more optimistic self seeking "to enlighten his younger [pessimistic] self," and thus they view the poem as a reworking of the earlier "The Two Voices," adding, "The poem is an optimistic statement of faith, but perhaps rather effortfully serene" (5). Here, then, students are prompted to read the poem biographically and also — for reasons not fully explained to the uninitiated — to receive its optimism as slightly forced.

While students bringing back such judgments to the classroom may need some further coaching, they and advanced scholars alike will benefit from the insightful ways in which many of the entries connect poems. Take for example the entry on Poems by Two Brothers (1827), Tennyson's earliest publication. In poems that look at first like set pieces or historical exercises — e.g., "Lamentation of the Peruvians" and "The Fall of Jerusalem" — Purton and Page find preoccupations with "cataclysmic collapse" (208) that will later resurface in Idylls of the King (1859-1885) or "Aylmer's Field" (1864). Indeed, their keen alertness to intersecting texts enlivens even such a minor laureate piece as "A Welcome to Alexandra," which celebrates the union of "Saxon and Norman and Dane" (line 2), and which they in turn link to Tennyson's alternative narratives of nationhood in "The Coming of Arthur" (text) and of Norman blood in "Lady Clara Vere de Vere."

In addition to tracing specific or overarching themes (e.g., Tennyson's oscillation between "Pure" autotelic and "Applied," socially useful poetry), the compilers also offer illuminating local insights, as when they persuasively suggest that in the 1862 dedication of the Idylls to the late Prince Consort, the lines "I dedicate, / I dedicate, I consecrate with tears" echo "the impressive rhythmic effect of the 'Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington'" (58). And their metrical analysis of "Crossing the Bar," linking the expanding and contracting width of lines to the tides, is especially deft.

As a dictionary, this book offers pleasurable minutiae as well as important overviews of themes, techniques, and interconnections. The browser after literary curiosities will enjoy being reminded that "The Mouse's Tale" in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass may have been inspired by a personal dream that Tennyson related to Dodgson, that Matthew Arnold seems to have felt Tennyson stole the subject of "Lucretius" from him, or that, stalwart Conservative though he was, Tennyson voted for the 1884 Reform Bill — which was precisely William Gladstone's aim in supporting a peerage for him. More substantively, Purton and Page thoughtfully suggest that Tennyson accepted the peerage and "rejoiced in the title as completely vindicating his father's memory and reclaiming the 'disinheritance' he deeply believed his family had suffered" (21) when Tennyson's grandfather disinherited the elder Dr. Tennyson in favor of his younger brother Charles. (Charles had then fabricated a faux aristocratic lineage and redubbed himself Sir Charles Tennyson d'Eyncourt.) Purton and Page also apply this interpretive lens to "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," in which the formerly angry speaker of "Locksley Hall" now sees the virtues of his former rival. Similarly, they suggest, Tennyson may be reconsidering the Somersby Tennysons' old bitterness toward their uncle: while the poet had been showered with honors and wealth, little notice had been taken of the uncle, who had worked for social reform as a M.P. and established a new school in Lincolnshire.

A dictionary of this sort requires creative invention of topics that may not always be self-evident, and the compilers' felicitous choices — to name just three — include entries on London, Tennyson's narrative poetry, and his penchant for reading aloud. Since much attention has been paid to Tennyson's obsession with privacy and the role of his solitary walks in generating his poems, it is useful to be reminded of how much he needed the stimulation and complex sociability of the city as well — to the point that in his years of flush prosperity he and his wife Emily leased "an expensive house in fashionable Eaton Square" (150). Also, contesting T. S. Eliot's claim that Tennyson had no gift for narrative, Purton and Page note his effective use of rhythm to convey violent action in "The Last Tournament" as well as the Idylls' simultaneous pull toward order and its collapse. "The importance of narrative in [Tennyson's] work," they conclude, "has not yet received the critical attention it deserves" (278). Here the dictionary — though chiefly a reference work — aims to help advance Tennyson scholarship. Likewise, while the compilers' attention to Tennyson's habit of reading aloud is not itself new (it figures importantly in the chapter on Tennyson in Sally Bushell's Text as Process: Creative Composition in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson [2009; review]), they underscore reading aloud as both a creative and interpretive medium for Tennyson and suggest that audible performance should therefore figure in the ways that we read him.

The entry on periodicals, however, is disappointing. The editors omit Friendship's Offering from among titles in which Tennyson's poems appeared and they inconsistently identify periodicals associated with reviews of Tennyson's work. Thus they list the Church of England Quarterly Review, in which Leigh Hunt reviewed Tennyson, but omit the London Review, in which l assessed Tennyson's poetry in 1835. Also, some of their information on periodicals is erroneous. Macmillan's Magazine, as the title might indicate, was founded by Alexander Macmillan, not David Masson (the magazine's first editor). Nor was Punch "strongly Radical during the nineteenth century" (201), only in its earliest years. Readers would do well to rely on Kathryn Ledbetter's Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals (2007) for this important dimension of Tennyson's publishing history.

One other feature of the dictionary surprises: the persistence with which the compilers seek to deny overtones of homoeroticism among the Apostles, in Tennyson's friendship with Hallam, and in In Memoriam. "Close friendships within the [Apostles'] society," they assert, "were quite usual and derived from early nineteenth-century Romantic idealism rather than necessarily from homoeroticism" (6). Further, they insist, Tennyson's "deep and exclusive friendship" with Arthur Hallam "was part of the Romantic ethos of the time. Within their circle, everyone seems to have 'paired off' in this way, with none of the homosexual implications which might be attributed to such a relationship today" (99, my emphasis). And though the compilers acknowledge gay readings of In Memoriam, they question them. "Critics determined to prove a homosexual relationship," they write, "have tended to ignore the wider frame of reference of 'mother' and 'brothers' and focus exclusively on the 'widow' image" in Section IX. Thus, they conclude, "Tennyson himself gave a blunt rebuttal of any homoerotic subtext. Though there is no doubt of the intensity of the relationship, it has to be viewed in the context of the frequency of Romantic friendships between young men in the 1830s" (124, my emphasis). Purton and Page are unquestionably right that Romantic friendships between men were an important feature of nineteenth-century culture. But on literary grounds alone, homoeroticism has some relevance to the poetry, since Purton and Page readily admit that Catullus and Theocritus — both of whom wrote lyrics incorporating same-sex desire — were important influences on Tennyson. When entries on Tennyson and In Memoriam are routinely included in encyclopedias of gay and lesbian literature, why impose boundaries on what may or may not be admitted into interpretive response in this way?

But there is far more in this book to appreciate than to carp at. As an interesting, thoughtful, and generally reliable guide to Tennyson and Tennysoniana, it is a welcome addition to Tennyson scholarship and college libraries.


Purton, Valerie, and Norman Page. The “The Palgrave Literary Dictionary of Tennyson. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. xii+ 233pp.

Last modified 24 June 2014