Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord (1809–1892)
Author:
Sanfilip, Thomas
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's relationship to Tennyson divides into two phases: first, rejection of his work as affected and overstylized, and later, acceptance in old age with much the same reservation. Whitman highly respected Tennyson as a man, defending his character as warm and "worthy of any man's regard and respect" (qtd. in Ditsky 76), and valuing his letters so much that he carried them in the inside pocket of his gray coat. Nevertheless, in spite of Tennyson's admiration, the poets' friendly, twenty-year correspondence, their habit of exchanging gifts via intermediaries throughout the latter half of Whitman's life, and an invitation by Tennyson for Whitman to visit him, their views on poetry differed dramatically.

Whitman's criticism of Tennyson began almost immediately after publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 with a combined review of Tennyson's Maud and Other Poems and Leaves of Grass, published by the American Phrenological Journal in October of that year and penned anonymously by Whitman. In the review, he casts himself as the spokesman of a newer, more dynamic civilization that questions the validity of following the old models of poetic form represented by Tennyson. He linked Tennyson with Shakespeare as a poet of the old school, describing him as a "bard of ennui and of the aristocracy" ("An English" 39), a writer strictly for the English upper class and not America's democratized common man.

Arthur Briggs sees Whitman's easing of criticism of Tennyson in his later years as a possible result of his susceptibility to Tennyson's expressed admiration for his work and acknowledgment of him as an equal more than any change in his opinion of his work. In 1888, near the end of his life, Whitman expressed his final public assessment of Tennyson in an essay entitled "A Word about Tennyson." He considered his character vital and genuine, but still immersed in the sensibilities of the upper class, "a little queer and affected," admiring what he called his "verbalism" and "cunning collocations" ("A Word" 570–571). In his later years, Whitman believed that, although Tennyson had accepted him as an equal, he may not have really understood his character or the intentions of Leaves of Grass—that Tennyson still considered his work decadent, but only as a result of the literary tastes and inclinations of his time.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Briggs, Arthur E. Walt Whitman: Thinker and Artist. 1952. New York: Greenwood, 1968.

Ditsky, John M. "Whitman-Tennyson Correspondence: A Summary and Commentary." Walt Whitman Review 18 (1972): 75–82.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and Willam White. Vol. 6. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. "An English and American Poet." Walt Whitman: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Francis Murphy. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969. 37–42.

———. "A Word about Tennyson." Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964. 568–572.


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