Book Chapter

'Men my brothers, men the workers': Tennyson and the Victorian Working-Class Poet



Blair K (2009) 'Men my brothers, men the workers': Tennyson and the Victorian Working-Class Poet. In: Douglas-Fairhurst R & Perry S (eds.) Tennyson Among the Poets: Bicentenary Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 276-95.

First paragraph: In 1852, in one of his typically gloomy letters about his duties as laureate, Tennyson writes: As for myself I am full of trouble and shall be for a long time and by way of helping me out of it the 200,000,000 poets of Great Britain deluge me daily with volumes of poems...O the shoals of trash! (To Elizabeth Russell, 28 September 1852, L II, 45) Many of the writers who sought Tennyson's approval, as such letters make clear, were drawn from the working-class tradition. Although this tradition reaches back to the eighteenth century and beyond, with important predecessors for the Victorian poet in writers such as Stephen Duck, Ann Yearsley, John Clare and, dominating the field, Robert Burns, the nineteenth century saw an unprecedented number of lower-class poets entering print. Developments such as the spread of literacy and eventually of compulsory national education, the abolition of the newspaper tax and hence the enormous increase in periodicals and local newspapers, the rise of political movements such as Chartism, and the opportunities offered by industrial labour cities for the formation of Mechanics' Institutes, working-men's clubs and societies, meant that thousands of working-class men and women were encouraged for the first time to participate in print culture. Tennyson was vital to this emerging class of writers. Thanks largely to the new media culture, he was more visible than any other previous poet laureate; as Kathryn Ledbetter has recently suggested, Victoria and Tennyson were ‘arguably the most popular of all media objects' in this period. By the late nineteenth century, Tennyson's name and reputation would have been familiar to many who had little reason to encounter his poems. When William McGonagall set off with the hope of visiting the Queen at Balmoral in 1878, for instance, he showed his volume of poems, containing a letter of encouragement from the Queen, to the sergeant at the lodge gate, who ‘looked at the front of it which seemed to arrest his attention and he said, you are not Poet to her Majesty. Tennyson's the real Poet to Her Majesty'. McGonagall's ambitions, as he ruefully reports, are neatly quashed with reference to Tennyson's situation as Victoria's spokesman. This near-legendary status in his own lifetime meant that it was not surprising that eager poets pursued Tennyson, knowing that his endorsement of their work might mean the difference between success and failure, or that they tended to define their own writings in relation to the ‘real' poetry he produced. At the same time, however, there is considerable ambiguity in the response of working-class writers to Tennyson's works. While his lyrical gifts were strongly praised by working-class critics, the fact that his poems were difficult to pin down in terms of their politics meant that his anointment as ‘poet of the people' was always problematic.

Publication date31/12/2009
PublisherOxford University Press
Publisher URL
Place of publicationOxford

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Professor Kirstie Blair
Professor Kirstie Blair

Dean of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, AH Management and Support Team