University of Virginia Library

Tennyson's Method of Composition

There stands the list, ordered according to the repositories in which the documents now lie. Such an organization in itself indicates the next problem to be faced. How do these various scraps of paper, small blue note-books, tattered proof sheets covered with printer's scrawls, how do they all fit together into the final completed poem which we now know as the Idylls of the King? The question is one of chronology, and will be answered with a short history of the poem itself, into which each document can be fitted. The authority for the chronology is purely textual. Every manuscript, proof sheet and edition has been collated with the final version and compared with its fellows, following the theory that as an individual text


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diverges from the final version more and more, it can be considered to come earlier and earlier in the history of the poem.

But before we begin we must consider how Tennyson set about writing poetry. Once we know something about his methods of composition, we will be able to readily understand the relationships among these scattered and confused sources.

Tennyson was a man who did much of his work in his head—he was not addicted to scratch pads and doodling. He would begin a new work with a period of brooding which, for his longer works, could last for months. In his later years he described this habit to a friend. "I can always write," he said, 'when I see my subject, though sometimes I spend three quarters of a year without putting pen to paper."[7] Such a practice rules out the possibility that we will discover in the manuscripts a large number of false-starts and half-formed conceptions.

Only when he had roughed out the entire pattern of the poem, when he could "see" it, would Tennyson begin the work of versification. This too began mentally, either during certain hours which he formally set aside for composition, or during his long rambles about the downs of the Isle of Wight. He would begin, his son tells us, with a "single phrase" which he would "roll about" in his head, over and over, elaborating it into poetry (Mem., I, 268). As he worked he muttered the lines aloud, testing their sound and feel; his was always a "verbal" poetry (Ibid., p. 378). At this stage the poem was in a remarkably fluid state. As a friend of his tells us, "he might say aloud and almost as it were to himself, some passage he had just made, but seldom twice in the same words, and unless written down at once, the first and original form of it was lost or 'improved'" (Knowles, p. 168). It is at this point in his creative process that Tennyson would begin jotting down his lines. The overall plan was established and he was creating poetry to fit that plan. As it came to him he would write it down, even if, as was often the case, he had only two or three lines ready. It seems evident from the confusion of his notebooks that he did not work through his poems from the first line to the last, creating them in sequence. Rather, he would work on whatever passage or scene seemed "ready" for composition. The end result of this method is the jumbled state of the earliest drafts which have survived. These are usually scattered across the pages without order or pattern and frequently appear in a scrawl which clearly mirrors its writer's hurry.

As he continued to work Tennyson would commence molding these random scraps together into a continuous narrative, altering phrases, lines, sometimes entire blocks of lines. Though the overall patterns persist, minor characters and incidental scenes appear and dissolve as the final poem begins to emerge. Sir Lamorack falls into shadow; elsewhere, Sir Bors


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appears. The final text is, in fact, the product of relentless and persistent craft. Though Tennyson may have labored hours shaping a line, he is merciless with his creations, and again and again he will chip and patch, write and rewrite, cut or expand. For some poems we have draft after draft, each filled with new revisions, some of which seem to us as perhaps inordinately picayune, but which to Tennyson were, in fact, of equal importance to the cancellation of an entire passage. When Tennyson began working on his second set of four Idylls he turned to a new compositional procedure. The process of slowly molding scraps of poetry in his head was evidently enormously taxing, and consequently he began to write out prose drafts of his poems before the actual versification.

Most of the manuscripts, both prose and verse, which have survived, are on a variety of pale blue paper of which Tennyson was fond. He purchased this paper unbound and worked on it in quires, often ripping out pages if he was dissatisfied. As the work progressed from fragmentary scraps to continuous narrative, he would begin writing on only the right hand page, reserving the left for the inevitable alterations and additions. In this manner he was sometimes able (e.g. in the Trinity "Enid" [CT-30]) to assemble pages from various drafts into a fair copy. When the poem was finished his wife would frequently sew the pages into small "notebooks" and hand cover them with marbled boards and orange-red spines.

Following the final manuscript draft would come the spate of proof sheets, over which Tennyson worked with great care. While he was writing out his poetry in manuscript Tennyson never concerned himself with punctuation. Many times he would write on for lines without a single punctuation mark, frequently even neglecting to capitalize the first word of a sentence. He was a wealthy and successful poet by the time he actually began the Idylls, and his publishers were evidently happy to cater to what must have been his expensive preference. The slightly punctuated manuscripts would be sent to the typesetter whose proof sheets became the ground on which Tennyson worked out his punctuation. Because he was such a perfectionist this could often be an extended process in itself. The most extreme example is "Merlin and Vivien" which went through five different versions of proof before it was finally set up and sent to the printer. Years later, when preparing "Gareth and Lynette," Tennyson reduced the number of proof states he needed, but heavily corrected two different copies of the same proof state, evidently trying to get the punctuation "right" on the first try. Even then he required two more proof states before the actual first edition was set up.

This scrupulosity, this endless nagging concern for his poems drove Tennyson to tinker at them even after they were finally placed under the public gaze. In virtually every new edition of his Idylls Tennyson would make alterations, generally in punctuation, but sometimes in word choice as well. For this reason, no copy of the poem printed during his life matches the final version, published only after his death. His epic was in


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fact in a state of endless alteration, until finally death itself came to halt the tinkering.