Indolent Reviewers

As a poet, Tennyson was a man very much led by his reviewers, forever commenting upon them and worrying about them.

Tennyson was not an easy man to please, and his reactions to his reviewers in his poems were often spiteful. As a poet, Tennyson was a man very much led by his reviewers, forever commenting upon them, and worrying about them. Indeed, Tennyson was put off publishing for 10 years because of bad reviews.

Hallam Tennyson, Tennyson’s son eludes to this period somewhat euphemistically, in his biography of his father, saying: ‘From the letters of that time I gather that there was a strong current of depreciation of my father in certain literary quarters. However, he kept up his courage, profited by friendly and unfriendly criticism, and in silence, obscurity, and solitude, perfected his art.’

He is not the first poet to have a go at reviewers in their poems, Alexander Pope also had problems with his reviewers.

  1. That 'tis as great a fault to judge ill, as to write-ill, and a more dangerous one to the public.
  2. The variety of men's Tastes; of a true Taste, how rare to be found.
  3. That most men are born with some Taste, but spoil'd by false education.
  4. The multitude of Critics, and causes of 'em.
  5. That we are to study our own Taste, and know the limits of it.
  6. Nature the best guide of Judgment.
  7. Improv'd by Art, and Rules, which are but methodiz'd Nature.
  8. Rules deriv'd from the Practice of the ancient Poets.
  9. That therefore the Ancients are necessary to be study'd by a Critic, particularly Homer and Virgil.
  10. Of Licenses, and the use of 'em by the Ancients.
  11. Reverence due to the Ancients, and praise of 'em.’ – Part I of Pope’s Essay on Criticism

Pope argues that more critics need to study their Ancients in order to understand the poems they review, and Tennyson’s poem ‘Hendecasyllabics’ argues the same point – that reviewers don’t understand poetry because they are lazy, and not appreciative enough of the complexities of writing classical verse.

‘O you chorus of indolent reviewers,
Irresponsible, indolent reviewers,
Look, I come to the test, a tiny poem
All composed in a metre of Catullus
All in quantity, careful of my motion,
Like a skater on ice that hardly bears him
 Lest I fall unawares before the people,
Waking laughter in indolent reviewers.’

Yet despite Tennyson’s conflicts with reviewers, in many of his poems he suggests that he is above such sordid things as caring about the reception of his literary work.

‘Here, it is here, the close of the year,
And with it a spiteful letter.
My name in song has done him much wrong,
For himself has done much better 

O little bard, is your lot so hard,
If men neglect your pages?
I think not much of yours or of mine,
I hear the roll of the ages.

Rhymes and rhymes in the range of the times!
Are mine for the moment stronger?
Yet hate me not, but abide your lot,
I last but a moment longer.’ – ‘The Spiteful Letter

However, it does sound like there’s an element of wishful thinking in this poem, for if I was hardly thinking about something, I definitely wouldn’t have time to write a poem about it. Tennyson sounds as though he is trying to persuade himself not to care for public opinion, with a varying amount of success. This attempt reaches its poetic climax in ‘A Literary Squabble’

‘AH God! the petty fools of rhyme
    That shriek and sweat in pigmy wars
Before the stony face of Time,
    And look’d at by the silent stars:

Who hate each other for a song,
    And do their little best to bite
And pinch their brethren in the throng,
    And scratch the very dead for spite:

And strain to make an inch of room
    For their sweet selves, and cannot hear
The sullen Lethe rolling doom
    On them and theirs and all things here:’ – A Literary Squabble

It is ironic too that Hallam makes no mention of any of these three poems in his Father’s Biography, perhaps he was unwilling to draw attention to his Father’s problems with the reviewers, or indeed, the reviewers’ problems with his father’s poems.

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