Though I no longer write this blog regularly, as I said in my last blog, I will send in contributions as and when I come across something suitable. Recently, I attended a lecture called ‘Selling Poetry in the 1840s: Edward Moxon and Alfred Tennyson’ by Dr Jim Cheshire, Reader in Cultural History at the University of Lincoln. In his work, Cheshire examines Tennyson ‘from the perspective of material culture’. This means that he looks at how the poems were published—including what kind of paper was used, how the books were bound, what the sales trends were, and what (if any) illustrations were used.
Moxon and Tennyson; a perfect match?
As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, Tennyson liked to keep to himself and he was never comfortable in the public eye. Cheshire’s research confirms this view of the poet; he said that Tennyson would have been quite content to write poetry and pass it around, in manuscript form, to his friends.
Tennyson was never wholly comfortable with the idea that his poems would be published and sold to strangers and left to his own devices it is unlikely that he would have attempted to bridge the gap between the artist and the consumer in modern material culture. Cheshire argues that this is where we discover the importance of Moxon in Tennyson’s artistic career. Moxon was very good at negotiating this gap and could take care of that side of things leaving Tennyson free to write his poetry.
In many ways Moxon was the ideal publisher for Tennyson. Moxon was a poet himself, but he was not a terribly good poet and so became a publisher of poetry instead. He was the main publisher of Romantic poetry in the Victorian period; he published Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Clearly, Moxon understood the poetic temperament from his own experience as a poet and from years spent in the company of poets and in the study of English poetry.
According to Cheshire, another trait of Moxon’s that made him particularly well suited to be Tennyson’s publisher is that he did not use the stereotype process. Instead, he reprinted from standing type when there was sufficient demand to justify it. This worked well for Tennyson because he was forever revising his poems. Where a printer who used the stereotype process would have printed exactly the same version in later editions, it was fairly easy for Moxon to make the changes demanded by Tennyson.
In his lecture, Cheshire discussed the sales figures for Tennyson’s volumes of poetry and described how they differed from what we would usually expect to see. The usual pattern is for a new book by an established author to sell reasonably well at first and then for sales to drop off sharply never to return to the level immediately following the first release. For Tennyson, however, beginning with the 1842 Poems, the publication of a new volume frequently triggered increased sales of older volumes.
Finally, many of you will be familiar with the (in)famous Moxon illustrated edition of Tennyson’s poems. Moxon usually made smart business decisions, but according to Cheshire in this case, he seems to have misread the market. Tennyson had sold well for years; unlike other poets, Moxon had never had to offer Tennyson’s volumes at a discount just to sell them. Clearly, Moxon was counting on this trend to last when he conceived of the illustrated edition.
There was a market for illustrated editions of poetry. For example illustrated editions of Wordsworth’s poetry sold quite well. However, because Wordsworth’s poetry was out of copyright, publishers did not have to pay the poet (or his estate), they only had to pay the artists; this allowed them to make a profit for illustrated editions that cost 20 shillings. Moxon had to charge 31 shillings for the illustrated edition of Tennyson’s poetry because he had to pay both the poet and the artists; it turned out that the poetry reading public preferred the cheaper illustrated editions of older poetry.
In our increasingly digitalised culture, I fear we are at risk of losing the kind of history Cheshire had found by examining the physical production of Tennyson’s works. The next time you read a book, take a minute to consider how it came to take the form before you.