Author Photo: Inside cover of 'Tiresias and Other Poems" by Tennyson, Alfred.

Found at the University of Victoria's library, this copy of the book of poetry is pocket-sized, bound in a simple green cover, and filled with clean, sturdy paper pages (call # PR5572 T5). This first edition was published in 1885 by Macmillan and Co. in London, and printed by R. & R. Clark in Edinburgh. There seems to be no focus on the aesthetic: it’s a book for personal utility instead of ornament. Inside are 26 of Tennyson’s poems, including the book’s namesake, "Tiresias". Also included are, "To E. Fitzgerald", "The Dead Prophet", "Prefatory Poem to My Brother's Sonnets", and "‘Old Poets Foster’d Under Friendlier Skies’". There doesn’t seem to be any immediately discernible theme of content organization. The book opens to the following dedication to Tennyson's friend and fellow poet, Robert Browning:

“To my good friend
Robert Browning,
Whose genius and geniality
Will best appreciate what may be best,
And make most allowance for what may be worst,
This Volume
Affectionately dedicated”

The prolific publishing company, Macmillan and Co., was responsible for publishing Tiresias and Other Poems in 1885. While Tennyson had used another popular publisher, Moxon, for most of his career, records from the British Library Catalogue show that he switched to Macmillan and Co. in approximately the last eight years of his life. As Elizabeth James concludes, a 10 year contract was signed in January of 1884, but Tennyson did not live to see the end of it, dying in 1892 (James 131). While it isn’t wholly clear as to why he made the switch, the decision could have been monetarily driven, or possibly to do with the fact that at this time Macmillan and Co. was also responsible for publishing other prominent nineteenth-century literary figures such as Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. James, however, finds that it's most likely that Tennyson switched publishers because of a long-standing friendship he had with Alexander Macmillan, who was an ardent enthusiast of the poet's work (James 132).

This volume of poetry comes at the end of Tennyson’s career, specifically in his last 12 years of life. Also published in these years were Ballads and Other Poems (1880), Locksley Hall Sixty Years After Etc. (1886), Demeter and Other Poems (1889), and The Death of Oenone, Akbar’s Dream, and Other Poems (1892). Richard A. Sylvia has found a few contemporary critics who state that this period was lack-lustre within Tennyson’s overall career: a criticism hinging in large part on the notion that after becoming Poet Laureate in 1850, Tennyson “was no longer willing to question middle class hegemony and status quo” and his poems therefore lost much of their depth and significance (Sylvia 27). However, many critics like Sylvia contest that in his final works Tennyson “used his volumes to fashion the self – to define, that is, the roles the poet and poetry should play in society.” (27). It can’t be ignored that he remained one of the most widely published poets in Britain throughout his tenure as Poet Laureate (not to mention in the centuries since). To put this popularity into context, below are the sales figures of some of his works.

According to Richard D. Atlick’s The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900 and Nineteenth-Century English Best-Sellers: A Third List, Tennyson was a best-seller in Britain for the titles listed below. The entire list has been comprised of Atlick's two works referenced above.

1850: In Memorium sold 25,000 copies in its initial year and a half, with 60,000 subsequently
1859: Idylls of the King (first four books) sold 40,000 copies of the first edition (10,000 of which were in the first week of publication)
1864: Enoch Arden sold 60,000 copies of the first edition (40,000 of which were in the first few weeks)
1869: Idylls of the King (new books) sold 40,000 copies in pre-publication orders alone.
1870: The Holy Grail sold 40,000 copies in its first print order.

Other Tennyson sales figures include:
1876: Harold sold 15,000 in two months.
1878: Collected Works (shilling edition) sold 30,323 copies in its initial year.
1878: Collected Works (crown edition) sold 54,974 copies in its initial six months, and 100,000 copies through 1883.
1885: Tiresias and Other Poems sold 15,771 copies in its initial year.
1886: Locksley Hall Sixty Years After sold 14,293 copies in its initial year.

Atlick continues that “Between 1885 and 1888, Tennyson’s collected editions sold about 15,000 copies a year; in the next three years, they averaged 19,000” (English Common Reader 387).

Poem .JPG
Author Photo: First page of "Tiresias"

The poem "Tiresias" itself is an interesting point of entry into understanding the nuances of Tennyson and his poetry better, as the poem was written over 50 years, and exemplifies the poet's constant grappling with the place and power of poetry in his own life. As David F. Goslee states, by re-visiting and molding his own version of Tiresias at various points in his life, Tennyson was able to mirror his personal trials at various stages through that of the mythic old man Tiresias (Goslee 155). Similar to other well-known works (e.g. "Ulysses"), "Tiresias" is laced with personal grief after the sudden death of his best friend, Arthur Hallam. In a second draft of the poem, Tennyson was explicit in the integration of his personal sphere through the "series of fluid identifications between Tiresias and Menoeceus in the poem and Tennyson and Hallam in life." (158). David F. Goslee also proposes that Tiresias is the first character to confront both the "personified sins" of the "condemnation of sensuality" and "a guilty awareness of intellectual hubris", which are both prominent themes in many of Tennyson's earlier published poems (e.g. "Supposed Confessions"). Another interesting link to ponder is Tennyson's use of a mythical man who is well-known for having inhabited the body of a woman for some years, while he himself was well-known for his poetry of sensation, which was seen as being in gendered opposition to poetry of reflection (as associated with masculine rationality).

Works Cited:

Atlick, Richard D. Nineteenth-Century English Best-Sellers: A Third List.” Studies in Bibliography 39 (1986): 235-241. Web. 7 Feb. 2016.

Atlick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998. Print.

Goslee, David F. Three Stages of Tennyson’s ‘Tiresias’.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 75.1/2 (1976): 154-167. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

James, Elizabeth. Macmillan: A Publishing Tradition. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002. Dec. 2008. Web. 14 Feb. 2016

Sylvia, Richard A. Reading Tennyson’s ‘Ballads and Other Poems’ In Context.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 23.1 (1990): 27-44. Web. 7 Feb. 2016.