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31.1.04

The Pernicious Influence of the Critic

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tennyson Reading 'Maud', 1855, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia UniversityIn light of all the talk about the "snarkiness" of reviewers these days, it is interesting to ask the question, How does the writing of critics affect the artists and writers they review? In an article (How Tennyson thought he might have blundered, January 31) in The Guardian, Martin Wainwright reports on the discovery of notes made by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson on a publisher's proof, showing that "he planned to cut out the most celebrated sections of The Charge of the Light Brigade":

Shaken by criticism of his epic poem Maud, which was published in the same book as the Charge in 1855, Tennyson proposed removing almost half the famous account of the Crimean war tragedy. Among lines struck out in black ink in the poet's firm hand were "Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die" and "Someone had blunder'd". Tennyson, who was so mocked by critics as a young writer that he published no poetry for nine years, wrote "Here comes the new poem" on the proofs, which he instructed his publishers to burn. He was notoriously unwilling to let people see his revisions, and the annotated copy is the only one known.
The book, which belonged to American collector Halsted Billings Vander Pole, will be auctioned at Christie's in London next month. If you want a real trip, listen to this amazing wax recording of Tennyson himself reading the Charge of the Light Brigade (from The Tennyson Page). Dante Gabriel Rossetti's sketch of Tennyson reading his epic poem "Maud," from around this time and shown here, also comes from The Tennyson Page. I'm sure that this is a rare example of the power of reviewers, but it is a good thing to remember that a critic may have prevented a line like "Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die" from being published.

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