Sunday, 22 March 2015

Tennyson: an educational compendium of misquotation

One of my literary pet peeves is misquotation, and particularly the misquotations that get into the educational system, often via its urge to reduce complex commentary to short easy-read soundbites suitable for sprinkling into essays, like raisins into a pudding mix. I just ran into this set of quotations about Alfred, Lord Tennyson, coming from a worksheet for teachers, on the educational resource site Compare and contrast the worksheet quotes and the reality.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
from Poets of the Wight
- uncredited ripoff of
George J Stodart engraving
'Tennyson's Tithonus is Tennyson in a Greek tunic' - FL Lucas
A pretty unfathomable quotation without the full context to explain it:

... Tennyson, though himself a remarkable character, was not as a rule able to create remarkable characters, as Chaucer could, or Shakespeare, or the great nineteenth-century novelists. Like Browning, he wrote plays, tales, monologues; but, like Browning, he seems to get, not into the skins of his characters, but only into their shoes. Shakespeare's Caliban is Caliban: but Browning's Caliban remains Browning as he might have been, if born a hairy primitive. Tennyson's Tithonus or Lucretius is Tennyson in Greek tunic or Roman toga. Doubtless there are exceptions, like Browning's Bishop of St Praxed's, or Tennyson's Lincolnshire rustics, based on his boyhood's memories; but both poets seem to me essentially lyric, not epic or dramatic.
- FL Lucas, Tennyson (British Council And the National book League By Longmans, Green & Co, 1957, Internet Archive tennyson002145mbp).
'What lasts is the vision of natural beauty' - Swinburne
Not a quotation from Swinburne, but Lucas's own commentary following a passage by Swinburne, thinned out, generalised (it's only talking about a specific Tennyson work) and assembled into a soundbite.

What lasts, yet again, in 'Locksley Hall' is the vision of natural beauty, of the unchanging hosts of heaven.
- FL Lucas (ibid). 
'Many do not think highly of Tennyson as a thinker' - FL Lucas
A chunk removed from context and authorship date.

.... in modern appreciations of his [Tennyson's] work there remains often something of the timid or the tepid. This may be partly because, in literary taste, ages of sugar alternate with ages of pepper, and ours is an age of pepper; but partly also, I suspect, because many moderns do not think highly of Tennyson as a thinker

- FL Lucas (ibid.) 
'Tennyson knew his magician's business' - Huxley
A positive comment removed from its context, an overall rather disparaging comment by Huxley on Tennyson's Tithonus, to the effect that Tennyson is style over substance.

Why the swan? Heaven knows. The swan is a luminous irrelevance, sailing for a moment into the picture with all its curves and its whiteness and its mythologies, and sailing out again to the strains of a defunctive music, fabulously mournful. Tennyson knew his magician's business.
- "Magic", Texts and Pretexts (London, 1932).
'Tennyson is the most human of the great poets' - Housman
A real but anonymous quotation, slimmed down to a soundbite and given fake attribution. How could the "acute young critic" be Housman? Since his dates were 1859-1936, he certainly wasn't young, or even alive, "just before the Second War".

In his admirable biography of his grandfather Sir Charles Tennyson records that, just before the Second War, 'an acute young critic', being asked what he thought greatest in Tennyson, replied: 'Tennyson will always rank among the first, because he is the most human of the great poets.'
FL Lucas (ibid.) 
'He provided only superlative lollipops' - Carlyle
Keywords from a longer statement rehashed into a fake quotation.

"We read at first Tennyson's 'Idylls,' with profound recognition of the finely elaborated execution, and also of the inward perfection of vacancy—and, to say truth, with considerable impatience at being treated so very like infants though the lollipops were so superlative

- Carlyle to Emerson, 27 January 1867. The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872, Vol II
'Tennyson dawdled with life's painted shell' - Carlyle
Keywords rehashed into a fake quotation - and it's not by Carlyle anyway.

Yet to solve the Universe as you try to do is as irritating as Tennyson's dawdling with its
painted shell is fatiguing for me to witness.

- December 1847 letter by Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough (ref).
'I wish my poetry to startle the dull ears of humankind' - Tennyson
Not a prose quotation, but a paraphrase of a section of Tennyson's 1828 poem To Poesy (an invented quote rather in the style of Lofft's Aphorisms from Shakespeare).

O God, make this age great that we may be
As giants in Thy praise! and raise up Mind,

Whose trumpet-tongued, aerial melody
May blow alarum loud to every wind,
And startle the dull ears of human kind.
'Mariana proves that sophisticated symbolist poetry could be written fifty years before the symbolists' - McLuhan
Bravo! - an almost accurate quotation.

"Mariana" is there to prove that the most sophisticated symbolist poetry could be written fifty years before the Symbolists.
- HM McLuhan, Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, Essays in Criticism, I, 1951.
'It seems at times as if Tennyson has swallowed what we have come to call the Victorian Age' - Stott
An accurate quotation, but removed from the explanatory reference to Thackeray's snake simile.

William Thackeray once wrote of him: 'he reads all sorts of things, swallows and digests them like a great poetical boa-constrictor' and it seems at times as if Tennyson has swallowed what we have come to call the Victorian Age, or that his poetry is a fossil which enables us to observe with twentieth-century critical apparatus all the complex sinews and musculature of that age.
- Rebecca Stott, Tennyson, Routledge, 2015.
Tennyson is 'the poet of melancholia, passion and despair' - TS Eliot
Part of a longer statement assembled into a soundbite Eliot never specifically said.

"I want to put before you Tennyson as I see him ... <several sentences snipped>. And there is the aspect of him which I wish to present in these few minutes: the poet of melancholia, passion, and despair."
- TS Eliot, radio lecture, The Voice of His Time, broadcast on the BBC on 20th January 1942 (full quotation).
'The finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet' - WH Auden
Another positive quotation selectively ripped out of an overall lukewarm assessment.

... he had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest; there was little about melancholia that he didn't know; there was little else that he did.
- WH Auden, Forewords and Afterwords, London: Faber, 1973.
Summing up: maybe two of the quotations are largely accurate, and largely accurately reflect their context. The rest are variously misleading about their context, wrongly attributed, or are cherry-picked phrases ripped from their source and rejigged into simplified assertions that the quoted authors never made.

The Teachit (UK) worksheet they come from - KS5 > Poetry > Tennyson > Critical viewpoints diamond ranking - purports to teach a "critical and questioning" approach, but largely focuses on analysing the quotes as given. There's no indication that this critical approach should be directed at the accuracy of the quotes themselves.

One option is "Ask students to see if they can track down the source and its date". But I very much doubt most students will get far unless they've already been taught the necessary paranoia about quotations online (and, regrettably, in school worksheets too - see Aargh! Two Sunflowers) to know that the citation and even the wording may be untrustworthy. Tracing quotations very often needs to involve breaking them down and searching for key phrases, and even anticipating variants.

It's depressing that this collection of badly-attributed, and even fake, quotations is going the rounds as part of a Key Stage 5 resource. I'm sure that there are more like it.

- Ray

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