Poems, by Alfred Tennyson. Illustrated by Clarkson Stanfield etc. Edward Moxon, 1857.  ABLibrary Rare X 821.81 T312p 1857

Rare Item Analysis: Poems by Alfred Tennyson: And Artistic Lens through which to View “Ulysses”

By Nicole Mitchell

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Black and white drawing with a ship in the background with sails and a rowboat in the foreground with people in it.

The first illustrated edition of Poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson was completed in London in 1857 and issued by Edward Moxon. It was not a critical success and did not sell well. After some considerable revisions to certain poems, it was reissued for a wider audience in 1860 by Bradbury and Evans, Printers, Whitefriars, also in London, and had more success. The 1857 Moxon edition is located in the Armstrong Browning Library Rare Collection at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. This edition features many of Tennyson’s most famous poems, including “Ulysses.” To sum it up, Ulysses tells the story of Homer’s Odysseus (or Ulysses) in old age,who is bored on his island home and deeply desires to continue his sailing adventures even though he is getting old. The most famous line of this poem is its concluding line: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson 70). There are many intricate illustrations throughout this volume, one of which comes alongside Ulysses. The illustrator for this poem, Clarkson Stanfield, does an incredible job of bringing the theme of adventure and longing in Ulysses into light. In addition to this, really studying this illustration brings to light the things that are most important to Ulysses. The fact that it is placed before the poem serves as a lens through which we can both see and feel the desires of this aged explorer.

Gaining insight on the illustrator himself can make understanding this drawing and the poem even more interesting. Stanfield went on many adventures himself throughout his life from 1793-1857. His mother was an artist and his childhood dream was to become one as well. Stanfield put his love for art on the backburner when he left England in his late teens to go to sea. He spent all of his late teens and early twenties on voyages around Europe, and even went as far as China. This experience turned him into a very able seaman. After his voyage to China, Stanfield came back to England with many sketches. His love for art had been reborn out at sea, and he had had some incredible landscapes and experiences to depict. These talents of Stanfield’s were picked up on while he was at sea, and he ended up becoming a scene painter for the Royalty Theatre in London. As he grew older, he traveled all over Europe. He based the majority of his works on these travels from the 1820s onward (Van der Merwe). It has been said that “One work of Stanfield alone presents us with as much concentrated knowledge of sea and sky, as, diluted, would have lasted any one of the old masters his life” (Ruskin 1.348). Stanfield went through life having many experiences that were quite similar to those of the character of Ulysses. Because of this, he was an ideal candidate to illustrate this poem and capture what it was all about.

The illustration itself is extremely layered. The ocean, looking rather stormy, is in the foreground. This alludes to the fact that the ocean and sailing were what Ulysses missed most about his adventures. By glancing at this drawing, that would be the first thing you would notice. Going into the poem with that in mind, any reader would be able to get a real feel for what Ulysses was picturing in his head when he was having these yearnings. There is both a rowboat and a sailboat in the ocean, and the rowboat is full of men that are looking toward the sailboat. This could be interpreted in countless ways. Again, it seems to allude to the fact that Ulysses has a deep longing for sailing. The viewer of this drawing, while behind the men in the rowboat, sees the same scene they are watching. This is a parallel to the focus of Ulysses throughout the poem. Despite everything that is going on around him, he is only focusing on what he misses. After getting past the initial action in the drawing, it can be seen that there are many different locations represented in the background. Directly beyond the sea is an ancient looking city, and behind that a gigantic mountain range reaches up into the stormy sky. Both of these aspects of the drawing show some of the other things Ulysses may have been missing: culture and natural beauty. While these aspects of the drawing are not going to be noticed at first, they will be once the drawing is examined more closely. Similarly, Ulysses misses his voyages more than anything, but he also has a yearning for the diverse places he got to experience.

Once the drawing is examined more closely, it makes the viewer want to know more. What is the mysterious town in the background? What is the relation of the men in the rowboat to those on the sailboat and to the town? Countless other questions may come up as well depending on who is viewing this drawing. All these questions lead to one thing: the poem itself. The fact that the editors of Tennyson’s Poems placed the illustration before Ulysses shows that they knew it would draw the reader in. It is a very smart and successful technique to use. Many of the poems throughout this volume have the drawings placed before them as well, which subconsciously makes the reader want to keep moving forward into the next poem. The illustration for Ulysses stands out, however, because of the immense detail it contains as well as the insight it gives into the deeper meaning of the poem.

Overall, this edition of Poems by Alfred Tennyson can open the eyes of its readers in countless ways. Ulysses, while always a highly interesting poem, is made even more captivating by the fact that it is paired with the illustration by Clarkson Stanfield. It must be noted how much thought must have gone into this pairing. Stanfield was someone who was known for his depictions of sailing, so it definitely was not an accident that he was the artist commissioned for this particular poem. His drawing serves as a gateway into the poem and piques the reader’s interest. Poems by Alfred Tennyson can be used not only to understand why certain artworks and/or artists were paired with certain poems, but also to appreciate art itself. Art comes in countless different forms, and this volume pairs visual art with intellectual art. This pairing gives the reader an overall enlightening experience and will open his or her eyes to new ways of interpreting poetry.

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters, 6thed., vol. 1,London, Smith, Elder, and Co., 1857.

Van der Merwe, Peter. “Stanfield, Clarkson.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.             http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.baylor.edu/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/97801         98614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-26234. Accessed 20 Feb. 2019.