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The people's voice : the role of audience in the popular poems of Longfellow and Tennyson Torrence, Avril Diane


At the height of their popularity in the mid-nineteenth century, a vast transatlantic readership conferred on Longfellow and Tennyson the title "The People's Poet." This examination of Anglo-American Victorian poetry attempts to account for that phenomenon. A poetic work is first defined as an aesthetic experience that occurs within a triangular matrix of text, author, and reader. As reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss contends, both the creator's and the receptor's aesthetic experiences are filtered through a historically determined "horizon of expectations" that governs popular appeal. A historical account of the publication and promotion of Longfellow's and Tennyson's poetry provides empirical evidence for how and why their poetic texts appealed to a widespread readership. This account is followed by an analysis of the class and gender of Victorian readers of poetry that considers the role of "consumers" in the production of both poetry and poetic personae as commodities for public consumption. The development of each poet's voice is then examined in a context of a gendered "separate-sphere" ideology to explain how both Longfellow's and Tennyson's adoption of "feminine" cadences in their respective voices influenced the nineteenth-century reception of their work. The final two chapters analyze select texts—lyric and narrative—to determine reasons for their popular appeal in relation to the level of active reader engagement in the poetic experience. Through affective lyricism, as in Longfellow's "Psalm of Life" and Tennyson's "Break, break, break," these poets demanded that their readers listen; through sentiment transformed into domestic allegory, as in Miles Standish and Enoch Arden, these poets demanded further that they feel. While both Victorian poets were later decanonized by their modern successors, contemporary critics, mainly academic, have restored Tennyson to the literary canon while relegating Longfellow to a second-rate schoolroom status. The conclusion speculates on the possible reasons underlying the disparate reputations assigned to the two poets, both of whom, during their lifetimes, shared equally the fame and fortune that attended their role as "The People's Voice."

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