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In 2016, the prize was won by Michael J. Sullivan

27 Michael J. Sullivan,

'The chips of the workshop': punctuation and revision in Tennyson’s early notebooks

Abstract: On 24th April 1833, Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed how the ‘misfortune’ of Tennyson’s work was that he began ‘to write verses without very well understanding what metre is’. The ill and increasingly irritable poet was certainly not the last to scorn the young Tennyson, whose initial collection of poems has frequently been denigrated for the perceived irregularity of its rhythms. Yet, as his early manuscripts demonstrate, much of the irregular punctuation sparking the most vehement attacks—and reproduced in the sole scholarly edition of Tennyson’s poetry—was not, in fact, inserted by Tennyson. This essay re-examines the notebook containing Tennyson’s first collection of poetry, Poems, by two brothers (1827), housed in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge. It distinguishes between the punctuation inserted by Tennyson and the irregular punctuation markings imposed by his publisher, which have long been assumed to be the ‘boyish’ and lumbering mistakes of a poet still untrained in his art. When freed from the abrupt silences inflicted by corrupt punctuation, Tennyson’s early poetic creations are far more metrical than has previously been supposed, challenging existing narratives about the trajectory of his development. In scrutinising this fair copy with a keen sense of publishing history, the essay reveals the many ways in which Tennyson’s most youthful drafts reflect his first stylistic efforts to create a unique voice in verse.

Key Dates

  • Candidates must submit a title and brief abstract of proposed subjects to Dr Jill Whitelock, Head of Special Collections, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, CB3 9DR ( so as to reach her not later than last day of the Michaelmas Term, 19 December 2016 (email preferred).
  • Candidates will be informed whether their proposed subjects are approved by the Library Syndicate after its meeting on 16 February 2017. 
  • If the proposed subject is approved, essays must be sent in hard-copy and electronic form to Dr Jill Whitelock, Head of Special Collections, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, CB3 9DR ( by 25 March 2017.