The Ecphorizer

The Fickle Ways of Fame
John Cumming

Issue #42 (February 1985)

You might not be remembered for quite the reasons you thought you would

When Tennyson published his satiric poem "A Character" in 1830 he had a specific character in mind.

The "Character"
spake of beauty: that the dull
Saw no divinity in grass,
Life in dead

Yet Bulwer's fame persists by another process, and it is one of the strangest imaginable postscripts to a literary career.

stones, or spirit in air;
Then looking as 'twere in a glass,
He smoothed his chin and sleeked his hair,
And said the earth was beautiful.

Unnamed in print, yet instantly known to followers of literature of the time, the target of Tennyson's barbs

with a sweeping of the arm,
And a lack-lustre dead-blue eye,
Devolved his rounded periods.

For sixteen years, Tennyson's victim suffered in silence, but nevertheless forgave and forgot nothing. By 1845, Tennyson had been reduced to a state of utter indigence, and a public pension of 200 pounds was bestowed on him by Peel. Fancying himself one of the greatest literary lights of the age, and frustrated beyond endurance by the refusal of his fellow writers to acknowledge him, the writer once lampooned by Thackeray as "Yellowplush" and "Bulwig" chose this opportunity to unleash his counterstroke. Unlike Tennyson, however, he didn't risk his readers' missing the target, but named him outright, while leaving his own name off instead. In "New Timon," his defiance was trumpeted thus:

This merit, rare to verse that wins, I claim;
No tawdry grace shall womanize my pen!
E'en in a love-song, man should write for men!
Not mine, not mine (O muse forbid!) the boon
Of borrowed notes, the mockingbird's modish tune,
The jingling medley of purloined conceits,
Outbabying Wordsworth and outglittering Keates,
Where all the airs of patchwork-pastoral chime
To drowsy ears in Tennysonian rhyme!

...(And further down the dense stanza)...

Though Thebian taste the Saxon's purse controls,
And pensions Tennyson while starves a Knowles,
Rather be thou, my poor Pierian maid,
Decent at least in Hayley's weeds arrayed,
Than patch with frippery every tinsel line,
And flaunt, admired, the Rag Fair of the Nine.

Sixteen years before, Tennyson had described his man so clearly that readers had no trouble identifying the target, and now the man himself had shown his style so clearly that even with his authorship left off, critics had no trouble seeing the heavy hand of Edward Bulwer, reknown today as the man who began his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal line "It was a dark and stormy night.

"Within weeks, a counter-salvo was launched by Bulwer-baiters at Punch with a modest little poem that ended:

So stands the bard of Locksley Hall,
While puny darts around him fall,
Tipp'd with what Timon takes for venom;
He is the mastiff, Tim the Blenheim.

(The "Blenheim" is a type of small spaniel named after Marlborough's famous castle.)

Called by Hawthorne "the very pimple of the age's humbug," Bulwer (later Lord Bulwer-Lytton) was also an excellent substitute for the muse, and gave Tennyson inspiration enough to pen a reply, also printed in Punch. Using the pen name "Alcibiades," Tennyson wrote in "New Timon and the Poets":

We know him out of Shakespeare's art
And those fine curses which he spoke;
The old Timon with his noble heart,
That, strongly loathing, greatly broke.

So died the Old: here comes the new,
regard him: a familiar face;
I thought we knew him. What, it's you,
The padded man,-that wears the stays,-

Who killed the girls and thrilled the boys
with dandy pathos when you wrote!
A Lion, you, that made a noise,
and shook a mane en papillotes.

And concluding,

A Timon, you? Nay, nay, for shame!
It looks too arrogant a jest,-
The fierce old man,-to take his name,
You bandbox! Off, and let him rest!

A week later, Tennyson was off again, with a poem called "Literary Squabbles," which began:

Ah, God! The petty fools of rhyme
That shriek and sweat in pygmy wars
Before the stony face of time,
And looked at by the silent stars;-

After several more stanzas decrying the petty stupidity of literary quarrels, the poet concluded:

And I too talk, and lose the touch
I talk of. Surely, after all,
The noblest answer unto such
Is kindly silence when they bawl.

What next passed between the two men is unknown, but can be guessed at by Tennyson's last poem on the subject, written at the end of 1846. It was titled "On a Spiteful Letter." What might have been in such a letter can be implied by the following lines:
Greater than I,-isn't that your cry?
And I shall live to see it.
Well, if it be so, so it is, you know;
And if it be so, so be it.

Curiously, when Bulwer inherited the title Lord Lytton, the feuds were healed and everyone ended his career on a sweet note. Even Thackeray apologized.

When defending his attack on Tennyson in "New Timon," Bulwer claimed that Tennyson was merely the champion of a small circle, while the minor dramatist Knowles had entertained thousands. It might bring Bulwer's shade some small satisfaction to know that whereas Tennyson is known only to those who love poetry, The Last Days of Pompeii, by Bulwer, has been made into three movies so far, and thus is known to millions of popcorn lovers.

Yet Bulwer's fame persists by yet another process, and it is one of the strangest imaginable postscripts to a literary career. Every year at San Jose State [University] the "Bulwer-Lytton contest" is held, to select the funniest opening sentence for the worst novel never written. An annual event since 1983, this contest draws howlers from all over the planet. The rules are: sentences may be of any length and more than one entry may be submitted, but all must be original and unpublished; entries are judged by categories and there will be an overall winner as well; entries should be submitted on index cards with the author's name, address and phone on the other side; and the deadline is April 15. The address is

Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest
Department of English
San Jose State University
San Jose, CA95192-0090

They would never dare do this to Tennyson.

[Ed. Note:  as of January, 2008, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest contest still survives.  Visit it here. ] 

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