Searching Tennyson

Below is a representative page from Christopher Ricks’s critical edition of the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

This excerpt from “The Lady of Shalott” illustrates traditional methods of textual collation: the base text is prominently displayed, with variants and annotations included in notes at the foot of the page. It provides a useful comparison to this screenshot of the same poem, collated in Juxta.

Two versions of the poem can be displayed in Juxta side-by-side, with a heat map of the differences (highlighted in green) making variants instantly recognizable. But in addition to these basic visualizations, the new Juxta 1.3 adds another useful feature: search.

In this screenshot you can see the results of a search on the work “river” (highlighted in yellow). It’s a word that necessarily recurs in this poem about a woman isolated on an island, but I found it surprising just how often Tennyson repeated the term instead of using a synonym. Juxta also helps us see that Tennyson actually added more instances of the word ‘river’ in the revised 1842 version of the poem, putting even more emphasis on its symbolic role. Even when engaged in close reading, subtle shifts such as this can be difficult to perceive; with Juxta such changes are immediately apparent.

In using Juxta to compare these two versions of Tennyson’s canonic poem, I was able to focus closely upon the details of the author’s craft. Whereas my previous studies of this poem dealt with the the larger significance of edited and/or removed passages in the 1842 edition, this experience brought to my attention the grammatical and morphological moves Tennyson made between each version. Certain words (such as river) are repeated and therefore stressed, contractions are introduced and proliferate (many-towered becomes many-tower’d), and archaicizing diacritics added (seer becomes seër). Finally, after working with the poem in Juxta and annotating my discoveries, I was still able to generate a traditional critical apparatus like the one in Ricks’s critical edition, this time in HTML.