Tennyson, Browning, Virgil – Part 1
Sir Edward Clarke, K. C., addressing a London Workingmen’s Club on Victorian
literature, thus expressed his opinion of the comparative merit of Tennyson and Browning: ‘The two great poets were Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. The first named would always stand at the head of the literature of the Victorian period. It was difficult to overrate the enormous influence for good that his splendid intellect and true and clear conscience exercised over this country. There was no poet in the whole course of our history whose works were more likely to live as a complete whole than he, and there was not a line which his friends would wish to see blotted out. Robert Browning was a poet of strange inequality and of extraordinary and fantastic methods in his composition. However much one could enjoy some of his works, one could only hope that two-thirds of them would be as promptly as possible forgotten—not, however, from any moral objection to what he wrote. He was the Carlyle of poetry.’1
It is easy to laugh at Sir Edward’s boneheaded prejudice, mastery of cliché, and preposterous attempt to reverse Ben Jonson’s quip about Shakespeare (‘The players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penn’d) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand”’). Yet Sir Edward has hold of something true. Tennyson and Browning divide the age, and Tennyson is always ‘the first named’. Browning resented Tennyson’s priority, and friends of Tennyson, in turn, resented Browning’s pretensions. Browning wrote to Isabella Blagden in 1865, following the success of Dramatis Personae: ‘There were always a few people who had a certain opinion of my poems, but nobody cared to speak what he thought. . . but at last a new set of men arrive who don’t mind the conventionalities of ignoring one and seeing everything in another’.2 It is obvious who ‘another’ is. Edward FitzGerald, on the other hand, viewed Browning’s rising reputation in the 1860s and ’70s as evidence of the decline of civilization and common sense. He said so to Tennyson himself whom he called, by way of mock-depreciation, the ‘pa lt r y Poet ’:
To compare [Browning] with my own paltry Poet is to compare an old Jew’s Curiosity Shop with the Phidian Marbles. They talk of Browning’s metaphysical Depth and Subtlety: pray is there none in The Palace of Art, The Vision of Sin (which last touches on the limits of Disgust withouThever falling in)[,] Locksley Hall also, with some little Passion, I think—only that all these being clear to the bottom, as well as beautiful, do not seem to Cockney eyes so deep as Browning’s muddy Waters.3
FitzGerald’s ‘an old Jew’s Curiosity Shop’ links Browning’s vulgarity with that of Dickens, and also helps to explain the rumours which circulated later in the century that Browning had Jewish ancestry. It may overstep our ‘limits of disgust’ but it, too, has a tang of truth. Lovers of Browning relish what nauseates FitzGerald, and lovers of Tennyson have continued to protest at the charge that there is nothing to him but surface. The charge of anti-intellectualism has stuck, most memorably in Carlyle’s mordant summation: ‘Browning has far more ideas than Tennyson, but is not so truthful. Tennyson means what he says, poor fellow!’ 4 Tennyson’s status as a gentleman, which gave him so clear an advantage over Browning in FitzGerald’s eyes, has probably, in the long run, done him more harm than good.
I propose to revisit the Tennyson–Browning pairing, but not with the aim of conf rming or reversing such judgements. Instead, I shall juxtapose their ‘parleyings’ (to use Browning’s term) with Virgil, because each illuminates and subtilizes the other’s. I shall concentrate on two poems: Tennyson’s ‘To Virgil’ (R 394) and Browning’s ‘Pan and Luna’.5 These are both late works that triumphantly resist belatedness, though they do this by radically dif erent means. I wish Browning’s poem had been written after Tennyson’s: it could so clearly be read as a reply to it. Even so, the juxtaposition suggests the revi-sionary impulse which, in their relation, came almost always from Browning’s side.
Virgil marks a faultline in Victorian aesthetics, not between high and low culture but between
two kinds of high culture, the polished and the rough. There are many ways of framing this division—Classic and Gothic, music and speech, soul and body (or soul and mind)—and the division itself is linked to other oppositions, notably those of religion and class. It may be unjust, but it is undeniable, that Virgil has been read as a poet of the ruling class, and of the ruling class of poets: Poet Laureate to Augustus, a favourite of England’s f rst Poet Laureate, Dryden, and, before him, two other court poets, Spenser and Chaucer. Tennyson’s love of Virgil was not the product of his having been born a gentleman, baptized into the Church of England, educated at Cambridge, and awarded the laureateship by favour of Prince Albert, but it is not separable from those contexts, just as Browning’s upbringing in suburban Dissenting Camberwell ensured that his classical learning would be a personal choice, not a social given. Browning’s account of this process, in one of his last poems, ‘Development’, begins ‘My father was a scholar, and knew Greek.’6 Knowledge and love begin in the family circle, buTheven in this poem, written in the last year of his life when his fame was secure, there is also a touch of prickliness, of one-upmanship. Latin was still ubiquitous in the education of boys, and Virgil, together with Horace, ruled the kingdom; but Greek was a much rarer accomplishment, and had the prestige of being both harder in itself and anterior to Latin. ‘Development’ is about Homer, who takes precedence over Virgil, and who is greater because both grander and more primitive. Tennyson crowns ‘To Virgil’ with a declaration of love: ‘I that loved thee since my day began’ (l. 19). He cannot mean ‘since birth’—even as a hyperbole that would be absurd—and must mean something like ‘ever since I knew anything about poetry’, with the further implication ‘ever since the dawn of my own creative life’. Browning could not have said the same. He did not love Virgil; ‘Development’ is typical of Browning’s ‘classical’ poems, all of which (with the exception of ‘Pan and Luna’) are on Greek subjects and refer to, or translate, Greek authors.7
Virgil is mellif uous even (or especially) in his moments of greatest seriousness and pathos, and the unresolved conf icts in what he says about love, or empire, or mortality are easy to miss, or gloss over; he is a gifted phrase-maker, and left an involuntary legacy of cliché for the support of impoverished orators. An early draft of ‘To Virgil’ acknowledges that he is ‘Quoted in the halls of Council, | speaking yet in every schoolboy’s home’ (R 394: ll. 15–16 n.). Tennyson wisely cut this two-edged compliment. Browning, as we shall see, heartlessly tagged Virgil as a fount of condescension (though not in ‘Pan and Luna’; that is what makes the poem so interesting), but it would be quite wrong to imply that ‘ To Virgil’ is ‘Virgilian’ in this sense. The case is exactly the opposite: Tennyson’s poem is Virgilian because its poise, its ‘f nish’, are threatened by forces it barely holds in check.
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Tennyson, Browning, Virgil – Part 4 The context of this other occurrence of the phrase—the fatal error of a mortal artist who ‘Challenge[s] the gods to a contest’—suggests that Browning has in mind the implications of challenging Virgil (or Tennyson) to a singing-contest. Such contests always end badly—Browning’s great song ‘Thamuris marching’ celebrates the daring of the bard who challenged the Biography of Poet Alfred Tennyson Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron 1809-92, English poet. The most famous poet of the Victorian age, he was a profound spokesman for the ideas and values of his times.
Tennyson was the son of an intelligent but unstable clergyman in Lincolnshire. His early literary attempts included a play, The Devil and the Lady, composed at 14, Tennyson, Browning, Virgil – Part 2 The subtitle of ‘ To Virgil’—‘Written at the Request of the Mantuans for the Nineteenth Centenary of Virgil’s Death’—marks its origin as a public and occasional poem. It invites a stock response to the later Tennyson as the author of too many such poems, composed out of a sometimes weary sense of obligation. The poem’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson When I began to write I avowed for my principles those of Arthur Hal-lam in his essay upon Tennyson. Tennyson, who had written but his early poems when Hallam wrote, was an example of the school of Keats and Shelley, and Keats and Shelley, unlike Wordsworth, intermixed into their poetry no elements from the general Alfred Tennyson and His Work Alfred Tennyson was born on August 6th, 1809, at Somersby, Lincolnshire, Fourth of twelve children of George and Elizabeth Tennyson. Tennyson, said to Be the best poet of the Victorian era and his poetry will be discussed in this Essay. Tennyson had a lifelong fear of mental illness, because several men in His family had
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