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 multiple allusions to Virgil’s poetry may then work against it: they amount, after all, to the expected homage, and demonstrate no more than Tennyson’s professional sense of what was proper. Moreover they remind us that Virgil was public and private property in the nineteenth century. It will hardly repay us to look too deeply into what ‘every schoolboy’ knows. A. A. Markley, whose book Stateliest Measures takes its title from ‘To Virgil’, is perfunctory about the poem itself:
While the rhythm of the poem approximates the rhythm of Virgil’s hexameters, the allusions in the poem move through Virgil’s works, from the Aeneid in the f rst couplet to the Georgics in the following two, to the Eclogues in couplets 4 and 5, and back to the Aeneid in 6 and 7. Tennyson concludes this tour through Virgil’s opera with a salute in the f nal three couplets to Virgil’s poetry generally, which lives on despite the fall of Rome itself.8
‘Moves through’, ‘back to the Aeneid’, and ‘this tour through Virgil’s opera’ do noThexactly suggest impassioned engagement on either Tennyson’s part or his critic’s; but it is wrong of Markley to suggest that the conclusion to the poem is of a piece with the rest, and that the whole constitutes a smoothly functioning mechanism. Another kind of stock response would reflect the perceived affinity between Tennyson and Virgil. Anyone who knew Tennyson personally would recognize that his declaration of love for Virgil at the end of the poem was unaffected and truthful. He carried Virgil with him on journeys and walks, read his poetry aloud to friends and family, and recited lines to his children. His ‘voicing’ of Virgil especially moved others, and himself. ‘I had no idea Virgil could ever sound so fine as it does in his reading,’ wrote Savile Morton in 1844; Edward FitzGerald wrote that he had only once seen tears in Tennyson’s eyes, ‘when reading Virgil—“dear old Virgil” as he called him—together’.9 Tennyson’s private feeling for Virgil was, so to speak, ‘outed’ by critics who mapped the modern
poet onto his classical precursor and traced the Virgilian contours of Tennyson’s genres, themes, sentiments, and style. The parallel appears early (in John Sterling’s praise of the ‘English Idyls’ in his review of the 1842 Poems, for example), and ‘ To Virgil’ helped its deployment as a summative judgement: J. M. Robertson, in an essay published in 1889, borrows from the climax of the poem to ‘salute that singer of our youth who is the Virgil of our time’.10
If we read ‘ To Virgil’ with the notion that Tennyson himself was conscious of his status as the ‘English Virgil’, we risk making the poem sound smug and opportunistic. Does Tennyson really intend his readers to think of him as a ‘lord of language’ because he, like Virgil, was a ‘landscape-lover’ (l. 3) in his ‘English Idyls’, and was ‘majestic in [his] sadness’ (l. 12) in In Memo-riam, and had a position at the imperial court?11 And then the parallel itself is double-edged. To John Churton Collins, writing (perhaps vindictively) in 1891, Tennyson and Virgil were indeed alike in being secondary, imitative writers, whose ‘material is derived not from the world of Nature, but from the world of Art’.12 Moreover, the ‘English Virgil’ is doubly secondary: in a Platonic series, Tennyson’s art is the imitation of an imitation. To think of Tennyson as Virgil also invites the thought of Virgil as Tennyson, an invitation taken up by Browning’s admirer Ezra Pound: ‘Virgil is a second-rater, a Tennysonianized version of Homer’.13 Perhaps, by the 1880s, Tennyson’s regard for Virgil could not be wholly free from self-regard. But as we have seen, he speaks in the poem not of his likeness to Virgil but of his love of him, and this love is complex and (in the best sense) critical.
To return to the subtitle: it looks plain enough, but it is a little disingenuous. ‘Written at the Request of the Mantuans’ is grand, popular, vague; actually the request came from a learned society, the Vergilian Academy of Mantua, and the poem was inserted (with an Italian translation) in their commemorative ‘Vergilian Album’. Nevertheless, the request had a political edge. Luigi Carnevali, the representative of the Academy who solicited Tennyson’s contribution, put it in these terms: ‘What better honour will the singer of Eneas be able to receive than that which would be tributed to him by the venerable poet of free England?’ (L III. 231 n.). Normally the payment of tribute is not a sign of
freedom, but in this case the tribute is one of ‘honour’, and viewed from nineteenth-century Italy England f gures not as a reincarnation of imperial Rome but as a modern nation, the kind that Italy aspires to become; it is as though ‘the singer of Eneas’ could be deemed, with Tennyson’s endorsement, to have seen beyond the foundation of imperial Rome to a more progressive destiny.
Tennyson took the request more seriously than he had done in the case of Virgil’s admirer Dante, for whom he dashed of six lines in 1865 which he then ‘entirely forgot’ until he included them in Ballads and Other Poems in 1880. But the contrast is instructive for other reasons. ‘ To Dante’ (R 345) is subtitled ‘Written at Request of the Florentines’ (a claim as dubious as that of ‘ To Virgil’) and begins by identifying Dante as a ‘King’ who has ‘reigned six hundred years’; Florence, ‘now the crown of Italy’ (referring to the fact that it had just replaced Turin as capital of the new kingdom), has ‘sought the tribute of a verse’ from Tennyson, who, ‘wearing but the garland of a day | Cast[s] at thy feet one f ower that fades away’ (ll. 1, 4, 5, 6–7). The modesty topos allows Tennyson to get of lightly, and it implies that as Poet Laureate he was bound to make an ef ort only for British royalty. The appeal of ‘the Mantuans’ was more subtle, and more stimulating. IThexacted from Tennyson a ‘tribute’ he could pay with interest—in part by remembering Dante, too.
‘ To Virgil’ is a poem of ten stanzas, each containing two long lines in a trochaic metre designed to recall, but not replicate, the Virgilian hexameter.14 As for the proliferation of Virgilian allusions, Tennyson took a rare opportunity to be deliberate here. He railed against mechanical source-hunting by critics such as Collins, ‘men of great memories and no imagination, who impute themselves to the poet, and so believe that he, too, has no imagination, but is for ever poking his nose between the pages of some old volume in order to see what he can appropriate’ (Mem. i. 258); but in this instance he practically bookmarked the pages of the ‘old volume’, since one of the poem’s intentions is to manifest the imprint of Virgil on the fabric of English poetic imagery and diction. Yet a list of the passages that Tennyson ‘quotes’, though it tells us of the poet’s skill in incorporating allusions to every one of Virgil’s major works (Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid ), does not tell us much about the nature of this inf uence on Tennyson himself, or about the poem’s more inward and ref ective design.
The poem is one long sentence, whose basic syntactical structure is extremely simple. The main clause arches from the f rst to the f nal stanza: ‘Virgil. . . I salute thee’. The apostrophized subject, ‘Virgil’, is qualif ed in a number of ways. To begin with, in the opening words of the poem, he is ‘Roman Virgil’. Then he is decorated with an elaborate set of parallel sub-clauses, some beginning with ‘thou’ (‘thou that singest Ilion’s lofty temples robed in f re’: l. 1), others beginning with an attribute (‘Landscape-lover, lord of language’: l. 3). T is surge of epithets concludes at l. 14 with an ominous allusion to ‘kings and realms that pass to rise no more’; what follows is a different kind of qualif cation, one that describes not Virgil but the double time of history—the time in which he wrote, and the time in which he is now being addressed:
Now thy Forum roars no longer, fallen every purple Caesar’s dome— T ough thine ocean-roll of rhythm sound for ever of Imperial Rome—
Now the Rome of slaves hath perished,
And the Rome of freemen holds her place, I, from out the Northern Island
Sundered once from all the human race,
I salute thee. . .
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The Divine Comedy was a key element to the development of European literature. By writing the epic style poem in the vernacular, he enabled all people of general literacy (ie, the commoner) with the liberty to read his work of art. This was such a landmark 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,