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 Muses, but the modern
poet is vividly conscious of his precursor’s terrible fate, and wards it off by leaving the song unfinished, and, for good measure, only ‘publishing’ it in the mouth of a dramatic character.26 We can see a similar evasion of hubris in the last lines of ‘Pan and Luna’, where authority is dispersed and belongs neither to Virgil, nor to those who purport to ‘explain’ the myth he relates, nor to the poet whose ‘hold’ on the story (‘O worthy of belief I hold it was. . . ’) enables him to ‘keep’ no more than fragments, however potent. Nevertheless, the challenge makes itself felt in part because it is suppressed and implicit.
‘Pan and Luna’ is antithetical to ‘ To Virgil’ in a number of ways. The epigraph may consist of only four Latin words, but that is four more than Tennyson used. They mark the poem’s authenticity—ironically, given the swerve that it takes from the original; whereas Tennyson’s individual allusions take you back with loving f delity to their origins. Browning’s perspective is not synoptic, but concentrated on a single work. His Virgil is not so much a ‘lord of language’ as a f gure of uncertain authority; the powerful enigmatic compression of his verse, which Tennyson represents as supreme organic mastery (‘All the charm of all the Muses | often f owering in a lonely word’, l. 6), in ‘Pan and Luna’ generates bewilderment and even terror. There is violence in Tennyson’s reading of Virgil across time (from ‘Ilion falling, Rome arising’ in line 2, to ‘fallen every purple Caesar’s dome’ in line 15, where Rome repeats Troy rather than replacing it) but the violence we have seen in ‘Pan and Luna’ is of a dif erent order: sexual, visceral, discomf ting to both male and female readers.
Two contexts are relevant to the anti-Tennysonian Virgil of ‘Pan and Luna’. One concerns its publication in the second series of Dramatic Idyls. Browning had previously published Dramatic Lyrics (1842), Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1845), and Dramatis Personae (1864), but his choice of Dramatic Idyls, despite the dif erent spelling of the word, could not help seeming to contemporaries a ref ection on his rival’s ‘idylls’, whether the ‘English Idyls’ or Idylls of the King. Tennyson knew as much: ‘I wish he hadn’t taken my word Idyll’, he told William Allingham.27 The second context is that of the general image of Virgil in Browning’s work. Allusions to (borrowings from) Virgil are rarer than in Tennyson, but references to him are more frequent. These are almost all disparaging in some way, not directly of Virgil but of his readers. Characters who cite Virgil in Browning do so in ways that make him seem the recourse of the pompous, the hypocritical, or the self-serving. The Ring and the Book has a cluster of such citations. Guido’s fat, jolly, callous defence lawyer, Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis, is delighted that the case will enable him to shine in his son’s eyes:
How falls plumb to point T is murder, gives me Guido to defend Now, of all days i’ the year, just when the boy Verges on Virgil, reaches the right age For some such illustration from his sire, Stimulus to himself!28
The poet of filial piety is subjected to coarse handling here. Not that Archan-gelis allows his literary taste to run away with him: as he begins composing his
Speech, he remarks ‘Virgil is little help to who writes prose’ (l. 136).29 Perhaps Browning was thinking of all those critics who accused him of doing just that. The Pope, who has the final judgment in the case, imagines the worldly, cynical pleas for Guido to be let off couched in suave Virgilian tones:
The pardon, Holy Father! Spare grimace, Shrugs and reluctance! Are not we the world, Bid thee, our Priam, let soft culture plead Hecuba-like, ‘non tali ’ (Virgil serves) ‘Auxilio’ and the rest! Enough, it works!30
(He doesn’t serve, and it doesn’t work.) For his part, Guido, in his death-cell, savages the two high-born priests, Cardinal Acciaiuoli and Abate Pan-chiatichi, who have been sent to ‘convert’ him before his execution. He has never really been a milk-and-water Christian, Guido tells them; rather he is a ‘primitive religionist’,
One sprung,—your frigid Virgil’s f eriest word,—
From fauns and nymphs, trunks and the heart of oak,
With,—for a visible divinity,—
The portent of a Jove Aegiochus
Descried ’mid clouds, lightning and thunder, couched
On topmost crag of your Capitoline—
’Tis in the Seventh Aeneid,—what, the Eighth?
Right,—thanks, Abate,—though the Christian’s dumb,
The Latinist’s vivacious in you yet!31
It is a complex hit: he is ‘your frigid Virgil’ because deemed to promote Christian values of conformity and piety, of renunciation, of the sublimation of desire; but Christians like the Abate are actually more preoccupied with their classical learning than with their religion, and Guido seizes on the wretched Abate’s interjection, designed not to save his soul but to correct his scholarship. For his part, Guido claims ‘Virgil’s fieriest word’ as his own, though the poem exposes his manliness as sham and bluster.
Not surprisingly, then, ‘Pan and Luna’ rather confronts Virgil than salutes him. Unlike the passages just cited, however, it does so in Browning’s own voice, or at any rate in the voice of an impersonal narrator. When he published the f rst series of Dramatic Idyls in 1879, Browning implicitly defended himself against the charge of borrowing Tennyson’s term:
An idyl, as you know, is a succinct little story complete in itself;
Not necessarily concerning pastoral matters, by any means, though from the prevalency of such topics in the idyls of Theocritus, such is the general notion. These of mine are called ‘Dramatic’ because the story is told by some actor in it, not by the poet himself.32
This definition more or less accords with the poems of 1879, but not with those of the ‘Second Series’, the majority of which are not ‘dramatic’ in this sense at all.33 The ‘I’ of ‘Pan and Luna’ is both reader and critic of Virgil; so is the ‘I’ of ‘To Virgil’, but Tennyson’s is the
criticism of a lover, and Browning’s that of a sceptic and ironist. It is rare for him to show his hand in this way, and may be a sign of the provocation posed by Virgil’s lordly equanimity. Tennyson, too, could provoke Browning in this way: he did it with the ending of ‘Enoch Arden’, which drove Browning to supply his own very funny, but very prejudiced alternative treatment.34 But there is no apparent sign that the provocation worked the other way. I said at the start of this essay that it would seem natural for ‘Pan and Luna’ to have been written as a riposte to ‘ To Virgil’. No one, on the other hand, would think that Tennyson had Browning’s poem in mind when he composed his own. Only we might observe that, in the same diary entry which has Tennyson’s plaintive objection to Browning’s appropriation of ‘his’ term ‘idyll’, William Alling-ham records the following comment: ‘I said the other day and you took it as a jest, but I meant it seriously, “if the pronunciation of the English language were lost, Browning would be considered the greatest modern poet”.’35 The judgement that Tennyson delivers here—as brilliant, and as partial, as anything Browning ever said about him—is at the opposite end of the scale from the one he delivers on Virgil’s ‘measure. . . moulded by the lips’. In the long sentence thaThends with his salute to Virgil, Tennyson effectively shuts the gates on Browning’s poetic presence. Browning could not—or felt he could not—do the same. Tennyson, for him, was always within the gates.
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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 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 Tithonus "Tithonus" was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The poem's setting is the ancient story of Tithonus. Tithonus fell in love with Eos, goddess of the dawn, and asked her for immortality. Unfortunately for Tithonus he did not ask for eternal youth, only eternal life. He, therefore, grows old but never dies while Eos not only Tennyson, Browning, Virgil – Part 3 Dante is possessed by, and possesses himself of, Virgil’s ‘bello stilo’, and has been ‘authored’ by it. What Tennyson says is not quite that, but his supreme final compliment to Virgil as ‘Wielder of the stateliest measure | ever moulded by the lips of man’ carries its own personal freight. ‘Stateliest’ is one of only 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,