To Virgil by Tennyson

The commission

The Roman poet Virgil died in 19 BC. One thousand nine hundred years later, in 1881, the inhabitants of Mantua, the Italian city where he was born, approached the British Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, to commission him to write a poem celebrating Virgil’s birth. Since Tennyson was born in 1809, he was 72 at the time, the grand old man of British poetry and known across Europe.

By Tennyson’s standards the poem he wrote for this commission is on the short side (although he wrote brief lyrics throughout his career and some of his famous long poems – ‘Maud’ and especially ‘In Memoriam’ – are made up of lots of short poems on a unified theme), and it’s certainly not among his best poems – but nonetheless it’s a professional piece of work, mellifluous and stately and gracious in its compliments for one of the greatest practitioners of poetry in all European history.

The metre

In the poem Tennyson is trying to replicate the stately measure of the Latin hexameters which Virgil used in his epic poem, the Aeneid. So first and third lines of each stanza are trochaic tetrameters, meaning they have four ‘feet’ or units, and each unit contains 2 syllables, and the beat falls on the first syllable of each pair. This creates a formal tone of address.

Roman Virgil, thou that singest

By contrast, the second and fourth lines of each stanza are trochaic pentameters, meaning they have five feet, made up of two syllables each, with the emphasis on the first of the 2 syllables (which is what trochee means). The last four of the five feet or units consists of just one stressed syllable.

More than he that sang the ‘Works and Days

The contents

The poem recaps the well-known outline of Virgil’s career. First it cites his most famous work, the Aeneid, represented by ‘Ilion’s lofty temples’ being burned down by the triumphant Greeks at the climax of the Trojan war, Ilion or Ilium being the Greek word for Troy.

‘Filial faith’ refers to Aeneas’s famous devotion to his father, Anchises, so devoted he hazards a journey to the underworld to see his shade.

‘Dido’s pyre’ echoes the fire of Troy but mainly refers to the fact that Dido fell in love with Aeneas when he arrived at the new city of Carthage which she ruled over, but the gods told him he had to press on to Italy in order to found Rome, so he abandoned her and she in her misery, killed herself and had her body cremated.

Verse 2 refers to the pastoral poems Virgil wrote early in his career, specifically the Georgics which were modelled on the poem called Works and Days by the archaic Greek poet Hesiod. Verse 2 refers to the subjects Virgil describes in the Georgics, namely the care of crops and livestock, with a nod to the famous section about bees.

Verse 4 goes backwards in his career to refer to the Eclogues, either monologues or dialogues taking place in an idealised landscape between idealised shepherds, one of whom is named Tityrus. Virgil’s real-life Roman contemporary Pollio, a Roman consul, is referred to by name in several of the Eclogues, which explains why his name pops up here.

Having referred to his three key works, Tennyson can now generalise about Virgil’s tone of voice, which is famously gentle and sweetly sad at the turmoil and suffering of poor humanity.

In verse 7, describing Virgil as ‘a golden branch’ amid the shadows is a stylish visualisation of how his work shines out from the Dark Ages into which Europe fell, but also refers to the golden bough, which Aeneas in the epic poem has to find and pluck in order to journey to the underworld – although the line that follows, about kings and realms that pass, sounds as much like Tennyson’s lordly melancholy as Virgil’s. It also echoes the earlier mention of ‘golden phrases’ and ‘gilded’ in the line before, and so, subconsciously, helps create a semi-visual sense of the treasure of Virgil’s verse, glimpses of priceless treasure half-made out through shadows and undergrowth: a gleaming treasure from a buried past.

What Auden called ‘the lachrymae rerum note’ continues into the next verse which makes the deeply traditional reference to the vanished glories of Rome, its forum and emperors, a trope of European poetry since the Dark Ages.

And then, very gracefully, Tennyson turns the penultimate stanza from the past (the ‘Rome of slaves’) to the present (the ‘Rome of freemen’) gracefully referring to the (relatively new) republic of unified Italy (Italy only became a unified nation state in 1871) whose citizens had extended this kind invitation to him and to which he is so graciously replying.

The reference to the ‘northern isle’ is simple enough – it is Britain, where Tennyson was born and raised but which, during Virgil’s time, was only a distant unknown land associated with legends and exaggerations, hence the accurate description, ‘sunder’d once from all the human race’.

And so it’s from here, in rainy England, that Tennyson now sends his poem, and he ends it with beautiful praise for Virgil’s single most key achievement, the majestic rhythm of his rolling lines of verse, the use of ‘I’ to start three lines consciously emphasising the personal depth of the tribute, one great of poetry speaking across nearly two millennia to another.

there are many things to criticise in both Virgil and Tennyson’s poetry and worldviews. But sometimes, in troubled times, it’s healing and calming to enjoy a thing of beauty and be grateful that beautiful things have survived the wanton destructiveness of humanity.

To Virgil, written at the request of the Mantuans for the nineteenth centenary of Virgil’s death

Roman Virgil, thou that singest
Ilion’s lofty temples robed in fire,
Ilion falling, Rome arising,
Wars, and filial faith, and Dido’s pyre;

Landscape-lover, lord of language
More than he that sang the ‘Works and Days’,
All the chosen coin of fancy
Flashing out from many a golden phrase;

Thou that singest wheat and woodland,
Tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd;
All the charm of all the Muses
Often flowering in a lonely word;

Poet of the happy Tityrus
Piping underneath his beechen bowers;
Poet of the poet-satyr
Whom the laughing shepherd bound with flowers;

Chanter of the Pollio, glorying
In the blissful years again to be,
Summers of the snakeless meadow,
Unlaborious earth and oarless sea;

Thou that seëst Universal
Nature moved by Universal Mind;
Thou majestic in thy sadness
At the doubtful doom of human kind;

Light among the vanish’d ages;
Star that gildest yet this phantom shore;
Golden branch amid the shadows,
Kings and realms that pass to rise no more;

Now thy Forum roars no longer,
Fallen every purple Cæsar’s dome—
Tho’ thine ocean-roll of rhythm
Sound forever of Imperial Rome—

Now the Rome of slaves hath perish’d,
And the Rome of freemen holds her place,
I, from out the Northern Island
Sunder’d once from all the human race,

I salute thee, Mantovano,
I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
Ever moulded by the lips of man.


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