Tuesday 29 October 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: F is for Fern-Fever (Pteridomania)

It may sound like a tropical disease but the word Pteridomania (coined by Charles Kingsley in 1855) describes the passion for ferns and tropical plants which took possession of many across the social spectrum in the nineteenth century. In fern-fever, scientific pursuit mingled with decorative design, and homely hobby with ostentatious monetary display. Plants were projects to work on and achievements to display, and, from their advent as a fashionable hobby, were particularly associated with female horticultural hobbyists. Kingsley writes:

‘Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing 'Pteridomania'...and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy)...and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool.’

In Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Vixen (1879), the cultivation of ferns and orchids isn’t just a topical side note but occasions significant commentary. Lady Jane’s wonderful collection makes its first appearance in the novel at the party which celebrates Rorie (the hero)’s coming of age. Braddon writes:

‘The orchids and ferns upon this horse-shoe table made the finest floricultural show that had been seen for a long time. There were rare specimens from New Granada and the Philippine Islands; wondrous flowers lately discovered in the Sierra Madre; blossoms of every shape and colour from the Cordilleras; richest varieties of hue—golden yellow, glowing crimson, creamy white; rare eccentricities of form and colour beside which any other flower would have looked vulgar; butterfly flowers and pitcher-shaped flowers, that had cost as much money as prize pigeons, and seemed as worthless, save to the connoisseur in the article. The Vawdrey racing-plate, won by Roderick's grandfather, was nowhere by comparison with those marvellous tropical blossoms, that fairy forest of fern. Everybody talked about the orchids, confessed his or her comparative ignorance of the subject, and complimented Lady Jane.

"The orchids made the hit of the evening," Rorie said afterwards. "It was their coming of age, not mine."’

The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland
This humorous linkage of plant-keeping with child-rearing and maturation is no accident. Lady Jane ‘rears’ her ferns with the same perfectionism which marks the careful upbringing of Lady Mabel (Rorie’s cousin whom Lady Jane intends to see as her daughter-in-law). Mabel has all the desired accomplishments of a Victorian lady – singing, playing, dressing and acting beautifully, and even (less traditionally!) going so far as to compose verse in Ancient Greek. From her first appearance in the novel she is specifically referred to as ‘flower-like’, and her earlier history has been sketched out by comparing her with a delicate young tree: 

‘At thirty the Duchess of Dovedale had lost all her babies, save one frail sapling, a girl of two years old, who promised to have a somewhat better constitution than her perished brothers and sisters. On this small paragon the Duchess concentrated her cares and hopes. She gave up hunting—much to the disgust of that Nimrod, her husband—in order to superintend her nursery. From the most pleasure-loving of matrons, she became the most domestic. Lady Mabel Ashbourne was to grow up the perfection of health, wisdom, and beauty, under the mother's loving care.’ 

The duchess abandons the natural world of the forest to enter an artificial space in which Mabel grows and learns (with the double meaning of ‘nursery’ clear here). Meanwhile the eponymous ‘Vixen’ Violet (Mabel’s rival for Rorie’s affections) is untrained and unaccomplished and so associated with the wild ferns of the surrounding countryside, rather than those cultivated under close supervision (like Mabel) at Briarwood. This happens throughout the novel, but the significance of flora to Violet and her perception of herself and her home is most clear when she glimpses plants which remind her of Hampshire while exiled in Jersey: 

‘And now they entered a long lane, where the interlaced tree-tops made an arcade of foliage—a lane whose beauty even Vixen could not gainsay. Ah, there were the Hampshire ferns on the steep green banks! She gave a little choking sob at sight of them, as if they had been living things. Hart's-tongue, and lady-fern, and the whole family of osmundas. Yes; they were all there. It was like home.’ 

Different as they are, Mabel and Violet are both linked to the ferns and orchids which are brought up again and again throughout the novel. Braddon doesn’t just throw in Lady Jane’s hothouses for fashion’s sake – they serve a metaphorical purpose, especially where the women who compete for her son are concerned. The ferns help show that the central difference between Mabel and Violet is not the ‘species’ of woman they are, but the environments in which they flourish and the strictures under which they have been brought up.

Can you think of any other Victorian novels which discuss the fashion for ferns? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Film Review: The Invisible Woman (2013)

Felicity Jones as Nelly in The Invisible Woman

Claire Tomalin’s 1990 The Invisible Woman is the biography which was never meant to exist – of Nelly (Ellen) Ternan, actress and secret mistress of writer and famously paternal figure Charles Dickens. And now this biography, which clearly mingles critical concerns with a desire for popular attention, has been made into a sumptuous adaptation, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes.

I was lucky enough to catch the film at an early showing at the London Film Festival, prior to its general UK release date. The large curtained screen and huge auditorium made an apt setting for a film so concerned with the world of the theatre. The movie, like Tomalin’s book, manages to convey something of the milieu of the Victorian stage and the production of Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep (1856), for amateur men and professional actresses, during which Nelly and Dickens first meet, is one of the most convincing and entertaining parts of the film.

What makes this work is the close attention to (especially visual) detail. I can’t think of a period film or TV drama with such wonderful costuming, sets and props –and the score and music which characters enjoy within the film is perfect. The visual effectiveness extends to the filmography. It is beautifully shot and the camera lingers on Felicity Jones (Nelly) almost obsessively – her face, her neck, her shoulders – to the extent that I predict a serious upsurge in interest in Victorian hair fashions when the movie hits cinemas in February.

And it doesn't just look good - the two central performances are top notch and the supporting cast (especially Kristen Scott Thomas) strong. Technical accomplishment is manifest in all areas of the film and yet, for me at least, it failed to affect emotionally and was a little uncomfortable in its ideological positioning. While Fiennes gives a pretty flawless rendition of a Dickens who is charismatic and attractive, but still potentially dictatorial and controlling, the character never actually progresses beyond the region of stereotype. In this story – one which it is hard not to see as factual rather than speculative when dramatised - Nelly is undoubtedly a victim. Even more than that, all women are by default victims in this patriarchal world. And, when so much of what I do revolves around demonstrating that this model is overly simplistic, and the theatrical and domestic worlds of the nineteenth century not so divided, this is more than a little gruelling. This is coupled with the sort of cod literary criticism which seems to be a prerequisite for any author’s biopic – it’s not enough to be pretty, girls; it’s GCSE-level criticism and talking about your emotional connection with his novels which will snare you your very own literary genius!

Some of these concerns, especially over the dichotomisation of gender roles, are a direct inheritance from Tomalin’s biography. But there are adaptive decisions which are similarly a little questionable. The Invisible Woman, as its title suggests, is partly about the erasure of women from history and the film evokes this idea of textual treasure hunt. There’s lots of material in the biography to be drawn on – pocketbooks, diary entries, telegrams, play texts – which give glimpses into Nelly’s existence. The film recognises and exploits this – uses real manuscripts and original copies of Household Words - as if to convince audiences of its verisimilitude. But it cheats its viewers. The central most textual moment – when Dickens signs the birth and death certificates for Nelly’s baby with a false name- is a fiction. No such document has come to light and the very existence of a baby is based on surmises from Tomalin’s most speculative chapter. The baby’s still birth – the most shocking moment visually and emotionally in a ‘soft-focus’ film – is what cements Dickens in our minds as a hypocrite, who has acted like one of his own villains and ruined a young girl, and to disappoint audience expectations about maintaining some level of accountability at this point is a little unsettling.

Linked to this is the failure of the frame narrative – Nelly’s emotional struggles, now that she is married and Dickens dead. Not only is it a little unclear why Nelly would be upset to lose Dickens, seeing as their relationship seems a little bleak, but there’s only so much running around windswept but bonneted on an English beach you can do (or watch). And when there was so much rich material out there – in the biography and beyond – this seems like a strange choice.

I enjoyed the film and think it opens up many of the areas of Victorian life I find most interesting in an accessible way. But a word of warning – don’t believe everything you see here. Dickens (and Collins and other men too) were subject to societal constraints as much as the women they loved, lived with and (occasionally) married. And they were both (not that the film would have you think this of Collins!) pretty good writers too.

Have you seen or read The Invisible Woman? What did you think? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Monday 21 October 2013

Theatre Review: The Singular Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, Don't Go Into the Cellar, London

The Secret Victorianist goes into the cellar

On Friday, thanks to the wonders of Twitter, and the proactive team at the Don't Go Into the Cellar theatre company, I, with slightly bemused companion in tow, found myself in the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall - otherwise, for the night, 21b Baker Street - enjoying a whirlwind tour through the history of one of English literature's best-loved detectives. 

The Singular Exploits of Sherlock Holmes is a true labour of love, written and performed by Jonathan Goodwin, who has the distinction of being, not only a versatile actor, but a true Sherlockian, having joined the London Sherlock Holmes Society aged only 13 (only just pipped to the title of youngest ever member by Stephen Fry). What this means is that the whole production, while remaining fun and followable, has a fan-boyish feel. Book history, reception studies and literary criticism are all part of the course, but carried off with aplomb by Goodwin who seems to entirely inhabit the main character who is the life force of the production.

The main takeaway from the production for me was just how much of a one man show Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes books (which first appeared in 1887) always are - not only when brought to life in a one actor play or featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. While Goodwin voiced multiple other characters briefly and convincingly it was definitely all about Sherlock. Watson could even be reduced to a silent coat stand without any substantial loss, and Holmes mockingly elucidated the thought patterns of his non-existent conversation partners succinctly, before dismissing them out of hand.

The production also inspired me to think about the art of storytelling and performance in intimate homely settings. The small audience in Vauxhall sat in armchairs surrounded by tea room bric-a-brac and Holmes’s possessions – fiddle, skull, trunk in which his embodied self is imagined to be trapped, falling into the English Channel, as his life flashes before his eyes (and ours). This is a play, but one which feeds on a tradition of dramatic recital and familial performance popular in the nineteenth century, and, as such, it was an interesting experience.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock on the BBC
The greater your interest in the Sherlock Holmes canon, the more you’ll get out of this production (which will be continuing its tour in Lichfield, Barnsley, Buxton and elsewhere) – it’s an overview, rather than a whodunit. But Goodwin is worth watching in himself, for his masterly handling of the audience, conversational air and captivatingly eccentric performance. There’s talent and some great ideas here, even if this isn’t your typical polished London theatre, and I’ d definitely go back into the cellar for more.

Have you seen Don't Go Into the Cellar's production? What did you think? And who is your favourite ever Sherlock Holmes? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Review: John Marchmont’s Legacy, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1863)

Cartoon of Braddon as a circus girl, The Mask (1868)
In case my previous blog posts haven’t quite given you the impression that I’m something of a Braddon-fanatic, this review of top sensation fiction specimen John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863) should do the trick. This novel has it all – inheritance plots, deaths, fires, madness, false imprisonment, bigamy and unrequited love, while being a rich source of material for students as well as those just looking to spice up their morning commute.

John Marchmont, a former schoolmaster turned stage supernumerary, unexpectedly comes into a large fortune, but, being consumptive, doesn’t last long to protect his daughter (and heir) Mary from the mercenary machinations of his cousin Paul. Throw in a poor choice of second wife to act as evil stepmother, and a dashing soldier beloved by both women, and the plot is soon set in motion.

For the general reader: This is Braddon at her best – exciting, original and dramatic, while situating her story in a world which is believable and rich in observational detail. The plot, at times, kept even a hardened sensation fan like me guessing, but this isn’t detective fiction – much of the joy of reading here comes from knowing more than the characters themselves, and I found myself simultaneously longing for resolution while not wanting the story to end. This is a novel which cries out for film of TV adaptation. It’s fast-paced and structured around incident rather than reflection. It’s not the sort of book you need to ‘get through’ or struggle on to the end with. Maybe the saccharine, childish Mary is a little hard to swallow as a heroine but Olivia (her stepmother) is a brilliantly drawn complex character and Braddon’s morality by no means clear cut. I’ll be writing for the FWSA blog in the next week about whether we can identify Braddon as in any way ‘feminist’. John Marchmont’s Legacy is the kind of novel (and Olivia the kind of character) which demonstrates that it is worth asking these questions, because, rather than in spite, of her incredible contemporary popularity.

For students: Like other sensation novels I've discussed, this is a text obsessed with the relationship between life and drama  – the performance of roles inherent to the everyday and the extraordinary. Nineteenth-century interpretations of Shakespearean tragedy in particular (on stage and off) are a key context throughout the novel and something I plan to return to in a later post. The ‘inheritance’ itself – Marchmont Towers – and the fire which happens there clearly links the novel with other Gothic (or semi-Gothic) treatments of the grand country house. Perhaps Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) could prove fruitful points of comparison. Paul Marchmont’s profession – as a painter – is also interesting. His violent reaction to a portrait – by Millais, not of his own making – is a fascinating moment, which could be tied into some of the ideas about gendering portraiture I’ve already raised. For those reading Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), the multiple women in this novel linked to ‘madness’ of one form or another would be of interest, while a Charles Reade novel I reviewed a couple of months ago also deals with the threat of false detainment in the period on mental health grounds.

What would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And, if you’ve read John Marchmont’s Legacy, let me know what you thought!

Saturday 12 October 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: E is for the Eloi and Elysium

In an earlier post I dealt with some misconceptions people often have about nineteenth-century literature. And proving it’s not all frills, frocks and runaway marriages is H.G. Wells – one of those with a claim to the title ‘Father of Science Fiction’.

Wells gives us invading aliens, mad scientists carrying out warped experiments and the kind of time traveller who has become archetypal. It’s a leap in terms of medium, but not in content, from Wells to films which form most people’s experience of the genre today. The same fears surface again and again, in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Wells and in twenty-first century cinema, – our potential inferiority to another species, the isolation of being trapped in a different time and, perhaps most pointedly for the issues currently facing the planet, the unsustainability of our current population levels.

Watching 2013 summer blockbuster Elysium recently the echoes of Wells were even clearer. The central premise is very close to that of 1895 novel The Time Machine. At a future date (much more distant in the Wells) society is divided – the rich live above in luxury (on the surface of the Earth in Wells, in a spaceship in the movie), while the poor live and toil below (on Earth in Elysium, under it in The Time Machine). But how closely does this parallel run? Are Wells’s idle Eloi so very like those who live in Elysium and what can the differences teach us about the fears of our own age and that of the Victorians?

Film poster - Elysium
An interrogation of labour conditions and industry is one thread tying this text and film together. Matt Damon’s Max (central character in Elysium) is one of the unlucky ones, and works in a grimy factory which would certainly fail to pass a health and safety inspection. And initially, Wells’s time traveller thinks the underground Morlocks must be similarly ill-kept workers:

‘At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position.’

Reflecting on our own labour market – with foreign unseen factories providing many of our (luxury) goods - Max’s factory is far distant from Elysium. Out of sight and out of mind, and peopled with a range of racial groups speaking various languages, so that it seems universally ‘foreign’. Wells likewise draws on experiences of industry in his own time, and even quotes examples of subterranean labour, with corresponding social commentary:

‘No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you—and wildly incredible!—and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end—! Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?’

There is, however, a key difference. The time traveller is wrong. This is not all that he is witnessing. Elysium suggests the only difference between humans is their level of wealth – the commentary is economic – and physical superiority is determined by access to medical attention, not genetic predisposition. It shies away from telling us how people were picked for this spaceship world to start with and is clear on the fact that you can ascend with the help of money. But what happens in The Time Machine is evolutionary division between the haves and have nots, demonstrating Wells’s interest in emerging evolutionary theory.

Wells had trained under Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) and was an active participant in contemporary evolutionary debates. His Eloi demonstrate the potential threat of degeneration. They don’t have to fight to survive and become too weak to fight when necessary. And in his Morlocks he rejects the idea of ethical evolution. Moral behaviour is not innate, nor the necessary result of biological ‘progress’. Ultimately cosmic evolution will win out, as the time traveller sees when he ventures even further forward in time, and man will be obliterated.

Elysium takes on none of these issues. The ‘superior’ beings up above are made by machines – those which doctor to their ills or the military exoskeletons which allow them to participate in killer action sequences. But its democratic ideology will not allow for biological division.

There is one last major difference. Elysium ends just when things are about to get ethically interesting. The film refuses to address the fact that everyone cannot live in Elysium. Are we meant to presume that there were always enough medical resources but that those above weren’t sharing? But the screenplay has specifically told us this is not the case. Wells’s Morlocks bite back (literally). Damon and crew also put up a fight but in order to achieve a universal happiness and prosperity which is obviously unachievable. Wells isn’t afraid to ask the big questions about humanity’s future and to propose at times unsavoury answers. And that’s why his work remains the standard for science fiction.

Are you a victorianist? Or do you just like films? Let me know what you made of Elysium and its flirtation with Wellsian ideas below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Wednesday 9 October 2013

A Victorian Alphabet: D is for Defending Daniel Deronda

Long before theorist and critic F.R. Leavis called for the ‘Jewish’ half of Daniel Deronda (1876) to be cut, George Eliot’s final novel was being seen as disparate, ill-considered and in need of editing. In a letter written in October 1876 to Madame Eugene Bodichon, Eliot herself had complained of readers who:

‘cut the books to scraps and talk of nothing but Gwendolen.’

She did not see the book as fundamentally divided between the Jewish and romantic plots aligning with Daniel and Gwendolen, arguing:

‘I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there.’

Contemporary criticism believed she had failed. A month earlier, journal The Academy had published the following critique:

‘the question here is whether the phase of Judaism now exhibited, the mystical enthusiasm for race and nation, has sufficient connexion with the broad human feeling to be stuff for prose fiction to handle. We think that it has not.’

This distaste cannot be solely ascribed to nineteenth-century anti-Semitism. Jewish and non-Jewish audiences reacted unenthusiastically to the ‘half’ of the novel they found less relevant, with the first extended Hebrew edition (by David Frischman in 1893) making cuts to the gentile sections and an 1899 essay in the Ha-Shilo'ah arguing that the chapters dealing with Gwendolen have:

‘almost nothing to do with its main theme and basic idea [of the novel].’

Even Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes had seen it coming:

‘The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody.’

For me, however, Eliot’s novel and its two apparent halves aren’t only excusable but crucial for its thematic success. Gwendolen’s final meeting with Daniel utterly confounds her expectations as she discovers for the first time that she is not in the love plot she thought herself to be living:

‘‘‘A Jew!’ Gwendolen exclaimed, in a low tone of amazement, with an utterly frustrated look, as if some confusing potion were creeping through her system.’

Her confusion matches that of generations of readers and Gwendolen is given the revelatory moment we expected for Daniel when first reading of his unknown parenthood. Even more importantly, what Gwendolen learns from this reversal of generic expectation is THE crucial lesson of the Eliot universe:

‘she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving.’

Gwendolen learns what Dorothea does in Middlemarch (1871-2) – that inner life isn’t the sole preserve of the heroine. In the earlier novel this is phrased as:

‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’

In Daniel Deronda, the very structure of the novel points us to the same conclusion. Gwendolen realises she has misinterpreted Deronda in her self-centredness:

‘A great wave of remembrance passed through Gwendolen, and spread as a deep, painful flush over face and neck. It had come first as the scene of that morning when she had called on Mirah, and heard Deronda’s voice reading, and been told, without then heeding it, that he was reading Hebrew with Mirah’s brother.’

And readers searching for a neatly concluded marriage plot have done the same. Eliot’s presentation of Zionism then (while interesting) is not then so much important in itself. Graham Handley writes in his introduction of the novel’s ending:

‘The open ending of Daniel Deronda does not suggest unreservedly that Mordecai [Daniel’s mentor] is right or that his visions are anything but personal.’

It is the personal nature of a wide, transnational vision which is precisely the point. This is a novel about vocation, and about establishing a two-way relationship between the society and the individual. Everything here is related to everything else – and this holds true not only of the novel’s structure but of Eliot’s vision for the possibilities of human interaction and sympathy. This is why Gwendolen can still learn from Daniel, even while she is excluded from his particular religious vision. She writes:

‘I have remembered your words – that I may live to be one of the best of women, who makes others glad that they were born. I do not yet see how that can be, but you know better than I. If it ever comes true, it will be because you helped me.’

What should be ‘E’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday 5 October 2013

Tennyson’s ‘To Virgil’: An Exercise in Analysing Poetry

Approaching a poem for the first time can be daunting – especially given that ‘unseen poetry’ is an exercise most often come across for the first time under examination conditions. Poems, unlike novels, don’t have much impact on most people’s everyday life beyond the classroom – maybe only at funeral or in a Valentine’s day card. Google any famous poem and I guarantee suggested searches will include people asking what they ‘mean’ or desperately seeking a prose ‘summary’. So, following on from National Poetry Day earlier this week and using Tennyson’s poem ‘To Virgil’ (1882), I’m going to give some practical pointers for approaching a new poem.

I Roman Virgil, thou that singest
Ilion's lofty temples robed in fire,
Ilion falling, Rome arising,
wars, and filial faith, and Dido's pyre;
II 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;

III 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;

IV Poet of the happy Tityrus
piping underneath his beechen bowers;
Poet of the poet-satyr
whom the laughing shepherd bound with flowers;

V Chanter of the Pollio, glorying
in the blissful years again to be,
Summers of the snakeless meadow,
unlaborious earth and oarless sea;

VI Thou that seest Universal
Nature moved by Universal Mind;
Thou majestic in thy sadness
at the doubtful doom of human kind;

VII Light among the vanished ages;
star that gildest yet this phantom shore;
Golden branch amid the shadows,
kings and realms that pass to rise no more;

VIII Now thy Forum roars no longer,
fallen every purple Caesar's dome -
Tho' thine ocean-roll of rhythm
sound for ever of Imperial Rome -

IX 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,

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

First up, read the poem through a couple of times – don’t look at any footnotes you have or start looking up unknown words or references. Just read it for sense: try to follow the argument, or narrative (if there is one). Reading out loud may help, especially if the sentences are long or grammatically complicated.

By this point you’ll know something like this: Tennyson is praising Roman poet Virgil [throughout]. He mentions lots of the things which appear in Virgil’s poetry [Stanzas 1-7], recognises that a lot has changed since Virgil was writing [Stanzas 8-9], but concludes that his work is still important – to Tennyson personally and in the history of poetry [Stanza 10].

This is all quite straightforward but to engage with the poem any deeper you’re going to have to address any gaps in knowledge which are hindering you from getting the import of every line. These might include not knowing much about Virgil and his writing generally and difficulty with particular words (there are a lot of proper nouns in this poem).

This first issue is easily addressed. You don’t need to go any further than line 2 of Virgil’s Wikipedia page. This reads: ‘He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid.’ While more detailed knowledge of Virgil’s writing can allow you to get more from this poem all that you really need to know to understand its structure is that Stanza 1 deals with the subjects of Virgil’s epic, Stanzas 2-3 deal with the Georgics (didactic poems about agriculture and the countryside) and Stanzas 4-5 look back to the pastoral Eclogues. Tennyson is reviewing Virgil’s work in reverse chronological order.

Portrait of Tennyson by P. Kramer-Friedrich Bruckmann

For the proper nouns, this is the time to look to your footnotes. Or Google. Or here you can just cheat and take it from me:

Ilion = another name for Troy (the city Aeneas flees at the start of the epic)
Dido = a character in Virgil’s Aeneid who commits suicide on a funeral pyre
Works and Days = a didactic poem by Greek poet Hesiod
Tityrus = a shepherd in Virgil’s Eclogues
Pollio = an individual praised in Virgil’s Eclogues
Mantovano = another name for Virgil

Now you should be able to give a more detailed explanation of each stanza:

Stanza 1: Virgil, you wrote a poem about Troy burning down, the foundation of Rome, wars, the relationships between fathers and sons and Dido committing suicide.

Stanza 2: You also wrote about the countryside and were a great writer (better than Hesiod).

Stanza 3: You wrote about various agricultural topics in really good poetry.

Stanza 4: You wrote the Eclogues where these things happened…

Stanza 5: And these things happened.

Stanza 6: You saw that the earth was the work of an omnipresent God but were sad because you were unsure how people could be saved (the implication here is that Virgil was a ‘Christian’ without knowing it as he lived before the birth of Jesus),

Stanza 7: You remain famous and your words true and important even though all who you lived with are now forgotten. You shine like the golden bough which allows Aeneas to descend to the underworld does in the Aeneid.

Stanza 8: Rome doesn’t exist any more but your poetry does and is still powerful.

Stanza 9: Now Britain (which is superior because comprised of free men not slaves) is powerful, even though, when you lived, Britain was isolated and unimportant.

Stanza 10: I praise you and have loved your poetry my whole life. You’re the best poet ever!!

'Dante and Virgil', William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850)
Now that’s done (we understand the poem) it’s on to the important stuff – some actual analysis. This can sound off-putting but all I’m really asking is why Tennyson’s poem sounds great, while my summary reads pretty terribly. There’s plenty we could say here but here are some tips about where you can start (with any poem).

1. Consider the sentence structure. Look at the poem again. It’s one long sentence. Have a look at how Tennyson does this. The structure relies on three stages which mark the progression of the poem. Stage 1 sees Virgil addressed in various ways (‘Roman Virgil’, ‘Landscape-lover’, ‘lord of language’, ‘Thou that singest’, ‘Poet of the happy Tityrus’, ‘Poet of the poet-satyr’, ‘Chanter of the Pollio’, ‘Thou that seest’, ‘Thou majestic’, ‘Light among the vanished ages’ and ‘Golden branch among the shadows’). At this point two things are important: Virgil is the centre of the poem and this is why he’s so great. But Stage 2 sees a shift, grammatically and thematically. Two instances of the word ‘Now’ see the sentence moving on to get to the eventual point of what is being said to Virgil (although we’re not there yet). The reader’s focus at this juncture moves away from Virgil to consider the current age. The whole momentum of the poem has built up to Stage 3 – the introduction of ‘I’ and the verb which makes this poem a sentence (‘I salute thee’). The result of this is that Tennyson himself becomes foremost in our minds – Tennyson as the modern successor to Virgil, living in a new golden age of empire, when Virgil’s imperial Rome is long dead. We can look at the language to back up this idea further but analysis of sentence structure alone has brought us to this point and given us a key for reading the whole poem.

2. Look at figurative language. This is the sort of language you’d expect in a poem. Similes and metaphors that you were taught to look for at school and the sort of unusual verbs which didn’t feature in my dull and prosy summary. Let’s take an example. ‘Ilion’s lofty temples robed in fire’. Troy is a city and neither the city, nor its ‘temples’ should really be ‘robed’ at all – let alone by fire. What does ‘temples’ even mean here? Is Tennyson referring to religious temples or is he taking the personifying imagery even further, giving the city a head as well as clothes? These phrase packs so much in. Troy is depicted as majestic and proud even at the moment of her destruction – ‘lofty’ physically (having tall buildings) and ‘lofty’ as in proud (a reason often given in classical texts for her destruction). The destructive fire makes Troy regal even as it levels the city – perhaps there is even some implication that being destroyed is necessary to establish a city or nation as imperial. Troy falls, Rome falls – are we to infer that Britain is next? All that is from just one phrase. What could we say about ‘All the charm of all the Muses/often flowering in a lonely word’? or ‘All the chosen coin of fancy flashing out from many a golden phrase’?

3. What does the language remind you of? Notice all those ‘thous’ and ‘thees’ and ‘seests’? I guarantee that’s not just ‘the way poetry is’ or how Victorians spoke to each other. I’ve already looked at some of the religious content in the poem and I think you’d be right if you’re identifying lots of the language here as religious and hymnal. All the addresses to Virgil I’ve already listed, ending on the word ‘man’, the repetition of ‘Universal’ all praise Virgil in a way which borrows much from Christian liturgy and is just on the acceptable side of blasphemous. Not every poem you will read will borrow religious language but poets will often gesture to different types of writing and speech. Trust your instincts and ask yourself why they are doing this.

These are just a few tips for how to go about reading a poem – and different poems will present different challenges. One thing they’ll all respond to well though is putting in time. A good novel is often called a ‘page turner’. A good poem should have you lingering over every word.

How do you read poetry? Any thoughts on Tennyson’s ‘To Virgil’ and what should the Secret Victorianist write on next? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!