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!


  1. You don't mention that Tennyson's homage to Virgil's stateliest measure (dactylic hexameter), in the last verse, is not the measure of the poem, where dactyls appear only in lines two and four. Do you think he was being too clever for his own or Virgil's good?

  2. I think I see the dactyls dissolving into trochees!

  3. Awesome article, it was exceptionally helpful

  4. Thanks Secret Victorianist, for a very nicely-explained and exemplified way to go about understanding a poem!

  5. Thanks for an informative and helpful guide for understanding a poem!