The inexpressible

Speech is the small change of silence
—George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel.

Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable…
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.

La parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé
où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours,
quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.
—Gustave Flaubert,  Madame Bovary.

In literature, as in life,
affection and reverence may reach a point
which disposes to silence rather than to praise…
(to) shrink from all public expression
when the beauty which it reveres is such
as can be made manifest to each man only from within.
A sense of desecration mingles with the sense of incapacity
in describing what is so mysterious, so glorious, and so dear.
—F.W.H. Myers,  Virgil, in Essays Classical, Macmillan 1883.


Someone recently mentioned Tennyson’s poem To Virgil. He wrote it in 1882, at the request of the Mantuans, to celebrate the 19th centenary of Virgil’s death. But there can be a problem about poems written to order.

This one has some beautiful images, as he lists the range of scenes and events that Virgil wrote about. But some of it reads like a book review in verse. And there are lapses of taste and judgement not expected from a poet of Tennyson’s stature.

  • It seems difficult to find the chosen coin of fancy in Virgil’s work, flashing out or not.
  • Tennyson’s self-referential tone in the last two stanzas feels incongruous in a poem about a man so private and with such negative capability as Virgil.
  • No comment is needed on
    Thou that seest Universal
    Nature moved by Universal Mind.
  • English speaking people were justifiably proud of having abolished slavery within their boundaries; but to bring this into a poem addressed to Virgil (Now the Rome of slaves hath perished…) seems unfitting. One can search the Aeneid in vain for any reference to slavery or slaves, other than the two by Creusa and Andromache; and the everyday words servus and ancilla do not occur in any of their forms in Virgil’s works.

Perhaps Matthew Arnold was more perceptive when he wrote the sonnet to Shakespeare:

‘Others abide our question. Thou art free..’