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  • Placing Tennyson, Tennyson's Place:Memory, Elegy, and Geography in "Frater Ave atque Vale"
  • Alison Chapman (bio)

When his brother, Charles Tennyson Turner, died on April 25, 1879, Tennyson began "hearing perpetual ghostly voices."1 His doctor prescribed a restorative holiday, and so Tennyson traveled to Italy with his son, Hallam.2 While visiting Lake Garda in June 1880, Tennyson and Hallam were rowed from Desenzano to Sirmione (also known as Sirmio), the peninsula famous for its ancient remains associated with the Roman poet Catullus. They "roamed all day," as Hallam Tennyson's memoir of his father relates, enjoying "its olives, its old ruins, and its green-sward stretching down to the blue lake with the mountains beyond," and "[h]ere he made his 'Frater Ave atque Vale'" (2: 247), an elegy that associates fraternal grief with Sirmione.3 Hallam confirms that "the journey did in effect restore his health and silence the ghosts" (2: 244). Tennyson's poem about that short boat journey closely intertwines, through meter, metaphor, and quotation, two poems by Catullus: the elegy on his own brother's death and the poem on his happy homecoming to Sirmione.

Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione row!So they rowed, and there we landed—"O venusta Sirmio!"There to me through all the groves of olive in the summer glow,There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow,Came that "Ave atque Vale" of the Poet's hopeless woe,Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen-hundred years ago,"Frater Ave atque Vale"—as we wandered to and froGazing at the Lydian laughter of the Garda Lake belowSweet Catullus's all-but-island, olive-silvery Sirmio!4 [End Page 243]

The "pathos" and "desolation" of Catullus, who wrote (as Tennyson reminded Gladstone) without an understanding of the Christian afterlife (Letters, 3: 197), are overcome when the poem's speaker hears a fragment from the superlative elegy and the joyful arrival poem, as the two poems by Catullus are quoted and assimilated into Tennyson's poem "nineteen-hundred years" (l. 6) later.

This article considers the deep associations between place and memorialization in Tennyson's elegy. "Frater Ave atque Vale" participates in the Victorian genre of "place poetry" that heavily relies on the overdetermined associative power of geographical sites, and which includes pastoral elegy, descriptive lyric, poetic travelogues, and locodescriptive as well as other topographical poetry where the "genius loci" or "spirit of place" predominates. This was a genre so popular that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow devoted thirty-one volumes to classifying poems by location in his anthology Poems of Places.5 As a poem deeply invested in its associations with place as well as time, "Frater Ave atque Vale" suggests that poetry has performative and curative agency to collapse historical time and geographical distance, and to make archaeological ruins and personal loss restorative. And yet Tennyson's "place poem" is also restless, mobile, and transitory, with its consolatory effects contingent and ephemeral. The uncertain ground of poetry in "Frater Ave atque Vale" is certainly at home within Tennyson's oeuvre, so often closely associated with specific and imaginary locations, especially within England and the Arthurian world.6 In the most detailed formal comparison of Tennyson and Catullus, Barbara Pavlock argues that Tennyson successfully integrates Catullus's poems into his elegy to produce a lyric that "transforms the emptiness of death" by triumphantly transcending time.7 But "Frater Ave atque Vale" in fact discloses Tennyson's conflicted relationship between poetry and place, as part of a poetics of loss and displacement that many critics also observe in his poetry. J. Hillis Miller, for example, notes that Tennyson's poetry is distinguished by an oblique distancing even when it seems to be materialized or grounded in the specificities of place and time, and Gerhard Joseph remarks that Tennyson's poetry shifts between spatial and temporal frames as part of an "aesthetic of vagueness" that brought with it the danger of "melancholy recessional space."8 Tennyson's complicated poetry of place is crucial for understanding his position within Victorian poetry's unsettled geographies, in an era when the expansion of the geo-literary imagination coincided with a twinned...