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July 30, 2013

In Memoriam Tennyson

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“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

I thought that was Shakespeare’s line.  He’s usually my first guess when I’m unsure. But, surprise, it’s Tennyson.  I was surprised over and over at the many familiar passages in his long poem, “In Memoriam A.H.H.” A.H.H. is Arthur Hallam, a friend who died when he and Tennyson were in their 20’s.  Shaken by his friend’s death, Tennyson spent 16 years writing this poem, which expresses the process of grief that doesn’t move in a straight trajectory but in

.  .  .  Short swallow-flights of song, that dip
Their wings in tears, and skim away.

The poem has 130 sections plus an epilogue, not itself exactly a short swallow-flight of song.  I started reading:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

That sounded familiar.  It’s that hymn I always thought was strange because the last word doesn’t rhyme even though it looks like it should. I’m not wild about the hymn but I do like this verse:

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Tennyson records his feelings as several Christmases roll around and I found these especially poignant. Some years he was at peace, other years bitter, confused, or sad.  At the 2nd Christmas after Hallam’s death:

The Yule log sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

Another Christmas produced the stanzas that have become a song:

“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.


The fifth autumn after Hallam’s death, Tennyson visited a place where the two of them had once walked.  In his re-visitation, Tennyson thinks about his own death:

But where the path we walked began
To slant the fifth autumnal slope,
As we descended following Hope,
There sat the Shadow feared of man;

Who broke our fair companionship,
And spread his mantle dark and cold,
And wrapped thee formless in thy fold,
And dulled the murmur on thy lip,

And bore thee where I could not see
Nor follow though I walk in haste,
And think that somewhere in the waste
The Shadow sits and waits for me.

Another section I read as a prayer to a loved one who has died, a way of keeping her or him alive in my mind:

Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
An weave their petty cells and die.


Though Tennyson was a Christian, I, personally, believe the minds of great poets are pan-spiritual.  I found these stanzas to be a Buddhist teaser combine with human longing:

That each, who seems separate whole,
Should move his rounds, and fusing all
The skirts of self again, should fall
Remerging in the general Soul,

Is faith as vague as all unsweet.
Eternal form shall still divide
The eternal soul from all beside:
And I shall know him when we meet.

Tennyson is, I hope, pleased –wherever he is –to know that his is not a “long-forgotten mind” and his poem is a place for grieving people to find a companion.

These mortal lullabies of pain
May bind a book, may line a box,
May serve to curl a maiden’s locks;
Or when a thousand moons shall wane

A man upon a stall may find,
And, passing, turn the page that tells
A grief, then changed to something else,
Sung by a long-forgotten mind.

Here are other famous lines from Tennyson:

*“And was the day of my delight as pure and perfect as I say?”

*Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be…(In Memoriam A.H.H.)
*She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side:
“The curse is come upon me,”
Cried The Lady of Shalott.     (The “Lady of Shalott”)

Almost the entire “Charge of the Light Brigade” has become a Famous Quotation.  I first heard it quoted in an episode of F Troop when I was 11 years old:

*Someone had blundered.  .  .
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward
All in the valley of death
Rode the six hundred.

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d
Into the jaws of death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred (“The Charge of the Light Brigade”)
*In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon

(“The Lotos-Eaters” and by the way I strongly recommend reading “The Lotos-Eaters” on a hot afternoon under a tree in my back-yard)

*Oh Death in Life, the days that are no more. (“Tears, Idle Tears)

(This quotation shows up in a Cheers episode.  Dr. Crane, sitting at the bar, has this conversation with Woody:

Dr. Crane: “Oh Death in Life, the days that are no more.”  Who said that?
Woody: Who said what?
Dr. Crane: “Oh Death in Life, the days that are no more.”
Woody: You did, Dr. Crane
Dr. Crane: But who said it first?
Woody: You said it both times.)

And thus is great literature perpetuated. Continuing in this vein, if you are a fan of Lord Peter Wimsey, you might remember him—or can certainly imagine him—quoting Tennyson:

*She is coming, my own, my sweet:
Were it ever so airy a tread.  .  .

Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone. (“Maud”)

And finally, here is the poem that Tennyson wished to have at the end of his collection:

*Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.  .  .

I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar (“Crossing the Bar”)


Tennyson’s is certainly not a long-forgotten mind.











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