Few poets have grasped and communicated better the bittersweetness of Life than Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson writes exquisitely of the Love and Beauty which fill Life– but writes even more often and perhaps even more exquisitely of the desolation left behind when Love and Beauty– and Life, itself — inevitably flee.
Tennyson, of course, is the poet who penned the immortal line, “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I find this famous quotation appropos of the viewpoint overarching the total of his long career.
Finally getting around to reading his collected works in Jerome H. Buckley’s The Poems Of Tennyson, I discovered that the theme of bliss bestowed– and then stolen away– pervades Tennyson’s work. Life’s perpetual cycle of ecstasy and agony, experienced in varying degrees by different souls, leaves Tennyson feeling often weary and depressed. Occasionally, he grows cynical and indicates that he has postponed his hopes of a sturdier and more unalloyed happiness until the next world, but in the main, the poet clings– if but by his fingertips– to his belief that the pleasure of Life is worth its pain.
DIVINITY IN GRASS
One side of Tennyson enjoys writing about the Beauty of this world. It’s what I call the “divinity in the grass” side of the artist, inspired by a passage from Tennyson’s poem, A Character, which reads, “he spake of Beauty: that the dull saw no divinity in grass, life in dead stones, or spirit in air; then looking as ’twere in a glass, he smoothed his chin and sleeked his hair, and said the Earth was beautiful.”
In the super-long elegy-poem, In Memoriam A.H.H. (which I will be quoting frequently in this essay), Tennyson writes the beautiful, Nature-adoring lines, “and brushing ankle-deep in flowers we heard behind the woodbine veil the milk that bubbled in the pail, and buzzings of the honeyed hours.” And then of the… “autumn laying here and there a fiery finger on the leaves” while “sleeps the summer in the seed.” [from sections 89, 99, and 105, respectively].
In Lucretius, Tennyson strikes an optimistic strain as he contemplates Nature with a wistful, scientific flair. He seems to be considering the potential power of the mechanistic view of classical physics– that if we could fully comprehend only one section of the Universe, we could extrapolate outward in cause and effect until we had accounted for the entire Cosmos, past, present, and future. Writes Tennyson… “little flower– but if I could understand what you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is.”
In Maud: A Monodrama, Tennyson is inspired by a found shell to contemplate the perplexing, seemingly purposeful, design of the Universe down to the smallest detail … “see what a lovely shell, small and pure as a pearl, lying close to my foot, frail, but a work divine, made so fairly well with delicate spiral and whorl, how exquisitely minute, a miracle of design!”
In Oenone, the poet gives himself completely over, if only for a moment, to the ecstasy of the marvelous creation which is this World, exclaiming, “wheresoe’er I am by night and day, all earth and air seem only burning fire.”
But we must remember… this is Tennyson we are reading… Whenever the bright side of Life is displayed, a walk on the dark side is soon to follow. Beauty and Love are splendid– but they are treacherous…
“The womb and tomb of all, Great Nature,” he declares in Lucretius.
And in Maud, a scene which could have, in another frame of mind, been painted by the poet as an idyll, instead turns sinister… “I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood. Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath, the red-ribbed ledges drip with a silent horror of blood, and Echo there, whatever is asked here, answers, ‘Death’.”
I think Tennyson’s general sentiment that Nature is a blade (of divine grass?) which cuts both ways is symbolized nicely in his description of Excalibur, an icon of perfect craftsmanship. In the poem Idylls Of The King, in the section, “The Coming Of Arthur” Tennyson writes… “the blade so bright that men are blinded by it– on one side, graven in the odlest tongue of all this world, ‘Take me,’ but turn the blade and ye shall see, and written in the speech ye speak yourself, ‘Cast me away!’ Note that the warning or command to cast-away the beautiful blade was written in the latter of the two languages, as if symbolizing how Man is initially drawn toward the Beauty and Bounty of Nature– only later to be wounded and repulsed by its hard, sharp cruelty.
In De Profundis: The Two Greetings, Tennyson mixes enthusiasm and good wishes with slightly veiled warnings and forebodings of doom… “O young life breaking with laughter from the dark; and may the fated channel where thy motion lives be prosperously shaped, and sway thy course along the years of haste and random youth unshattered; then full-current through full man; and last in kindly curves, with gentlest fall, by quiet fields, a slowly dying power, to that last deep where we and thou are still.”
Tennyson has learned by experience that Nature, though she sometimes seem so motherly and caring, is not actually all that concerned with this or that person’s suffering or happiness… “so careful of the type She seems, so careless of the single life” (In Memoriam A.H.H., Section 55). This seems depressing enough, but then, upon further reflection, Tennyson corrects himself– “So careful of the type? But no. From scarped cliff and quarried stone she cries, ‘A thousand types are gone; I care for nothing, all shall go’. ” […] “I bring to Life, I bring to Death.” When Tennyson next speaks of dear old “Mother” Nature, it is as, “nature, red in tooth and claw.”
ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, AL
Tennyson desperately wants to retain his belief in an afterlife. As he opines in In Memoriam (Sect. 34)… “Life shall live for evermore, else Earth is darkness at the core, and dust and ashes all that is.” Why all this trouble, all this toil and strife, if it’s all for nothing, for the return of dark deep and nothing more? As it is, even with hope of an afterlife, Life is dismal enough, this “poor little life that toddles half an hour crowned with a flower or two, and there an end” (Lucretius), and where, “in the dusk of thee the clock beats out the little lives of men” (In Memoriam, Sect. 2).
“However we brave it out, we men are a little breed,” he writes in Maud. […] “Each man walks with this head in a cloud of poisonous flies.”
In almost the same (textual?) breath, Tennyson looks around at the lowly race of Man and wonders why our punishments are not even worse… “The heavens fall in a gentle rain, when they should burst and drown with deluging storms the feeble vessels of wine and anger and lust, the little hearts that know not how to forgive. Arise, my God, and strike, for we hold Thee just, strike dead the whole weak race of venomous worms that sting each other here in the dust; we are not worthy to live.” He seems, in fact, to be begging for destruction as a sign that there is a just God after all.
Tennyson’s best friend was killed early in their lives, and the loss struck Tennyson very hard. His friend’s death, in fact, was the impetous behind the long elegy, In Memoriam A.H.H. Perhaps it was because he was given such a wonderful friend– and then suddenly robbed of him that Tennyson seemed to spend the rest of his life waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, he well knew the timeless truth that the good Lord giveth, and the good Lord taketh away. It is inevitable that every happiness is fleeting, that every coin of joy arrives with a flipside of sorrow. The greater the bestowal, the harsher the rescinding.
Writing of his departed friend in In Memoriam (Sect. 85), Tennyson admits that “whatever way my days decline, I felt and feel, though left alone, his being working in mine own, the footsteps of his life in mine.” He has come to believe that there is something special about a man’s first friendship, something akin to the specialness of first romantic love… “I could not, if I would, transfer the whole I felt for him to you.” […] “First love, first friendship, equal powers, that marry with the virgin heart.”
In the end, is the pain worth the pleasure? Is it truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? The same poet who penned that line also wrote in Maud, “and most of all would I flee from the cruel madness of Love, the honey of poison-flowers.”
DEATH AND BEAUTY
Just as Tennyson’s description of Excalibur was a striking symbol for the double-edged sword that is the Beauty of Creation, his poem, The Dying Swan, perfectly encapsulates his fascination with the Beauty concommitant –not with Life– but with Death…
The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul of that waste place with joy hidden in sorrow. At first to the ear the warble was low, and full and clear and floating about the under-sky, prevailing in weakness […] with a music strange and manifold.”
Speaking of his departed friend in In Memoriam (#74), Tennyson writes that “Death has made his darkness beautiful with thee.”
This is a poet who is constantly aware of the pervading presence of Death in the midst of Life… “O death, death, death,” he declares in Oenone, “thou ever-floating cloud.”
Tennyson’s call to mourning in In Memoriam (#18) could well serve as an invitation to his poetry… “come then, pure hands, and bear the head that sleeps or wears the mask of sleep, and come, whatever loves to weep, and hear the ritual of the dead.”
The first fifteen sections or so of In Memoriam are especially full of the poet’s declamations of loss and mourning…
“Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss, to dance with Death, to beat the ground, than that the victor Hours should scorn the long result of love, and boast, ‘Behold the man that loved and lost’.” […]
“Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break.” […]
“All the magic light dies off at once from bower and hall, and all the place is dark, and all the chambers emptied of delight: So find I every pleasant spot in which we two were wont to meet, the field, the chamber, and the street, for all is dark where thou are not.”
GRIEF AND NUMBNESS
All of us who have suffered great loss, and we are legion, recognize the feelings described next by Tennyson of that mid-stage of mourning, where the initial shock and pain begins to give way to numbness, to “the blank day” and “calm despair”…
“He is not here; but far away. The noise of life begins again, and ghastly through the drizzling rain on the bald street breaks the blank day.” […]
“Calm and deep peace in this wide air, these leaves that redden to the fall, and in my heart, if calm at all, if any calm, a calm despair; calm on the seas, and silver sleep, and waves that sway themselves in rest, and dead calm in that noble breast which heaves but with the heaving deep.” [Tennyson’s friend had died by drowning].
True, numbness does relieve the pain, but it also kills the pleasure of life… “O thou passionless bride, divine tranquility,” Tennyson writes in Lucretius. Even all material desires granted would be as ashes in one’s mouth without the warmth of human connnection… “What happiness to reign a lonely king,” the poet sighs in Idylls Of The King (The Coming Of Arthur).
But the numbness is fleeting, and can never fully drive-out the pain, and the writer knows he will always “weep a loss for ever new.” In Memoriam Section #57 he writes… “Yet in these ears, til hearing dies, one set slow bell will seem to toll the passing of the sweetest soul that ever looked with human eyes.” And in #130… “they voice is on the rolling air; I hear thee where the waters run.”
And perhaps finally arriving at the final stage of grief, Tennyson is able to declare (in #106)… 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.”
FAITH AND DOUBT
The death of his noble young friend has caused Tennyson to reconsider, perhaps even doubt, his faith. “I stretch my lame hands of Faith, and grope,” he writes in Section #55 of the long poem. In Section #96, the poet hints that his friend was, himself, passing through a crisis of faith at the time of this death… “Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds, at last he beat his music out.” But Tennyson defends the skepticism of a healthy and vigorous mind, arguing that… “there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
Obviously in most situations a very coherent man, confident of his verbal talents, Tennyson nevertheless begins to fear that, in his deep despair, he has allowed himself to fall into heresies and meaningless ravings… “Forgive these wild wandering cries, confusions of a wasted youth.” Continuing in #54… “But what am I? An infant crying in the night; an infant crying for the light, and with no language but a cry.”
He seems almost faint with the realization that his path, once the clear and bright path of youth, has become obscured by loss and doubt… “O, strengthen me, enlighten me!” he cries out in Ode To Memory to whomever might be listening. “I faint in this obscurity.”
There is an attempt to transcend the suffering and find the higher Truth. “Ah for a man to arise in me, that the man I am may cease to be!” he writes in The Higher Pantheism. From the title of the poem, one could plausibly infer that the poet is beginning to consider his options, as far as belief-systems go. He has perhaps outgrown the worldview into which he born, and he recognizes that there exist other approaches to life, other paradigms. Even in his own culture, over historical time, values and beliefs have changed, and “our little systems have our day” (In Memoriam).
Is there really some ultimate Truth? some perfect Good? Perhaps all is but a dream, but even “dreams are true while they last” (The Higher Pantheism). If an ultimate Truth exists, will it be as beautiful as Keats contend? — or will it turn out to be something vile? A pessimistic Tennyson speaks in Idylls Of The King (Merlin and Vivien) of “that old true filth,” which coats the “bottom of the well, where Truth is hidden.”
Though Tennyson seeks solace and perhaps understanding– or at least commiseration– in his verse, he simultaneously finds that the void in his life cannot be filled or adequately explained by mere words… even “large, divine, and comfortable words” (Idylls Of The King: The Coming Of Arthur)…
“I sometimes hold it half a sin to put in words the grief I feel,” he writes in In Memoriam (Section 5). “For words, like Nature, half reveal and half conceal the Soul within. But for the unquiet heart and brain, a use in measured language lies; the sad mechanic exercise, like dull narcotics, numbing pain. In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er.” […]
Tennyson makes it sound self-indulgent, his wallowing in the words of grief. And yet, he must continue pouring out his soul through his verse. The mechanical process of writing in measured language is comforting to him. “So word by word, and line by line, the dead man touched me from the past” (95). He will continue using his preferred narcotic of verse until, utterly benumbed, he finds himself “no longer caring to embalm in dying songs a dead regret” (131).
I find the weariness and desolation of the poet-grown-old perfectly encoffined in Tennyson’s late poem, The Eagle: A Fragment…
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
close to the sun in lonely lands,
ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
he watches from his mountain walls,
and like a thunderbolt he falls.
Even as a young man, in one of the very earliest stanzas of In Memoriam (#3), Tennyson exhibits evidence that a melancholic strand already runs him through… ” ‘The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run; a web is woven across the sky; from out waste places comes a cry, and murmurs from the dying sun’.”
Tennyson surely had his moments of near-complete exhaustion with the tribulations of life. Here’s a smattering of verse he penned over the years displaying for the world some of his lowest moments…
“Climb thy thick noon, disastrous day” (In Memoriam, 72). “My hear is handful of dust” (Maud). “Oh weary life! O weary death! O spirit and heart made desolate! O damned vacillating state!” (Supposed Confessions).
SPIRALLING INTO CYNICISM
Tennyson is normally too much of a romantic to indulge in cynicism, but occassionally it seeps through, as in Idylls Of The King (Merlin And Vivien) when he writes of Merlin’s great melancholy… “he walked with dreams and darkness, and he found a doom that ever poised itself to fall, an ever-moaning battle in the mist, world-war of dying flesh against the life, death in all ife and lying in all love, the meanest having power upon the highest, and the high purpose broken by the worm.”
In Maud, Tennyson’s most cynical poem, he wonders aloud if perhaps Peace brings as much depravity as War….
“Why do they prate of the blessings of peace? We have made them a curse, pickpockets, each hand lusting for all that is not its own; and lust of gain, in the spirit of Cain, is is better or worse than the heart of the citizen hissing in war on his own hearthstone?”
Tennyson laments that in these supposed “days of advance,” war against an outward enemy has been replaced by the “civil war” of brother against brother in the marketplace of “cheat and be cheated,” as each strives to outdo the other in gaining the advantage…
“But these are the days of advance, the works of the men of mind, when who but a fool would have faith in a tradesman’s ware or his word? Is it peace or war? Civil war, as I think, and of a kind the viler, as underhand, not openly bearing the sword. Sooner or later I too may passively take the print of the golden age– why not? I have neither hope nor trust; may make my heart as a millstone, set my face as a flint, cheat and be cheated, and die– Who knows? We are ashes and dust.”
He labels his era, the “wretchedest Age, since Time began.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
At times, the Tennyson’s bouts with melancholia, during which “upon himself, himself did feed” (A Character), lead him to thoughts of self-destruction, and in Lucretius, when he asks, “Why should I, beastlike, as I find myself, not manlike end myself? — Our privilege– What beast has the heart to do it?” Why not “plunge at once, being troubled, wholly out of sight, and sink past earthquake– ay, and gout and stone, that break body toward death, and palsy, death-in-life, and wretched age– and worst disease of all.”
The human condition, at times appearing utterly hopeless, Tennyson complains of his lack of power to set things right in Idylls Of The King (The Coming Of Arthur)… “I seem as nothing in the might world, and cannot will my will nor work my work wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm vicor and lord.”
ROTTEN IN THE CORE
The decay and death Tennyson observes creeping beneath the “divinity in grass” is symbolic’ly represented by Tennyson’s Kraken. Although instead of the grim ooze sliming beneath the skin of Nature’s landside beauties, here Tennyson speaks of the monster lurking beneath the sparkling waves (the same lovely waves which drowned his dearest friend)…
“Below the thunders of the upper deep,
far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
his ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
the Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
about his shadowy sides; above him swell
huge sponges of millenial growth and height;
and far away into the sickly light,
from many a wondrous grot and secret cell
unnumber’d and enormous polypi
winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
then once by man and angels to be seen,
in roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.”
COMFORT IN PHILOSOPHY?
Overhearing his own pessimism, Tennyson asks, “Ah, what shall I be at fifty should Nature keep me alive, if I find the world so bitter when I am but twenty-five?” Still, Tennyson can never fully snuff out the tiny flame of optimism lodged in a chambers of his heart, and he reminds himself that “the world were not so bitter but a smile could make it sweet.”
Tennyson would prefer “a philosopher’s life in the quiet woodland ways” to the life of the petty bourgesie. He figures that, though he may not can achieve a full happiness separated from his fellow man, at least, “a passionless peace be my lot.” Repeatedly in Tennyson’s poems, the idea returns that the bad of life can only be avoided if one also chooses to fore-go the good. It’s a price Tennyson can’t quite bring himself to make. It’s almost a war between his head and his heart… the reasonable letting go of the passions of live, versus the heart’s longing to remain engaged.
Tennyson betrays an envious disdain for the simple-minded or those who have not much suffered in life… “You have but fed on the roses and lain in the lilies of life,” he tells them.
Perhaps he, too, can one day share in some of their childlike view of the world… “O, let the solid ground not fail beneath my feet before my life has found what some have found so sweet! Then let come what may, what matter if I go mad, I shall have had my day.”
ULYSSES AND ARTHUR
The idea which seems to animate and give most comfort to doubt-filled and often depressed poet is that of the HERO. When Tennyson writes of the heroic figure (and it doesn’t have to be a man, as testified by his lovely short poem, The Eagle), his language soars to some of his most breathtaking.
Since Tennyson, himself, admitted to “aching” from “that void of a worthy virile man and friend” carved out of his heart when his young friend drowned, I believe that Tennyson’s longing for a Hero is partly a longing for the restoration to life of that long-ago comrade, the most noble soul, in his biased estimation, he was ever to meet in life.
The Hero could be decisive and determined, where Tennyson is vacillating– powerful and successful, where Tennyson is impotent– and optimistic and pro-active, where Tennyson is pessimistic.
“Ah God, for a man with heart, head, hand, like some of the simple great ones gone for ever and ever by,” Tennyson cries-out in Maud. “One still strong man in a blatant land, whatever they call him– what care I?– Aristocrat, democrat, autocrat– one who can rule and dare not lie.”
He longs for a noble or heroic spirit– someone… “who breaks his birth’s invidious bar, and grasps the skirts of happy chance, and breasts the blows of circumstance, and grapples with his evil star” and who “makes by force his merit known.” (In Memoriam, #64). The Hero would shine with “the starry glowing of his restless” (Armageddon), and have no distance between thought and deed, for “where he fixt his heart he set his hand” (Enoch Arden).
The arrival of the Hero (represented as The Coming Of Arthur in the Idylls Of The King) will set the world to rights… “Til Arthur came,” there “grew great tracts of wilderness wherein the beast was ever more and more, but men was less and less.” But the Hero brings order and justice in his glorious train.
Tennyson seems to associate the advent of the Hero with a return to faith– as if, in the presence of a Hero, he could again BELIEVE… “The King will follow Christ, and we the King.”
In the section of Idylls Of The King entitled Guinevere, Tennyson describes what is basically the job description of a good Hero… “to ride abroad redressing human wrongs, to speak no slander, no, nor listen to it, to honor his own word as if his God’s.”
Tennyson also suggests a connection between Love and Honor. Speaking as Arthur, he writes, “I know of no more subtle master under heaven than in the maiden passion for a maid, not only to keep down the base in man, but teach high thought, and amiable words and courtliness, and the desire of fame, and love of truth, and all that makes a man.”
In Ulysses, one of the great poems of the English language, Tennyson magnificently portrays the twilight optimism he has managed to hold on to, while simultaneously praising the noble heroism which allows one to stand and face-down the relentlessly oncoming doom.
I think everything important and note-worthy and grand in Tennyson is contained within Ulysses… and so, I have decided to take the time to type-out the entire poem below…
“It little profits that — an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, matched with an aged wife– I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, that hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those that loved me, and alone; on shore, and when through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades vexed the dim sea. I am become a name; for always roaming with a hungry heart much have I seen and known– cities of men and manners, climates, councils, governments, myself not least, but honored of them all– and drunk delight of battle with my peers, far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. I am part of all that I have met; yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades for ever and ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use! As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life were all too little, and of one to me little remains. But every hour is saved from that eternal silence, something more, a bringer a new things; and vile it were for some three suns to store and hoard myself, and this gray spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus, to whom I leave the scepter and the isle– well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill this labor, by slow prudence to make mild a rugged people, and through soft degrees subdue them to the useful and the good. Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere of common duties, decent not to fail in offices of tenderness, and pay meet adoration to my household gods, when I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: there gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me– that ever with a frolic welcome took the thunder and the sunshine, and opposed free hearts, free foreheads– you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil. Death closes all: but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks; the long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep moans round with many voices.
Come, my friends. Tis not to late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will was us down; it may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, and see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are: One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Tennyson, never quite able to un-cling from the last beacon of faith, seems to hold out hope for a higher plane of existence, and even of an afterlife. In De Profundis: The Two Greetings: II, he writes of “that true world within the world we see, whereof our world is but the bounding shore.” An in In Memoriam (#1) Tennyson sounds rather like a Gnostic when he speaks of the possibility “that men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things.”
In In Memoriam‘s untitled prologue, why find Tennyson, in a sort of pleading chastisement, telling God that surely, “Thou wilt not leave us in the dust: Thou madest man, he knows not why, he thinks he was not made to die.”
And of course, in Crossing The Bar, Tennyson writes of the twilight of life and of his lingering hope that perhaps there is, indeed, something more beyond these troubled shores…
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,
but such a tide as moving seems asleep,
too full for sound and foam,
when that which drew from out the boundless deep
turns again home.
twilight and the evening bell,
and after that the dark!
and may there be no sadness of farewell,
when I embark;
for though from out of our bourne of Time and Place
the flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my pilot face to face
when I have crost the bar.