Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 1

Continuing the In Memoriam series with Poem 1, which begins the first cycle – Grief (there are four ‘cycles in work: grief, hope, peace, and joy).

I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.

But who shall so forecast the years
And find in loss a gain to match?
Or reach a hand thro' time to catch
The far-off interest of tears?

Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown'd,
Let darkness keep her raven gloss:
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,
But all he was is overworn.'
Tennyson considers his theoretical belief that grief and hardship are character-building, that time is the great healer and we’ll see we’ve gained a great deal from our times of sorrow when we look back. In stanzas 3 and 4 he rejects that simplicity. This summary, of course, does nothing to describe the imaginative shifts and unexpected ways with which Tennyson carries out his argument.

The poem is a model of economy and image-making. Lines 3 and 4 have a graphic, painful image. Tennyson held it true (before the death of his friend):

That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.

“Stepping-stones/ of their dead selves”. What an astonishing way to put it! And I love the end of the next stanza too, the hand reaching through time to grasp the ‘benefit’ that present tears have granted. Tennyson cuts through the ‘wisdom’ of the day, and time hasn’t moved on much. Today people still console the bereaved by saying “Time is a great healer.” I have never heard anyone respond by quoting Stanza 2 of this poem, but it is worth committing to memory, just in case you ever need to use it (although probably easier in such circumstances just to nod grimly).

The third stanza begins with an entirely unexpected thought, “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown'd”. Without such intensity of grief, love would mean nothing. They both belong together or else neither can be authentic. Again, Tennyson’s economy of phrase is striking – so much in one line. It’s simply enough expressed, but it doesn’t deal with simplicities. Rather it leads into the idea that it’s better to be “drunk with loss” than merely “overworn” through time, better to “beat the ground” than submit to love being “scorned” by the hours. Dylan Thomas must have been listening when he came to write his villanelle...

Great use of imagery, a shifting and surprising argument, economy of phrase, and a sense of emotional rawness conveyed with exquisite control: all those combine to make this poem a stand-out.

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