Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 2

Poem 2 from Tennyson’s In Memoriam symbolises the yew tree as the power of death. No life-giving symbols are sufficient to block it out. Tennyson even envies its “hardihood”.


Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.

O, not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

The first stanza shows the stranglehold death exerts on human beings, even if this is unseen. The tree “graspest” at the stones which commit people to memory, its fibres “net”, its roots “are wrapt about” the dead below the ground. Whatever Nature does to give the appearance of hope is answered in the third line of the second stanza, “And in the dusk of thee, the clock” – the internal half-rhyme of “dusk” and “clock”, the two heaviest stresses in the line, connects them intimately, and the sole spondaic syllable in the entire stanza, “Beats out”, enacts as much as describes the process of time going past.

Nothing can alter the tree, whatever changes happen elsewhere in the world. Tennyson envies the tree this hardiness, but the final lines, if I understand them correctly, are highly double edged. The fluctuating moods of grief affect him deeply, so deeply that he longs for the tree’s resilience against everything that tries to change it. However, that existence is also unremitting gloom. Tennyson feels himself becoming like the tree, hardened and resilient, but this also condemns him to to eternal dusk.

However, yews do actually bear fruit, and some critics have asked what Tennyson can mean by “O, not for thee the glow, the bloom...” in S3 L1. The presence of fruit does seem to blow a hole in the whole idea that the yew is unchanging. On the other hand, both its leaves and fruit are highly poisonous, but that’s a slightly different point. Maybe we just need to grant Tennyson a little poetic license here...

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