Friday, June 17, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 4

Poem 4 of In Memoriam. Well, it’s OK, but I’m not quite as impressed with it as with the first three and, consequently, I have less to say about it. Tomorrow’s poem, however, is a cracker, so don’t give up just yet.


To Sleep I give my powers away;
My will is bondsman to the dark;
I sit within a helmless bark,
And with my heart I muse and say:

O heart, how fares it with thee now,
That thou should'st fail from thy desire,
Who scarcely darest to inquire,
'What is it makes me beat so low?'

Something it is which thou hast lost,
Some pleasure from thine early years.
Break, thou deep vase of chilling tears,
That grief hath shaken into frost!

Such clouds of nameless trouble cross
All night below the darken'd eyes;
With morning wakes the will, and cries,
'Thou shalt not be the fool of loss.'

Tennyson’s theme is sleep. The first two stanzas seem to connect with poem 2 about the yew tree which ends, “I seem to fail from out my blood/ And grow incorporate into thee.” In poem 4, he is sitting “within a helmless bark” and asks his heart how it feels that it “should'st fail from thy desire”. But while in poem 2 there was almost a longing for a constant raw grief, as opposed to real life’s uncertain moods, here, sleep mutes his sorrow. He can’t even quite be certain of what’s making him feel so sad. I suppose the counterpoint is that sleep offers no escape. The grief finds him even there, albeit in muted form, and he has no control over it. Morning brings full-blown sorrow, but at least it “wakes the will”. The poem suggests that sheer force of will could be what gets him through all this.

I love the line, “My will is bondsman to the dark.” And the idea that clouds are continually passing all night, somewhere between his eyes and brain, is a fantastic conception. But I found the poem less interesting than the others so far, both at the level of meaning and ideas and at the level of diction and great lines. I’m also puzzled by lines 3 and 4 of the third stanza – the grief that shakes “chilling tears” into frost (?), although I can see why breaking the vase might relieve the tension.

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