Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 5

Well, if I was slightly underwhelmed with section 4 of In Memoriam yesterday, it’s all made up for today in section 5. In twelve lines, Tennyson gets more into a single poem than some manage in an entire collection. For anyone who thinks that 20th century theorists invented a distrust in words and their ability to convey information, this 19th century poem is for you:


I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
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,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

In the first stanza, the rhyme between “reveal” and “conceal” on either side of a line-break emphasises the limitations of words and, in this case, poems. At the same time, the poem virtually disproves its own thesis! Which is, perhaps, what Tennyson most hoped for.

He sees a therapeutic use for poetry (“the sad mechanic exercise”). It numbs the pain of grief. Perhaps Tennyson wrote far more than he published at this time – I’m not sure – because this poem is as far from a “mechanic exercise” as it’s possible to get. The third stanza is surprising and astonishing. He carries on the exercise, so wrapping himself in words, which are like clothes (“weeds”, not of the garden variety!) keeping cold out. And then the fantastic close:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

The “large” grief is himself, the one wrapped around with words. His entire being is depicted as grief-shaped (what an amazing image), although it is “given in outline and no more.” But the emotional impact of these lines is so great that we do indeed get more than an outline, more than could be humanly expressed if we could indeed see the real Tennyson going about his life before our eyes. His own doubts over the efficacy of poems to convey accurately an emotional state has become a catalyst for doing so.

True, his “measured words” conceal that real, physical sense of his being and consciousness that only he can know. But they reveal, across the centuries, something more than we could have known otherwise. Such is (great) poetry.

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