Monday, June 20, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 6

In poem number 6 from In Memoriam, Tennyson’s target is the clichéd words of comfort offered by friends –“other friends remain” and “Loss is common to the race”. His rebuttal is that death being commonplace makes his loss harder, not easier. He illustrates this by various people waiting for a loved one to arrive home, who dies even as they wait. The weight of loss keeps increasing and gives the poet no sense of ease at all. In fact, the point is that his specific loss is not common – it is specific. His friend, Arthur Hallam, has died and that particular person is irreplaceable.


One writes, that `Other friends remain,'
That `Loss is common to the race'—
And common is the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.

O father, wheresoe'er thou be,
Who pledgest now thy gallant son;
A shot, ere half thy draught be done,
Hath still'd the life that beat from thee.

O mother, praying God will save
Thy sailor,—while thy head is bow'd,
His heavy-shotted hammock-shroud
Drops in his vast and wandering grave.

Ye know no more than I who wrought
At that last hour to please him well;
Who mused on all I had to tell,
And something written, something thought;

Expecting still his advent home;
And ever met him on his way
With wishes, thinking, `here to-day,'
Or `here to-morrow will he come.'

O somewhere, meek, unconscious dove,
That sittest ranging golden hair;
And glad to find thyself so fair,
Poor child, that waitest for thy love!

For now her father's chimney glows
In expectation of a guest;
And thinking `this will please him best,'
She takes a riband or a rose;

For he will see them on to-night;
And with the thought her colour burns;
And, having left the glass, she turns
Once more to set a ringlet right;

And, even when she turn'd, the curse
Had fallen, and her future Lord
Was drown'd in passing thro' the ford,
Or kill'd in falling from his horse.

O what to her shall be the end?
And what to me remains of good?
To her, perpetual maidenhood,
And unto me no second friend.

The biggest success of this poem is to situate death right in the middle of life. It overshadows everything in Tennyson’s world. A young woman at the mirror turns “to set a ringlet right,” to look at her best for the man she loves, a small gesture that seems insignificant, but this is the very moment in which her lover dies. This cycle is repeated constantly – the lover may have died by drowning or falling from his horse, or whatever, Tennyson satirises the idea that the specifics are irrelevant – it’s all very common, the same kind of thing happening all the time. Except that to the woman, it is anything but common.

The ending is intriguing. Tennyson asks what remains for the young woman and for the poet in his loss:
To her, perpetual maidenhood,
And unto me no second friend.

This refers back to the first line in the poem. Tennyson denies the cliché. I find it interesting to consider that it would be impossible to finish a poem in that way today. Most contemporary readers would view this as melodramatic, over-the-top, an example of exaggerated emotion – why should the maidenhood be “perpetual”? And, of course, he will make new friends! But perhaps this attitude denies the very real fears and feelings people have, feelings we’d rather dress up in more sophisticated garb. Apparently Tennyson could hardly bear to read this poem to others, as it made him too upset. I wonder if 19th century readers would have found the poem melodramatic or if they would have regarded it as nailing the emotion with complete accuracy?

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