Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 7

In poem 7 from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, I’m struck as much by the skilful manipulation of rhythm and metre as of anything else. The poem has Tennyson visit his late friend Arthur’s house by night, but of course he comes away feeling only his absence, made all the more acute by the busy, unaffected universe trundling along as usual.


Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

In the first stanza, Tennyson doesn’t reveal the precise nature of his syntax, which only becomes clear by line 2 of stanza 2. Each line in S1 begins with a heavy stress – a trochaic or spondaic foot – a rhetorical device we often use unconsciously when making an address. The first line of S2 then echoes the final words of S1, “a hand”, emphasising acutely that it can no longer be clasped. Then in S2 L2, we realise for certain that he is addressing the house, asking it to “behold me”.

Just imagine if Tennyson had been writing bad free verse (hard, I know)! He might have begun:

I stand by the dark house
in the long unlovely street
at doors where my heart used to beat
quickly, waiting for a hand

that can be clasped no more.
I cannot sleep...

Many contemporary poems, even some which are published in magazines, aren’t far away from that – dull prose, and that’s only with a few changes. Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. The basic sense and narrative is all still there, but Tennyson’s rhetorical and emotional intensity has been ripped clean away. I write mainly free verse myself, of course, and it’s not free verse that’s the problem. I’m no formalist dinosaur. It’s all about recognising how poetry works and how important style, rhythm, music, manipulation of syntax, and...well... imagination are in making a memorable poem.

Tennyson imagines he is under the house’s gaze, a poor wretch creeping to the door of absence. The first line of S3 is terrific – “He is not here; but far away”, which sounds roughly what we might expect, but the following line removes even that far-off consolation:

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again

The noise of life is far away, not Arthur Hallam. Tennyson did of course believe in an afterlife, but “far away” wasn’t far enough for that idea.

I’d probably feel the same about the ending as I did with the previous poem. How do modern readers feel about those adjectives being used to create emotional mood – “ghastly”, “bald”, “blank”? Put it this way, contemporary poetic sensibility would ask anyone producing a poem like this not to rely on them – show, don’t tell; avoid possible sentimentality. And yet, the final line is beautifully crafted. The rhythm is broken up by the two unstressed syllables at the beginning, then three stressed, one unstressed and then two stressed to finish. But yes, it can all scan as iambic tetrameter. The interrupted rhythm, the strong –b alliteration, combined with the different vowel sounds slows the pace of the line right down. It’s as heavy as the day is about to become. Form mirrors sense.

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