Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 8

Tennyson really took me by surprise in poem 8 of In Memoriam. I suspect most poets would have stopped after the third stanza feeling they’d done a decent job, but Tennyson wants more than just decent.


A happy lover who has come
To look on her that loves him well,
Who 'lights and rings the gateway bell,
And learns her gone and far from home;

He saddens, all the magic light
Dies off at once from bower and hall,
And all the place is dark, and all
The chambers emptied of delight:

So find I every pleasant spot
In which we two were wont to meet,
The field, the chamber, and the street,
For all is dark where thou art not.

Yet as that other, wandering there
In those deserted walks, may find
A flower beat with rain and wind,
Which once she foster'd up with care;

So seems it in my deep regret,
O my forsaken heart, with thee
And this poor flower of poesy
Which little cared for fades not yet.

But since it pleased a vanish'd eye,
I go to plant it on his tomb,
That if it can it there may bloom,
Or, dying, there at least may die.

The poem starts with him imagining a man visiting his lover and finding her absent. He’s very sad about this, as if all his expectations have been dashed. Her entire house, it seems, has been “emptied of delight”. Then comes the first terrific line at S3 L1:

So find I every pleasant spot

What’s good about that? Well, there’s the dramatic contrast between the lover’s temporary loss and Tennyson’s all-encompassing one, enacted in a single, simple line. And look at the rhythm! You could scan it as purely iambic, but each of the first four syllables has a heaviness about them, even the technically unstressed first and third syllables – “SO FIND/ I EVery... “ That’s the sound and rhythm of anguish.

That could have been the end of the poem at the end of that stanza: a strong expression of personal sorrow – “all is dark where thou art not.” But Tennyson isn’t content with a decent poem and he goes for broke. The action switches back to the absent woman from the first two stanzas. She is out walking and finds a flower “beat with rain and wind” she’d once taken care of. Tennyson finds in this a metaphor for how he feels about Arthur Hallam, his late friend, particularly in poetry. And the great lines mount up poem by poem:

...this poor flower of poesy
Which little cared for fades not yet.

We could stick that on our fridges or Facebook statuses and wear it as a badge of hope. But Tennyson still isn’t finished, but has saved the best lines for last. He will plant his poem-flower at Hallam’s tomb:
That if it can it there may bloom,
Or, dying, there at least may die.

Morrissey may have said that he was more Wilde than Keats or Yeats (in 'Cemetery Gates'), but he may not have been accurate in saying that and his famous lyrics from ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ have at least one prototype here in Tennyson’s poem. The flower may die at his friend’s grave, which would at least be something. But, carefully placed only on the penultimate line, it also may bloom.

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