Monday, June 13, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - Prelude

In Memoriam recounts the effect on Tennyson of the death of Arthur Hallam, his closest friend. It’s no simple recounting of times spent together, but a splintering of the mind and heart, revealing the poet’s experience of loss and how he deals with it. The work contains 131 poems, with a prelude and epilogue, all in the same form – iambic tetrameter quatrains with a rhyme scheme of ABBA. Here’s the prelude:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou.
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,

But vaster. We are fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear:
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

Forgive what seem'd my sin in me;
What seem'd my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.

Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

I’m just going to pick out a few things that strike me.

In the second and third stanzas, there’s constant repetition of the word “made” and its variants, emphasising how human beings stand before God. But repetition carries through the poem: “our wills are ours” in S4, “have their day” in S5, the word “know” throughout the poem, “ bear” in S8, and various other word and phrases. It’s a rhetorical device used for purposes of argument, but also purposes of lyricism. It brings both passion and order to the poem and neither one cancels out the other, which is quite an achievement. I like the way he parallels faith and knowledge, knowledge and reverence in stanzas 6 and 7. Together, he hears them as making “one music”.

Memorable lines, for me, include, “Our wills are ours, we know not how;/ Our wills are ours, to make them thine” from S4 - wonderful, aphoristic parallelism, and such an economic way of saying it. The most heartbreaking lines are from the penultimate stanza, “I trust he lives in thee, and there/ I find him worthier to be loved.” Yet, he is so overwhelmingly absent, but Tennyson isn’t glossing over that absence in sentiment. He’s just asked God to forgive his grief “for one removed”, so the lines reveal the intense pain of loss and separation.

The emotional centre of the poem comes in stanzas 7 and 8. It’s the one occasion of enjambment (a line running on) from one stanza to another. In fact, there is very little enjambment even from line to line in this poem – most lines are self-contained, so the heavy enjambment of, “May make one music as before,// But vaster”, stands out all the more. You can’t read “But vaster” without a long pause, and indeed the long sound of the syllable “-vast” draws the phrase out even more. The phrase looks longingly towards a new reality, in which grief, loss, faith and knowledge become reconciled. Until then, with struggling but determined faith, Tennyson is left with his “wild and wandering cries,/ Confusions of a wasted youth.”

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