Sunday, April 24, 2011

In Memoriam E. T. D.

I couldn't find my copy of In Memoriam A. H. H. when I went to pull it off the bookshelf today.  I KNOW I have a copy because I wrote a (rather terrible) essay on it during an independent study on Romantic poetry when, for some perverse reason, I decided that I wanted to bring Tennyson's Victorian poetry into a paper about Byron and Shelley.  It all went downhill from there.

Anyway, that copy has inexplicably disappeared (did I lend it someone?  but who would want it?), so I had to be satisfied with pulling the Norton Anthology off the shelves and reading the excerpted version, complete with my own earnestly penciled notes from undergrad for a class in which I wrote another (terrible) essay on masculinity and homosocial friendship in the poem (I especially liked the marginal comment in which I compared one stanza to a recent break up that I'd had.  That's right. Because that's what I thought "grief" felt like for a long time--mild disappointment and indignation, best treated with alcohol and going out dancing with friends.  It turns out that's not exactly what Tennyson is talking about.  No wonder my papers were terrible). 

It is dark and dreary here this morning, but my house did not blow away with the tornadoes that roared through St. Louis.  The storms went just north and south of us, so our neighborhood was untouched.

I got up this morning before David's grandparents were awake and spent the morning sitting at my desk, reading Tennyson by lamplight, and empathizing with his struggle to articulate his grief and balance his overwhelming sadness with flickering hope.

Tennyson wrote it after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam who died suddenly and unexpectedly.  He wrote it over the course of seventeen years, (yeah, evidently you don't just "get over" the loss of someone you love--who knew?) but it sort of tells the story of his first three years of grief after Hallam's death.   

In case you're wondering, grief hasn't changed much since the mid-nineteenth century.

This poem gets quoted fairly often--it's most famous lines are probably, "Tis better to have love and lost than never loved at all," and "There is more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds."

But most of it is not really about optimism and resilience. Most of the poem is a painfully honest account of how much it hurts to lose someone you love, and how impossible it is to adequately express what that loss is like.  Queen Victoria liked to read it after she lost her beloved Prince Albert.

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.

The poem is also interesting to Victorian scholars because it reflects some of the significant cultural preoccupations of the time, most notably science and religion.  Even knowing this, and having read it "critically" in college and graduate school, all I could think about when I read it this morning was how it felt timeless and universal to me where before it had seemed out of date and melodramatic.

(Speaking of melodramatic, how about comparing Tennyson's tragedy to your own ridiculous college relationships?)

Of course, like everything else, I'm now reading this through my own experience of grief, with Eliza on my mind.

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.

Click around enough online, and you know that's true.

Easter is all about hope resurrected and nature renewing itself.  It's all well and good and beautiful and, for the faithful, it's a promise of everlasting life.  It's a hard message for me to swallow this year.  My version of faith at the moment is admitting our inability to know anything for certain, remaining open-minded, and trusting that God knows what's in my heart.  So I give you this year's version of an Easter poem, excerpted from In Memoriam, A. H. H. by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

I've boldly replaced the word "friend" with "daughter" (my apologies to Tennyson) and I just want to say that I love the use of the word "strange" in that line because it doesn't really mean weird, I think, it means something more like distanced, apart, unknown, mysterious.  Those last lines are my new favorite part of his poem.

Behold, we know not anything; 
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last--far off--at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring

* * *

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all
And faintly trust the larger hope.

* * *

Strange daughter, past, present, and to be;
Loved deeplier, darklier understood;
Behold, I dream a dream of good,
And mingle all the world with thee.


  1. Ugh, I'm embarrassed about all the time I spent listening to Dave Matthews and Ben Harper while whining about the loss of my *high school* love and the sorry I felt when that ended.

    How dramatic, now naive to think that was what grief was. I wish that was the only grief I knew.

    Ps. I love your version of faith, it feels quite similar to my own thoughts.

  2. Thanks for sharing the poem, it is beautiful and timeless.

    Remembering Eliza.

  3. I can remember reading that poem in my university class on Victorian literature (one of my favourite classes). You make me want to dig out my old poetry collection from that class. : )

    There is something to be said for the Victorian style of mourning. At the very least, there has to be a balance between their way (maybe a little over the top by modern standards) & our "two weeks & you should be over it" attitude toward grief.

  4. I always love your posts like this. I'm sure I'd cringe looking through my undergrad books too. Oh, to have that innocence again.

    I hope that your day has been okay.

  5. I find some cool hard comfort in grief poetry. Though I try not to read too far and see what the author is grieving lest I find it was a college girl grieving her lost love ;) Remembering Eliza with you mama~

  6. I love when you write posts like this.. it's the English major in me.. thank you for reminding me of the haunting beauty of Tennyson.

  7. LOVE Tennyson and now want to dig out my books and essays from college as well!!! (English major here, too. I feel right at home having read just a few of your posts! I hope you don't mind my dropping by.) I loved this poem years ago when I first read it and haven't revisited it since my loss, so thank you for posting it. It is even more powerful and relevant to me now.