Thursday, October 6, 2022

Quote of the Day (Alfred Lord Tennyson, on Words and His Grief)

“I sometimes find it half a sin,
To put to words the grief I feel,
For words like nature, half reveal,
and half conceal the soul within.
“But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
   A use in measured language lies;
   The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.”— British poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), “In Memoriam” (1850)
Alfred Lord Tennyson died 130 years ago today. As part of his duties as poet laureate, he wrote verses made for public occasions, such as “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Even his Idylls of the King, his poetic retelling of the Arthurian legend, may be regarded as a warning to his countrymen on the responsibilities and dangers posed by their growing empire.
Since my college days I have been fond of the latter, and even more so of “Ulysses,” a poem of resolution, commitment and courage, even in the face of the unknown—uncharted parts of the world, or the human spirit’s response to aging and mortality.
But over the last couple of years—since the start of the pandemic, actually—I have felt a greater connection to a poem in a more private vein: “In Memoriam,” his profoundly moving elegy for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in Vienna in 1833, aged 22.

Most famous for its closing verses"'Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all"the poem is a far more profound symbolic and philosophical consideration of sorrow over a lost friend. The shy Tennyson ended up with a profound sense of gratitude for how Hallam drew him out of his shell when they were college classmates at Cambridge.
The pain of the loss was so profound—and, I suspect, Tennyson’s frustration at not finding the adequate words to describe his grief was so deep—that the poet did not publish this meditation for another 17 years after his friend’s death.
What led me to reconsider this poem that I first encountered 40 years ago? My own experience.
I was lucky enough not to lose someone close to me in my youth the way that Tennyson did. But age brings a reckoning to anyone lucky enough to live well into middle age.
The loss of my parents was hard, but I could console myself with the thought that they had been graced with very long lives. It was a far different matter when, starting in December 2020, I lost five good friends of roughly my age within the space of 13 months.
I couldn’t understand why all these people had died decades younger than their parents had been at their time of their passing. I couldn’t understand why I would no longer be able to talk to these people I’d shared so much with. I couldn’t understand why such good people could be gone for good.
Like Tennyson, I have found words unequal to the tasks I’ve assigned them—to console the relatives of these friends, or to summarize, as much for others as for myself, what we have collectively lost.
Yet, like the poet, I find that words do have their value in a time of sorrow, though not just “Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.”
Words bring a semblance of sense and control to minds that, because of the limits of human understanding, still struggle with the wounds and shocks of mortality.
In trying to understand what a single death meant to me, words have become a daily means of reevaluation and rededication to all that I will hold beyond price for the rest of my own days. In using words to explain why I valued these friends, I found a way to formulate what I valued.
As much as any poet I can think of, Tennyson explored the physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of coming to grief. When I think of what each of my deceased friends represented, I keep coming back to the infinite value of a single life in the eye of a higher power—or, as Tennyson put it:
“Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
“That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
“That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.”

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