A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Half Revealing, Half Concealing

The sonorous, melancholy style of the 18th century poet Thomas Gray has brought to mind another poet, but a much greater one; one whose life spanned the subsequent century of the Victorian era: Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Can I make a plea for Tennyson? He's little read nowadays, I know. He's come to represent the royalty-loving, reactionary poet of literary convention, penning as Poet Laureate (he succeeded Wordworth to this post in 1850 and kept it till his death in 1892) swathes of verse on popular classical and mythological themes. Yet Tennyson deserves to be considered a little more deeply.

He was born quite near here in Somersby, Lincolnshire - a rector's son and the 4th of 12 children. His life was shattered when a close friend and fellow poet, Arthur Henry Hallam, died suddenly of a brain haemorrage in 1833. Also that same year his second volume of published verse had been critically savaged. He didn't write again for 10 years. But all this resulted in his greatest poem, the long and moving elegy In Memoriam A. H. H., which contains these wonderful 3 stanzas from Section V:

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.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

Tennyson is talking here about the inadequacy of words. This is a very modern preoccupation. As is Tennyson's obsession with dreams and trance-like states, found in poem after poem. On the surface not very Victorian at all - perhaps a precursor of all that came afterwards in Freud and Jung, Woolf and Lawrence - and just about everything in serious 20th century literature. The Unconscious was there all the time. It just needed to be discovered. Or rediscovered.

Many years ago, in my school days, there were 2 English teachers who held diametrically opposed views about Tennyson. The one loved him, and forced us to learn off by heart The Lotus-Eaters and Ulysses - which I still think are 2 of his finest poems. The other found in him all music and no meaning, all sound and no content. I disagree with this. As I've hinted above, if you read between the lines Tennyson's foot was tentatively and unconsciously wedging open the door into the 20th century (the word 'tentative' is not one you'd normally associate with Victorian poets!)

His religious doubts were also strikingly modern - he tended towards a kind of Pantheism - and he wrote that There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds (In Memoriam).

Yes, Tennyson (in common with most poets of any era) was occasionally pompous and sentimental, that's undoubtedly true. But we must be careful not to judge him out of context, from the standpoint of the cultural mores of our own vastly different times.

These are a few lines from the stirring Ulysses. This is the older Ulysses, made weak by time and fate, but still strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. I identify with the following lines completely:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone...

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my frie
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Do these sentiments remind anybody of the older Yeats, the Yeats who wrote An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick (Sailing To Byzantium) but who also wrote Why should not old men be mad? (Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?) But I am not content (Are You Content?) and A foolish, passionate man (A Prayer For Old Age)?

I'll end with a quotation from the druggy, dreamy, hypnotic The Lotus-Eaters:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy edge the poppy hangs in sleep.

1 comment:

The Weaver of Grass said...

A friend recently died after enduring cancer for many years and going through lots of chemo under awful conditions. At her funeral in Lichfield cathedral another friend read that very evocative verse from The Lotos Eaters which you quote - and for the first time I really saw it for what it was - I think she had held on to that view of what life was going to be like for her after she had died. I am not a believer myself but am sure that she had this vision in her head towards the end of her life.