Monday, 7 January 2008

In Memoriam A. H. H., Alfred Tennyson, winter 1833.

Tennyson's poem is quoted for a few lines that are memorable in their compact relevance. Especially the lines about it being better to have loved, and lost, than never to have loved at all. There's also the line about nature "red in tooth and claw" used to highlight the massive impact, on the popular psyche, of Darwinian theory.

Darwin's The Origin Of Species appeared in 1859 but poets such as George Crabbe were writing about the likelihood of evolution thirty years earlier. My edition of Crabbe is nasty (CUP Poets in Brief series, 1933) and doesn't come close to providing the detail he deserves.

But Tennyson's meandering poem resembles nothing so much as The Task by William Cowper, who set about writing it at the behest of a lady of his acquaintance who touched him.

Like the 1758 poem, In Memoriam is episodic. There is no central thread, as the author of the Wikipedia article suggests ("The death of Hallam, and Tennyson's attempts to cope with this, remain the strand that ties all these together."). Nothing could be further from the truth.

The poem is, however, animated by a feeling of intense love for the dead subject, who "helped Tennyson through the difficult period following publication of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830 and who worked over the new volume for 1832."

"He was friend, critic, and philosopher to a sometimes confused and lonely poet who desperately needed the guidance, warmth, and compassion Hallam freely offered," writes Robert W. Hill, Jr, editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Tennyson's Poetry.

The potential stored in the relationship erupted in the poem but the tone is very uneven. It is all good stuff, or most of it at least. There are some rough patches where the poet marshalls his resources. But the more natural passages are delightful.

The verse is generally highly compact and satisfying, and provides the kind of idiom the Romantics preferred: intimate, observant of the world, high-wrought, and tentative in its logic.

I read the poem last week while waiting for a friend. The location was Bar Piccolo in Kings Cross. The place has been open for 50 years and they sell chinotto in addition to reasonable coffee. Unfortunately, the waiter spilled my second cup, largely destroying the book. Many pages are now stuck together.

I'll have to buy another edition.

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