At the tender age of five, playing a card game called Authors, I first encountered Alfred, Lord Tennyson with whom I would forge a rocky relationship.
The Authors deck held eleven sets of four cards depicting an eclectic array of writers, a disparate mishmash of talents: Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, Dickens, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, HW Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, RL Stevenson, Twain, the insufferable John Greenleaf Whittier. You drew and discarded and drew trying to make a “book” of all four. I played Authors a lot with my mother when I was sick with rheumatic fever, so, I knew these writers’ names and faces before I read them – and the titles of a few of their works.
Although I don’t remember exactly, I probably first read Tennyson’s poetry in junior high. His “Charge of the Light Brigade” appears in virtually every 7th grade anthology.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Tennyson, as you probably know, is descended from Mother Goose on his father’s side.
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
Although I was obsessed with nursery rhymes in kindergarten, for whatever reason Tennyson never flipped my switch. I preferred Americans, Frost, ee cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose very name sounds like a poem. As an undergraduate, I took a Victorian Lit class for about a week but quit attending, not showing up again until the last no penalty drop day so I could cop the signature of the disheveled tweedy professor.
“So nice meeting you, Mr. Moore,” he said without irony. “I was hoping you’d show up again before the drop day passed.”
I smiled, thanked him, felt guilty.
I didn’t seriously study Tennyson until I took a grad course after I started teaching. That summer, I read him carefully, and although I prefer Browning, I learned to appreciate aspects of Tennyson, despite the Victorian bric-a-brac of his verse and his excessive morbidity. The man was a master of versification. Here’s my favorite phrase of his: “the slow clock ticking.” Try to say it fast.
It captures sonically the slowness of monotonous waiting.
On the other hand, the source of that phrase, the poem “Mariana,” gives center stage to a minor character from Measure for Measure who in Act 5 fornicates with her fiancé in a pitch-black room as part of a comic switcheroo. Her fiancé thinks he’s fornicating with someone else. It’s an elaborate ruse choreographed by the Duke, in part to force their marriage.
Here’s a parodist addressing the cognitive dissonance between the play and poem.
Mariana of the moated grange
about to get laid in Shakespeare’s play,
mopes in Tennyson night and day,
pretty fucking passing strange.
Tennyson’s poem imagines her waiting for her lover who has abandoned her because she lost her dowry at sea.
Here is the poem’s refrain, repeated with minor variations seven times.
She only said, “The day is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”
Nevertheless, I do admire Tennyson’s great elegy “In Memoriam,” that Moby Dick of mourning, written for his dear, dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam who had died of a stroke at the age of twenty-two.
The poem is written in a stanza now known as the “In Memoriam stanza,” a quatrain of tetrameter with the rhyme scheme ABBA, a very rigid form that makes fluidity extremely difficult (see above parody), especially when stringing several stanzas together.
After the death of my wife Judy Birdsong, I decided to reread “In Memoriam” to remind myself that mourning was in fact rather commonplace, that others, thousands, millions, billions have had to face heart-rending disseverment, “the blight man was born for.”
Well, I discovered my grief was in no way as profound as Tennyson’s, as deep as his, perhaps because I had had time to prepare myself (or perhaps because I am not as deep or as profound).
Nevertheless, these lines really struck a chord:
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
Anyway, after teaching Tennyson for the very last time this week, it occurs to me that I must be practicing psychological projection, attributing to Tennyson unconscious qualities that I have denied in myself. How else to explain how often he has appeared in this blog? For example, here is a short story in which the narrator costumes himself as Tennyson to go panhandling as part of academic research. Type “Tennyson” in this blog’s search engine and eight posts appear, most of them mocking him.
Why the obsession? What is it within me that I’m projecting on him? Humorlessness? Hypersensitivity? Sing-song metrics? Pessimism?
Calling that great dissector of all things Victorian, Dr. Freud.
Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
Because I was bedridden for three months, my mother taught me how to read, even though I wouldn’t enter kindergarten for another month after my illness.
E.g., Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
During the last week of Judy’s life, I actually did algebra for recreation, sought escape in symmetry.