Tennyson’s Poetry

by: Alfred Lord Tennyson

Grief

1

Her tears fell with the dews at even; Her tears fell ere the dews were dried . . . She only said, ‘The night is dreary, He cometh not,’ she said; She said, “I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead!’

In “Mariana,” a poem inspired by one of Shakespeare’s plays, Mariana, a woman abandoned by a lover, lives alone in a house surrounded by a moat. The poem describes a slowly advancing day. Throughout the poem, the lines quoted here are repeated with only slight changes. This repetition symbolizes Mariana’s obsession with her own situation and inability to make a change to improve her circumstances or do anything but exist. Although the clinical term would not be used for decades to come, the poet here accurately depicts depression.

2

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean, Tears from the depth of some divine despair Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes, In looking on the happy autumn-fields, And thinking of the days that are no more.

This stanza is one of four “verses” of a song titled “Tears, Idle Tears” included in the middle of the larger poem titled “The Princess.” Tennyson composed the music separately and then added the verses to be sung by a servant girl for a group’s entertainment. The song refers to grief caused by “the days that are no more,” which could refer to a specific loss. Idle tears indicate sorrow that lacks purpose, perhaps describing a general sense of sorrow simply caused by days gone by. Within the story, the singer’s goal was simply to move her listeners emotionally.

3

Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d, Let darkness keep her raven gloss. Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss, To dance with death, to beat the ground, Than that the victor Hours should scorn The long result of love[.]

In section I of “In Memoriam A. H. H.,” the poet asserts that keeping grief fresh is better, and is the more loving act, than allowing time to lessen one’s grief. Being loving means continuing to grieve, even if that experience pains the griever. As the first section of the lengthy elegy, these lines explain the reason for the poem’s existence. Elegies serve as a way to grieve and remember dead loved ones. Writing the poem allowed the poet, over many years, to continue to merge grief with love.

4

Who show’d a token of distress? No single tear, no mark of pain— O sorrow, then can sorrow wane? O grief, can grief be changed to less? . . . No—mixt with all this mystic frame, Her deep relations are the same[.]

About halfway through the long elegy “In Memoriam A. H. H.,” the poet describes the second Christmas he and his family celebrate after his friend Hallam’s death. The group’s members do not outwardly show their grief, unlike the previous year when they wept. The poet feels distressed at the idea that grief, the appropriate response to loss, might lessen. Then he reassures himself that the grief remains the same, but over time, one learns to manage one’s grief. Nevertheless, these lines represent the turning point in the poem from grief at a loss to celebration of Hallam’s life and certain afterlife.