This particular rumination is a bit longer than others, but remember that 150 years ago, in Tennyson's time, he could take a very long time to write something and folks could take a very long time to read it. So, it is quite difficult to choose a subject matter from that time, that translates into the 15 seconds allotted to each article/video! Anyway, here goes.
After the sudden death of his young beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, Alfred Lord Tennyson spent 17 years writing one of the most timeless poems, revealing the consciousness of the human being's deep awareness of, and sincere struggle with, their own mortality.
Beyond flight, beyond fight, there has arisen in people a level of consciousness that can contemplate philosophically and psychologically, the end of their own life and the end of the life of others. Out of this consciousness, and through his grief, Tennyson wrote a brilliant poem called In Memoriam, in which, for 17 years and 723 stanzas, he wrestles with Nature, with God, with existential meaning, with despair and hope, and with trusting that the symbiosis of life and death is filled with incarnate hope.
The deceased 22-year-old Arthur Hallam, was engaged to Tennyson’s younger sister Emily, and both the Hallam and Tennyson families were overcome with grief from this loss.
Mortality is no easy awareness to bear. That we should be born, to awaken to the beauty of the world all around us, and to connection, and to the love of others, and then have to say good-bye, feels like a costly business.
In this section of the great requiem, Tennyson wrestles with higher consciousness, and mortality, and faith, amidst what, at first glance, seems like a cruel joke: that God and Nature are at odds.
LV (2 stanzas)
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
And then here, he begins to see that although the loss is great, there is something sacred and trustworthy in the process. But in his grief, which is warranted and precious, he wants so much to just speak with his friend in the flesh, regardless of his comprehension of the big picture.
I wage not any feud with Death
For changes wrought on form and face;
No lower life that earth's embrace
May breed with him, can fright my faith.
Eternal process moving on,
From state to state the spirit walks;
And these are but the shatter'd stalks,
Or ruin'd chrysalis of one.
Nor blame I Death, because he bare
The use of virtue out of earth:
I know transplanted human worth
Will bloom to profit, otherwhere.
For this alone on Death I wreak
The wrath that garners in my heart;
He put our lives so far apart
We cannot hear each other speak.
When you read the whole poem, you traverse the path of the griever who is tempted at many turns, to arrive at a cynical end. But some great mysterious intuition leads the griever on to write words that suggest the cynical end is not an end at all.
And all is well, tho' faith and form
Be sunder'd in the night of fear;
Well roars the storm to those that hear
A deeper voice across the storm,
The part of In Memoriam that I chose to put music to, is from the 106th Canto, that stands in and of itself, as one of the great New Years hymns of hope. Here, he is walking toward another chapter of life that would dig back into earth, release his friend, and step back into the world of matter. To work towards more fairness, deeper love, as he longs to “ring in the Christ that is to be” here on this planet.
There is an element of an awareness of evolution in Tennyson’s poem, which would make sense, because the growing zeitgeist, including the publication of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle was exactly in these years.
But amidst acknowledging evolution, Tennyson takes his intuitions to another place, suggesting that the love his sister and his friend shared together was mirroring a higher state.
My Sunday Song and Rumination theme for the past few weeks has been taking a look at stepping into the circle of symbiosis (the circle of subsistence, the life to death to life to death to life cycle) in a way that sees Christ inside of it, while still honouring the shortest verse in the New Testament, that “Jesus wept” when he felt the grief of Lazarus’ death. A truly human experience not to be escaped from, even by the Christ.
Even so, as this year dies and we prepare to ring in a new year, may those of us who are able, find peace in new beginnings. May we find trust in the Big Picture. And most of all, may we not be driven by scarcity and fear of death.
And gently, remember too, especially for you who are grieving, that In Memoriam took 17 years to write. And the 723 stanzas were not written in linearity (they were later arranged). Some days there was peace. Some days he was stricken; and he wrestled. It was all mixed up, and even as the form of the poem holds steady, the form of his grief was unpredictable.
We are earthlings imbued with an awareness of the Divinity that flows through all of reality. God is not far away. God is interwoven with each of us, and the whole of life. And in the person of Jesus, we see someone who can weep in grief at death, and someone who, in his resurrection, can also teach us that there is no life in clinging.
Remember another poem that Tennyson wrote. It was sung at his funeral.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
I can’t find the composition by Frederick Bridge that was performed at Tennyson’s funeral, but the one below by C.H.H. Parry (1849-1918), is rather striking.
With that, I wish you a blessed New Year, as the one we're in is about to cross the bar. May the fertility of the world continue to reveal itself to us, so that in our acceptance of seasons, shifts and changes, our ways of fear-filled destruction may cease. Amen.
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on a regenerative farm on the Canadian prairies.