Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Sweet sorrows and divine despair

It's just about impossible to read Alfred, Lord  Tennyson these days and not smile.  I don't know about laugh, but smile anyway. The first line of "Tears, Idle Tears" is sort of tragically human in a dorky sort of way. How many poems--how many psalms, even--don't start with a similar idea, you know?--"words simply cannot express this or that emotion." Even though they can't and we know it, a gadzillion poets, and the rest of us, try and try and try some more.

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. 

"Some divine despair" is as close as he can get to naming this seeming horror he's crying about, some mighty paradox that is, at once, oddly enough, as full of despair as it is the divine. And it's source is the realization of joy that inevitably departs, the blessings of what was, of the happiness now gone in "days that are no more."  Okay. At one time or another, most of us wish we were twelve again. I get that.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more. 

It's emotion he's still defining can only be described in a series of big nautical similes--It's like. . .well, it's both fresh as dawn and sad as dusk when ships on water bring our sweeties home and send them away, those "days that are no more." They're to die for if they don't kill you--I think it's something like that.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened 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.

Now things get bizarre. I'm not quite sure what's afoot in the next stanza, but the details are more than slightly melancholic. This sad realization of days that are no more, the darkness Tennyson is seemingly suffering his way through, is something akin to what dying men and women hear in the last song of morning birds as their coffins appear to be closing. Oh, sure, I get that--happens all the time.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more! 

He's still courting the immeasureable distance between opposites in this, the last stanza--kisses we've given to those are dead and those who simply departed the dance with another beau:  "O Death in Life, the days that are no more!" They're just so sweet and sour--I guess that's the gist of it. 

Pardon me while I reach for my hanky.

It seems really silly, in a way; a masterful use of words, real poeticism, but emotionally overbearing, don't you think? Tennyson, I read in a review of a new biography, was known in his time as real bore at parties because he insisted on reciting his poetry. That makes hilarious sense. 

The poem is mid-Victorian, and as such drawn from a world slowly disappearing in Downton Abbey, one of TV's most memorable and most loved series. Still, we wouldn't watch it as religiously if it were set in London, 2013. There's something about those uptight Victorians.

Check Netflix, you'll find literally dozens of Brit comedies, mysteries, and dramas set in Tennyson's era, or at least at its late fringes, times when people knew perfectly well, even fatally well, what was right and what was wrong, when Victorian ways created a polished veneer on human behavior, yet left men and women slavishly hungry for the shimmering emotions of poems like "Tears, Idle Tears."

Today, of course, we live in a wholly different age, quite unholy, in fact. We are our own bosses today; we want to make our own choices, liberty the highest virtue. Victorianism may well be an anathema, but we love to watch it. 

Some call the kind of cataclysmic change we see around us as progress, some call it its opposite--regress, "these days that are no more." Oh, the divine despair! Oh, the sweet sorrow. Oh, the joyous tears.  

Still, obviously there's something we miss about the Victorians.  How about this?  The hottest genre in novel writing is, of all things, Amish romance.  Oh, the days that are no more.

Maybe the Alfred, Lord Tennyson was right.  Fact is, he might have made an interesting party guest on New Years Eve, reading "The Charge of the Light Brigade" or "Crossing the Bar" or even "Tears, Idle Tears."  

Would've been interesting. Oh, the days that are no more.


Anonymous said...

"The hottest genre in novel writing is, of all things, Amish romance."

Interesting observation.

I have 3 families of Amish neighbors. Two families are young couples and one family is in their early 60's with 14 children to show for it.

Both young families have recently added a child to their family and, quite frankly, my wife and I never knew the mothers were expecting.

If the families were "English", as the Amish refer to us, we would have certainly known a child was on the way...often today the "English" wear their pregnancies as a badge leaving little to the imagination... not so with the Amish. Pregnancies are well hidden and not talked about.

Recently, I stopped in for a visit with one of the young neighbors and, son-of-a-gun, there was a new baby... I asked where did that little one come from? The last time I was here there was only one child in the house.

The mother just smiled.

Anonymous said...

"Today, of course, we live in a wholly different age, quite unholy, in fact."

When do behaviors become "unholy" or when to they become "holy"? Depends on who you ask. CS Lewis in Mere Christianity refers to the Law of Decent Behavior and indicates that each of us just know what it is...oh?

Holiness and Unholiness... [I realize this is not a word but I think it should be.]both leave us in a state of bondage.

Neither the legalistic Victorian or the progressive unholy are at peace...Some can not be holy enough and some can not be too unholy...both think they are farther away from sin than the other...

I guess that is why they experience 'sweet sorrows and divine despair.'