In Memoriam

Happy Memorial Day! I thought we would celebrate with Tennyson’s great elegy, In Memoriam. Completed in 1849, the poem follows Tennyson’s grief over the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam, in 1833. Through all 133 cantos of the poem, we share in the speaker’s mourning, but I’ve personally always found Canto 121 to be the most healing when remembering the dead.

Sad Hesper o’er the buried sun
And ready, thou, to die with him,
Thou watchest all things ever dim
And dimmer, and a glory done:

The team is loosen’d from the wain,
The boat is drawn upon the shore;
Thou listenest to the closing door,
And life is darken’d in the brain.

Bright Phosphor, fresher for the night,
By thee the world’s great work is heard
Beginning, and the wakeful bird;
Behind thee comes the greater light:

The market boat is on the stream,
And voices hail it from the brink;
Thou hear’st the village hammer clink,
And see’st the moving of the team.

Sweet Hesper-Phosphor, double name
For what is one, the first, the last,
Thou, like my present and my past,
Thy place is changed; thou art the same.

Lune et etoiles 1902
The Moon and the Stars by Alfons Mucha

For the ancients, the morning star and evening star were phenomenologically interpreted to be distinct astronomical bodies with their own tonal registries associated with the time of day. Both stars were linked with Aurora, the goddess of the dawn since they orbited so close to the sun when it was on the horizon. Later, the two stars were recognized as one body, Venus, in transit. Tennyson conflates both understandings of the planet Venus, allowing two names to revolve around one celestial core. Each star is mentioned separately throughout In Memoriam, but it is in Canto 121 where they are linked. First “Sad Hesper” is mourning the dying sun, watching “all things ever dim / And dimmer, and a glory done.” By the next dawn, the forlorn mourner becomes “Bright Phosphor,” who is, most importantly “fresher for the night.” At the end of the canto, both stars are brought together conceptually and visually by a hyphen: “Sweet Hesper-Phosphor, double name.” The Evening star, symbolic of loss and separation, is the same as the Morningstar, which is associated with healing and renewal. The only difference is the single planet’s location and reference to the sun.

You can read more of Tennyson’s In Memoriam this Memorial Day here.

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