Happy Birthday Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson by George Frederic Watts
Someone’s ready for a Party!

It’s Alfred Tennyson’s birthday today. He was born on this day in 1809. Why don’t we celebrate him with the same vigor he celebrated Arthur Hallam’s birthday in his great elegy, In Memoriam A.H.H. Tennyson wrote this poem, with its cantos of raw grief enveloped by a calmer ring of a Prologue and an Epilogue, to mourn the untimely death of his friend.

You wouldn’t think that a poem filled with concern over nature being “red in tooth and claw” or the paradox of elation in grief to the point that David Shaw says that Tennyson “makes us feel the truth of deprivation, the paradox of majesty in grief, the somber elations of the elegist who has brooded on ruin,” would have birthdays in it, but it does. Celebrations work in the poem as a kind of scaffolding. The chaos of the raw elegy is organized in a ritual manner with a return to Hallam’s birthday and Christ’s nativity.

Let’s take a look at how Tennyson would celebrate a fellow poet’s birth with Canto 107:

It is the day when he was born,
A bitter day that early sank
Behind a purple-frosty bank
Of vapour, leaving night forlorn.

The time admits not flowers or leaves
To deck the banquet. Fiercely flies
The blast of North and East, and ice
Makes daggers at the sharpen’d eaves,

And bristles all the brakes and thorns
To yon hard crescent, as she hangs
Above the wood which grides and clangs
Its leafless ribs and iron horns

Okay, that’s a dark start. But keep in mind that Hallam was born in February, so maybe Tennyson is just being accurate. Winter birthdays are over too fast, unlike Tennyson’s own summer birthday.

Together, in the drifts that pass
To darken on the rolling brine
That breaks the coast. But fetch the wine,
Arrange the board and brim the glass;

Now we’re getting started. Things should pick up at this party now that we’ve brought in some wine and generously filled the glass.

If you’re still thinking that this sounds dreary and maybe even a little boring, that could be in the nature of the In Memoriam stanza. The stanza tends toward similar line lengths and rhythms as the speaker tries to dull the pain of grief (read more about that here). Even the envelope rhyme (abba) works almost like a vain attempt to hold back nothingness as the a rhyme holds in the b rhyme in canto after canto consumed by loss.

But the party’s started now, so let’s keep going…

Bring in great logs and let them lie,
To make a solid core of heat;
Be cheerful-minded, talk and treat
Of all things ev’n as he were by;

We keep the day. With festal cheer,
With books and music, surely we
Will drink to him, whate’er he be,
And sing the songs he loved to hear.

There we go! On this the day of Tennyson’s birth, let’s “be cheerful-minded” as “we keep the day…with books and music.”

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