Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reading "In Memoriam A. H. H."

Strong Son of God, immortal Love . . .

Thus begins Alfred, Lord Tennyson's famous poem of grief. This preface, which is addressed to Christ, was probably the last-composed part of the poem he took 17 years to write, but he placed it at the beginning, as an apology for all that followed.

"Strong" is the first word of the preface and "strong" remains the best adjective for the whole thing. It presents his case strongly ("Thou madest man, he knows not why/He thinks he was not made to die") and his faith in God just as strongly ("And thou has made him: thou art just.").

To that problem of sorrow Tennyson gives an answer that is, in one way, the answer of Job, "I had spoken of thee, but now I have seen thee, and I repent in dust and ashes." Or, in Tennyson's words:

Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

But it's more than the answer of Job, because it's the answer of a Christian, of a man who believes that God became incarnate, and is thus a God who knows our sorrows intimately. Tennyson again:

Thou seemest human and divine,

The highest, holiest manhood, thou:

Our wills are ours, we know not how;

Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

(That "seemest", by the by, does mean "appears", but not, I think, "appears to be but isn't really". Just "appears and is".)

Yet his faith never stops him from describing death and sorrow in their bleakest terms:

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;

Thou madest Life in man and brute;

Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot

Is on the skull which thou has made.

This is where we find ourselves. Which brings me to, why am I reading this? Well, because it is beautiful, and I have long loved Tennyson and long loved the preface. But more than that: because it was said, in Victorian times, that in this poem Tennyson taught England how to mourn. And the longer I live, the more clearly I see that either I am going to die or I am going to be mourning those who've died. And I'd like to read this now, before I am faced with the death of a loved one, so that I might have some words for my grief when it comes.

(I've had the experience before of reading things that didn't apply to me at the time, but being so glad I had them in my heart and head later on, when I needed them. I expect this will happen again. And again, and again. Isn't that why we memorize Scripture?)

And because I'm already mourning some smaller things, and I want to understand what's going on in my own heart.

And because, due to the preface, I already trust Tennyson. I know where he ended up, and it's where I want to end up too:

Forgive my grief for one remoed,

Thy creature, whom I found so fair.

I trust he lives in thee, and there

I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,

Confusions of a wasted youth;

Forgive them where they fail in truth

And in thy wisdom make me wise.

As I said, this preface has long been one of my favorite poems, but I've never read the longer poem (133 cantos) in its entirety. I'm deep into it now, and often wishing both to stop and to go on, because it is so hard to read and yet so beautiful and good. But as the proverb says, it is better to enter the house of mourning than the house of feasting, and the wise take it to heart.

Though, honestly . . . I don't know why exactly I'm doing this, despite all of the reasons I just wrote about. It's probably more true to say, "I just want to, and so I am." I want to, and so I'm making up reasons that make sense. We'll see. Even if it never helps me understand grief, or mourn properly, or any of that nonsense, I don't think I'll be hurt by letting my thoughts follow the thoughts of this great poet. I'll let you know how it goes.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

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