Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Seventeen Stages of Grief

I dove into Tennyson’s poetry this month with all the wrong expectations. I knew “Crossing the Bar” and “The Eagle,” and I read his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King, last year. So, forgetting that he wrote mostly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, not the first, I guess I expected something more Romantic and lush, something more like Shelley. As a result, I spent the whole time being a little disappointed, and yet as I look back over the titles and over my notes, I remember it as an overwhelmingly positive experience.

One of the dissatisfying features I met was a frequently prosaic level of vocabulary. Take these lines from Enoch Arden:
Annie, seated with her grief,
Fresh from the burial of her little one,
Cared not to look on any human face,
But turn’d her own toward the wall and wept.
Sure, the scene of a mother unable to face a visitor just after burying her child elicits emotions, but the language here doesn’t itself especially contribute to the effect. I could even question whether the word “fresh” is the right word to convey the brief lapse of time; once I notice the word, it actually detracts from the proper atmosphere.

I also found it difficult to get through disjointed lines like these from The Princess:
Aglaïa slept. We sat: the Lady glanced:
Then Florian, but not livelier than the dame
That whispered ‘Asses' ears', among the sedge,
‘My sister.' ‘Comely, too, by all that's fair,'
Said Cyril. ‘Oh hush! hush!' and she began.
It’s almost as if Tennyson found that he had too many syllables and, like a Procrustes of poetry, lopped off some key words to make his lines fit the meter. Where did the Lady glance, and why? I think Florian said something, but he doesn’t get a verb, so I don’t know. And I have no idea who or what is among the sedge.

I promise I’ll get to the good stuff and explain the title soon, but I have one more beef to air. I can accept that Tennyson’s figures don’t come anywhere near as frequently as Shakespeare’s or Keats’s, but when they do come, I expect them to make sense. Instead he jarred the flow of my reading often with lines like this one from Maud: "My life has crept so long on a broken wing." Can one creep on a broken wing? A bird trying to fly on a broken wing moves very quickly, increasing its speed, in fact, by 33 feet per second per second. If it walks or hops instead, I suppose the motion could be called creeping, but then it wouldn’t be creeping on the broken wing.

Once I started reading In Memoriam A. H. H., though, I forgave Tennyson everything. I’ll offer this sample from canto LXX:
I cannot see the features right,
      When on the gloom I strive to paint
      The face I know; the hues are faint
And mix with hollow masks of night;

Cloud-towers by ghostly masons wrought,
      A gulf that ever shuts and gapes,
      A hand that points, and palled shapes
In shadowy thoroughfares of thought;
Trying to picture the face of his deceased friend, Tennyson mourns that he can’t call up anything but a generic outline (a phenomenon very familiar to me and one that, coincidentally, I just read about last month in William James). The mourner describes his efforts as a striving to paint, but his canvas is only that immaterial mental blank that we perceive as darkness when we think about vision while our eyes are closed. Not only does the imagined paint have nothing to stick to, but Tennyson finds that his intentional efforts are all answered by involuntary images presenting themselves in a succession beyond his control. They are “faint,” “hollow,” “ghostly,” “palled,” and “shadowy,” and the image the reader gets is one of being lost on a foggy, moonless night in a network of narrow streets in a forgotten city: a discomforting setting that perfectly matches the disorientation death causes.

Trying and failing to recall the deatils of the face of a loved one who has passed is only one of the many stages of grief Tennyson recounts in the poem. Like a lot of people, when I first heard about Kübler-Ross’s model of five stages of grief, I recognized my own experiences and believed someone had found the one pattern of human bereavement. But when I go through In Memoriam and recognize so many other actions and thoughts used to confront loss, I start to wonder why we all bought into the notion that denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance were the five stages. Tennyson also goes through periods of doubt about the afterlife (which includes wrestling with the theory of evolution), guilt for feeling grief, treasuring the pain itself (“ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost . . . ”), imagined conversation with his departed friend, revisiting the old stomping grounds, doubt that the good times were really so good, attempts to recall more memories in order not to lose more than necessary, determination to make the rest of his life better and more joyous (surely more than mere resignation), and more. It all sounds very familiar, and finding my common experience expressed in such eloquence is one of the greatest rewards of reading poetry. T. S. Eliot characterized the work as “the most unapproachable of all his [Tennyson’s] poems.” But for me, it turned out to be the Tennyson work that opened the door to all the others.

No comments:

Post a Comment