Among the shortcomings of our education system is that literature, especially poetry, is mostly presented to impressionable minds as an exam subject, that too in a dry, formulaic rote with any attempt at personal interpretation unwelcome. Thus most of us never know its role in showcasing mankind’s aspirations and experiences, of language’s capabilities, and vivid accounts of the human and natural conditions. Like by this Victorian-era poet whose work still endures and inspires.
“Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all”, “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die”, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new”, are some pearls from his works that will be familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of English literature.
And their unique creator, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), stood tall both in height and achievement. Sporting a large beard and long hair, clad in cloak and broad-brimmed hat, he was popular with commoners and royalty alike, was Britain’s longest-tenured Poet Laureate (42 years), the first to be raised to the peerage for purely literary contributions — and among the top 10 sources for the Oxford Book of Quotations.
In addition, he penned one of the most moving homages ever in English, the best-known war poem (which both manages to extol its grandeur and lament its cost), penning tributes to his homeland’s most famous heroes (King Arthur, and the Duke of Wellington) and foreseeing aerial conflict and commerce and something like the UN (in “Locksley Hall”).
Born on August 6, 1809, to a middle-class cleric’s family in Lincolnshire, Tennyson, the fourth of 12 children, showed an early talent for writing, completing a 6,000-line epic poem at the age of 12.
After his father began to suffer frequent mental breakdowns, leading to growing tension in the family, he escaped to study at Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he made some of his best friends (especially Arthur Hallam, whose untimely death inspired his “In Memoriam A.H.H”), and honed his poetry skill (winning the Chancellor’s Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces).
His first solo collection of poetry was published in 1830 and though criticised in some quarters as too sentimental, brought him to the attention of top writers. However, the very next year, his father died and he had to abandon his studies to come home and take care of his family. Soon after a failed business venture wiped out most of the family’s wealth, he published a two-volume set of his poems, which brought him much fame and a means to live. The crowning moment came on his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1850, succeeding William Wordsworth.
Queen Victoria was an ardent admirer, writing in her diary that she was “much soothed & pleased” by reading “In Memoriam A.H.H”. Meeting the poet in 1862, she recorded he was “very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair & a beard, oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him”.
This could also be said about his poetry, which spanned a wide gamut of myths and legends of all ages (even Akbar and Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid) to common-place (and not so common) situations to nature, and displayed a richness of imagery, a regularity of rhythm, and revision most careful, and though a rich seam of melancholy and loss runs through his work, it is robust (and satirical too at places).
This can be seen in that outstanding paean to brave but misguided heroism “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (Cannon to right of them/Cannon to left of them,/Cannon in front of them/Volley’d and thunder’d;/Storm’d at with shot and shell,/Boldly they rode and well,/Into the jaws of Death,/Into the mouth of Hell/Rode the six hundred….)” or in “Break, break, break,/At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!/But the tender grace of a day that is dead,/Will never come back to me” or even the epitaph-like “Crossing the Bar” (whose solemn words “came in a moment” on a short ferry ride), whose opening – “Sunset and evening star,/And one clear call for me!/And may there be no moaning of the bar,/When I put out to sea” — has been much used by some well-read judges on retirement or transfer.
But for me, his most influential was “Ulysses”, studied at St Francis College, Lucknow, for the Class 10 board and explained so masterfully and cogently by Mrs N. Narain that much of it remains fresh even two decades later, especially: “I am part of all that I have met;/Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’/ Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades/For ever and for ever when I move” or “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!….but every hour is saved/From that eternal silence, something more,/A bringer of new things”.
What could be better advice?
By : Vikas Datta
(The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])