Poetry and Revelation: Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H. 54”
K and I had our fourth child on June 30th. He’s a healthy and sweet baby, but the delivery was slightly more difficult than with our other three children. His shoulder caught on the way out, and the doctor asked the nurse to call for some backup right at the moment he was being born. Suddenly, eight other hospital personnel rushed into the room, and I was pushed aside as the nurses helped K get into the proper position and make it through the difficult moment. After he was born, another doctor-nurse pair examined him under the warming lamp. It was a minute or so before we breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of his tiny voice crying out for the the first time.
I’m so grateful for our beautiful baby boy and that K is healthy and recovering fully, but I’ve thought more than a few times in the weeks since the birth how easily things could have gone wrong. I’ve been reminded of the following poem, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet,
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
Obviously, the repeated reference to “an infant crying” in the final stanza is what I have been thinking of after our baby’s birth. It’s made me think of how fundamentally human the impulse to pray is, and how important my faith is to me. When you strip away all of the forms of religion, the rituals, the hours of meetings, and the cultural quirks, each of us is just an infant crying in the night, crying for the light.
Tennyson published this poem in 1849, sixteen years after the death of his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while traveling in Vienna in 1833. In Memoriam A.H.H. comprises 133 separate cantos, most of them about the length of this one, number 54, and all of them written in the same form: four-line stanzas (or quatrains) with an abba cddc etc rhyming pattern. The entire poem is an extended meditation on Tennyson’s crisis of religious faith after his friend’s senseless death. You can hear his yearning in these lines. Surely if “not a moth” will be “shrivell’d in a fruitless fire” in God’s eternal scheme, then Hallam’s death will also have some ultimate redemptive meaning.
A lot of you who read this blog are already familiar with another section of In Memoriam, canto 106, which appears in the LDS hymnbook as #215, “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” It’s one of the two semi-official New Year songs that gets sung typically once a year. Most people I know hate it because it sounds so mournful, and because the rhyme scheme is unconventional. I actually love the minor setting and the way it resolves into a perfect D-major chord at the end of the third verse, when we sing, “Ring in the Christ that is to be,” emphasizing that only Christ has the power ultimately to resolve the contradictions and disappointments of life.
That kind of hope isn’t really present in canto 54. The poem ends simply by declaring that we are no better than infants. I love the last line, “And with no language but a cry.” It’s kind of ironic, since it comes at the end of a poem. Clearly Tennyson has a lot of language at his command. But I feel just the same way at times, like any words I might say in a prayer or blessing are ultimately worth nothing more than a baby babbling. Particularly in moments of despair, I think that language always feels woefully insufficient.
I love that we have a Tennyson poem in our hymnbook. In a Sunday School lesson about a month ago, we were talking about the psalms, and I started thinking how cool it is that a bunch of poems have not only been canonized as scripture, but have come to be regarded by many people as the most beloved scriptures of all. Jesus quoted from the Psalms all the time, even on the cross. (What better endorsement could you want for the value of poetry?)
It’s funny, though, because most poems, and the psalms are no exception, aren’t intended to teach us things, nor do they generally make any claim to be divine revelations. Why is it that these attempts to craft a language for ideas or feelings or memories should come to be regarded as scripture? It’s not that Tennyson’s poem or the 23rd Psalm necessarily reveal things about God that we didn’t know before. It’s because these poems catalyze a relationship of intimacy with God through a feeling of sympathy with other people. There’s something about reading In Memoriam, even the expressions of doubt (especially the expressions of doubt) – I feel a stirring inside, as if I were a chapel, and the poem were a song that matched my acoustics perfectly. Not only does someone else understand, but he’s managed to articulate my yearning.
At such moments, I feel as if the poem were revealing me to myself. And this is why I think it’s not surprising that poetry has made its way into scripture, both ancient and modern. We think of the scriptures as revealing God to us, but I love Paul’s promise that when the veil of this life is rent away, we will know even as we are known (1 Cor 13.12). It implies that before we can know and understand God perfectly, we will have to come to know ourselves. The best poems, like the best scriptures (and yes, I think some scriptures are definitely better than others) are the ones that catalyze this process.