She lies on the bed beside Claire, above the sheets. The faint tang of the old woman’s breath on the air. The clock. The fan. The breeze.
The world spinning.”
This made me turn to a Folio collection of Tennyson’s poetry I have been keeping on my bedside table since listening to a recent In Our Time podcast on In Memoriam, the poet’s famous elegy to his great friend Arthur Hallam, who died in 1833.
In my book Ruth Padel explains that Tennyson wrote “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change” after taking the first train from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830: “ I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line.”
My favourite passage from Locksley Hall is:
Love took up the glass of Time, and turned it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.
Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling passed in music out of sight.
Many a morning on the moorland did we hear the copses ring,
And her whisper thronged my pulses with the fulness of the Spring.
Many an evening by the waters did we watch the stately ships,
And our spirits rushed together at the touching of the lips.
However this love proved to be “falser than all fancy fathoms, falser than all songs have sung”:
As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with clown,
And the grossness of his nature, will have weight to drag you down.
He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,
Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.
Tennyson fared better in love in 1850 when he married Emily Selwood, whom he had first met 20 years before, and he published In Memorium that year. Padel writes: “The marriage lit up the inner darkness sealed when Hallam died, allowing Tennyson to let go of that grief, or at least go public about it. Now the pain was alchemised into an order bearable to him and shareable with others.”
Section L is my favourite example of the emotion that Tennyson shares so beautifully :
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle, and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is racked with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.