Saturday, December 03, 2005

Standing on winter's verge, dreaming

I've been thinking about Tennyson's Ulysses -- a poem of the week on Gobbergo. He's a poet whom I disrespected when young; learned to love in my age. I enjoy imagining what it must have been like to encounter the poem when it was fresh and himself not well known.

Like Keats, Tennyson suffered from nasty critics and pursued his vocation in the face of poverty, personal tragedy, and the form of depression then called melancholy. They both wished to marry, became engaged, and were prevented from marrying (or in Tennyson's case forced to delay). They both lost a dear companion (Keats his brother Tom and Tennyson his all-but-brother Henry Hallam).

Like Keats, Tennyson had a few significant supporters. Emerson was an early admirer. Dickens bought his books and praised his work.

Like Emerson and unlike Keats, he lived long and slowly gained an admiring public. I imagine Sarah Thorn opening his Poems in 2 vols of 1842 when she was in her mid-twenties. On Sunday Aug 7, 1842, Dickens - just back from a trip to America - wrote to his friend Forster that he was "reading Tennyson all the morning on the seashore". So Dickens, but I imagine Sarah with her 6-year old daughter (my great-grandmother Annie) just put to bed, lighting the gas lamp and opening the book to read Ulysses for the first time, and then reading out of the poem to Henry Lefman, her husband.

Before her marriage she had copied part of a Wordsworth poem in her composition book. It was a stanza from Despondency Corrected in the 4th book of The Excursion. Like Ulysses, Wordsworth's subject is an aged wanderer. From the poem, Sarah wrote out:
Life's autumn past I stand on winter's verge
And daily lose what I desire to keep,
Yet rather would I instantly decline
To the traditionary sympathies of a most rustic ignorance,
Than see and hear the repetitions wearisome of sense,
Where soul is dead and feeling hath no place.
I imagine she would have loved her first reading of Ulysses: he an egoist like Wordsworth's narrator, on his own death watch yet impatient of idleness, suffused with yearning, and seeking the heart of truth - a newer world.

Here is a comparable part of Ulysses:
I am a 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.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
It's curious that Sarah dropped the middle part of the Wordsworth stanza, leaving out:
                   ...and take
A fearful apprehension from the owl
Or death-watch: and as readily rejoice,
If two auspicious magpies crossed my way;--
To this would rather bend...
Why do you suppose she omitted these lines?

Alfred Tennyson from a portrait painted by Samuel Laurence

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