The Listener; Lyrics of Loss ; When Tennyson (Left) Published His Elegiac Poem 'In Memoriam', the Public's Reaction Suggested That He Had Found a Voice for Everyone Who Had Ever Been Bereaved. in This Week's Selection from the Best of BBC Radio, Three Verses Are Discussed, and Michael Donaghy Writes His Own Poem in Response

Article excerpt

THE SPEAKERS

1 KATE CLANCHY

Poet and presenter

1 MICHAEL DONAGHY

Poet

KATE CLANCHY: Bereavement is a time when many people reach for poetry - whether to read or write it. Today we will be considering two

poems about bereavement. The first is a classic lyric of love for a lost friend written 150 years ago. Then we'll look at a new poem about grieving for a mother and father. The classic lyric is part of In Memoriam, by Tennyson.

Tennyson wrote In Memoriam for his friend Arthur Hallam, who died shockingly young, but when the poem was first published in the mid- 19th century it was staggeringly popular, selling thousands upon thousands of copies, as though Tennyson, out of his own loss, had found a voice for many other bereaved people of the Victorian age. It still speaks clearly today.

In Memoriam is a long sequence of verses that takes us through grief and the loss of religious faith to restored hope. But we've chosen one small section from the early part of the poem. The narrator can't sleep, and just before dawn he returns to the house where, in happier times, his friend would be waiting to greet him.

Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more -

Behold me, for I cannot sleep,

And like a guilty thing I creep

At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain On the bald street breaks the blank day.

We asked the Irish-American poet Michael Donaghy to talk about In Memoriam, and then to write a poem of his own in response.

Michael Donaghy's poetry is often concerned with bereavement, with finding the right words for loss. He spoke first about the psychological accuracy of the moment Tennyson had chosen, waiting alone outside his dead friend's house.

MICHAEL DONAGHY: Here we are, in this moment of stillness, expecting a revelation - and he is addressing not his dead friend, but the closed doors of his dead friend's house. And the curious thing about addressing these inanimate objects is that so often in our own lives there is a tremendous emotional investment in an inanimate object. In In Memoriam Tennyson implores the doors of his friend's house to look at him, for these eyeless things to look at him:

Behold me, for I cannot sleep, And like a guilty thing I creep At earliest morning to the door.

KC: "Like a guilty thing" - Tennyson is not only suffering grief, but he seems to have lost a sense of himself. He feels worthless and guilty, he creeps around in the dark. Dawn is coming, and just for a moment, it seems to bring Tennyson comfort - he feels as if his dead friend is only a long way away from him. But the moment passes and the new day brings no hope.

MD: The third stanza begins with the line "He is not here; but far away". That line, for me, is the most interesting thing in the poem. Formally speaking, the most interesting thing is that little hesitation, that enjambment: "far away" on its own is comforting. "He is not here; but far away" - he is far away. But then you go to the next line, and realise that there's no full stop there: "but far away/ the noise of life begins again". Dawn arrives, which is life starting up again - but for him it's the noise of life, not of the birds, the breeze through the trees - just noise.

KC: "On the bald street breaks the blank day": the hard, harsh sound of that last line seems to emphasise Tennyson's feelings of hopelessness and desolation. Tennyson is always notorious for his luxuriating in sounds. It's a very strophic last line, using heavy accents. Noise, ghastly, bald - perhaps it's Tennyson's portrayal of the blankness of the world after bereavement that speaks so directly to so many readers. …