hroughout the poem, Tennyson, as an evolving narrator, struggles with the appropriate ways to cope with the death of a beloved friend. He contemplates the morality of writing about his friend's death, fearing that the action of writing, which may mitigate his pain ("Like dull narcotics, numbing pain"(5)), is unethical. He also worries that beyond simply soothing his pain, he is actually using the death of a friend as inspiration for his own artistic creation, just as the yew tree receives its nourishment from the dead bodies buried in graveyards (2); this is a highly disturbing thought. Yet another aspect of mourning that Tennyson considers is the appropriate way to relinquish the deceased and the role of sound in this process — both sounds that the mourner in his grief emits, and those that haunt the mourner as he attempts to carry on with life.
Peace; come away: the song of woe
Is after all earthly song.
Peace; come away: we do him wrong
To sing so wildly: let us go.
Come; let us go: your cheeks are pale;
But half my life I leave behind.
Methinks my friend is richly shrined;
But I shall pass, my work will fail.
Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever look'd with human eyes.
I hear it now, and o'er and o'er,
Eternal greetings to the dead;
And "Ave, Ave, Ave," said,
"Adieu, adieu," for evermore. [57, p. 239]
If singing about loss is an "earthly" thing to do, why is this not an appropriate way for those on earth to channel their grief? What is a more appropriate way? What is wild about the way people mourn aloud? Why does Tennyson suggest that this unhappy release is harmful to the deceased? His call to those singing is to leave the dead behind and go on, rather than to let the dead move on to another realm. He literally says that it does the deceased wrong when those alive sing, but he seems to be concerned with those who survive as well. Is he more concerned here with the harm this singing does to the one who is dead, or to those who mourn?
Even as Tennyson calls to cease with mournful singing, he notes that until his hearing fails him or likely until he himself dies, he shall hear a slow, constant bell announcing the death of his friend repeatedly in his own ears. He also describes hearing the repeated farewells said to those who are dead. Thus, even when the mourner stops his vocal mourning, he seems doomed to hear reminders of the death nonetheless.
Does Tennyson, at this point in the poem, believe that it is the responsibility of the mourner to forever hear morbid, painful sounds, and never to express his own feelings?
What is the connection between the world of the dead and the living, as depicted in this part of the poem, if the memory of the dead is allowed to orally infiltrate the being of the mourner, but the mourner must remain silent?
Is this not a reverse of the natural order of life, in which those who are dead are silenced, and those who remain alive retain the power to speak or sing?
Last modified 15 September 2003