In the following selection from In Memoriam, Tennyson exposes the limitations of poetry as a means of conveying emotion. Tennyson doubts not only the words themselves, but also his own power, as a poet, to express the true nature of his grief. Tennyson's repeated use of the word "half" fills the reader with a sense of incompleteness, a realization that verse can never fully illustrate feeling. Tennyson, claiming that his poetry is "half a sin," blames himself for misleading his audience.
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within. [V]
This sentence challenges Tennyson's poetic "experiment" to relay the realism of emotion. Although Tennyson carefully constructs the 131 fragments of In Memoriam to communicate that grief is abrupt, disjointed, and not necessarily a simple process, in the sentence above, he argues that poetry can only "half" portray sorrow. Here, words are weak. But, just one sentence later, Tennyson praises poetry's strength, and it's power to mollify pain.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.
Poetry provides Tennyson with a way to cope with sorrow. Verse gives the mourner a sense of control at a time of chaos and instability. Both Tennyson and Jane Eyre use art to protect themselves from emotional degradation and irrepressible grief. Just as Tennyson composes prose to numb his pain, Jane sketches portraits to assuage her despair over Mr. Rochester's probable love for Blanche Ingram. Jane draws a plain portrait of herself and an exquisite portrait of Blanche. She engages in this act of self-deprecation to come to grips with the fact that she is unworthy of Mr. Rochester's love. Jane remarks that drawing the beautiful
"had kept my head and hands employed, and had given force and fixedness to the new impressions I wished to stamp indelibly on my heart... I had reason to congratulate myself on the course of wholesome discipline to which I had thus forced my feelings to submit. Thanks to it, I was able to meet subsequent occurrences with a decent calm, which, had they found me unprepared, I should probably have been unequal to maintain, even externally. [Bronte, 182]
Both Tennyson and Jane describe art as a "mechanic exercise" (Tennyson, V) — a momentary escape from dealing with their grief. Although both Tennyson and Jane's art forms are meant for public viewing, they both ultimately provide the artist with personal benefit. Finally, poetry is neither strong nor weak, but "half" healing.
1. Why does Tennyson choose to make the reader question the power of poetry? Is this all part of his master plan to instill doubt into the reader in the first section of the poem?
2. In Memoriam's fragmented structure gives the reader a sense of Tennyson's disjointed grieving process. Does Tennyson construct the poem this way to comment on the general manner of mourning or is the structure merely a reflection of his own experience?
3. Why does Tennyson mention Nature in this passage? Is it simply to prepare us for future commentary on the subject or does he have a different purpose?
Last modified 11 February 2010