Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary, / He will not come,’ she said; / She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary, / Oh God, that I were dead!’
This last line in the poem is Mariana's definitive statement that she knows her lover is not going to return to her as she waits and moulders in the moated grange. In other poems this change from tacitly hoping he will come to announcing that he certainly will not might imply a new narrative to come, but one of the poem's strengths is its stifling sense of stagnation and stasis. All of the moments in the poem seem doomed to repeat, day after day. The nails will fall out of their holes, doors will creak, mice will scuttle across the rotten floorboards, the shadows will fall across her bed at night. Nothing changes except by slow degrees of decay; time is slowed down to an unimaginable and oppressive slowness. The poem evinces a powerful sense of decay, both of the natural surroundings and of Mariana herself. Mariana wishes she were dead and might be dead someday, but it is an extremely slow death. She will waste away into nothing over a very long time.
There she weaves by night and day / A magic web with colours gay. / She has heard a whisper say, / A curse is on her if she stay / To look down to Camelot.
The Lady of Shalott is under a curse that prohibits her from looking out of the window of her tower or leaving the tower, but for most of the poem she is content with that rule because she is immersed in her art, the magic web. She catches glimpses of the world below through the mirror and translates them into her weaving. Her art is thus allowed to proceed unfettered by the messiness of the outside world, albeit in a distorted way because her experience is so indirect. She is ensconced in a creative state of ultimate purity, not engaging with the world at all but safely observing it. This is one of the central points of the poem and one that Tennyson wrestled with throughout his career--does the artist need complete solitude, complete engagement with the world, or some mixture of both? The Lady is not truly weaving the world outside, and she becomes unable to sustain her isolation from Camelot. The song of Lancelot, which she does experience directly, lures her outside. Her final work of art is her own new self and ambiguous death, suggesting that engagement with the world also distorts the purity of the artist's individual vision.
these twelve books of mine / Were faint Homeric echoes, nothing-worth, / Mere chaff and draff, much better burnt.
Everard Hall, who was known in college as a good poet, laments that his epic poetry about King Arthur was no contribution to the world of letters, which is why he burned them. He finds his own work merely an echo of Homer. In an earlier version of the lines, Tennyson had written, "Remodel models rather than the life? / And these twelve books of mine (to say the truth) / Were ...," to stress that a copy of Homer is several levels from the truth of a real person's life, much like a retelling of an Arthurian legend.
Earlier in the poem he and his friends discussed the lack of meaning and richness of the Christmas season due partly to the new findings in geology and further doubts raised by religious conflict or schism, leaving no noble anchor for the contemporary age. It seems to Hall that his poetry of medieval times is not suited for the modern age. However, his friend Francis Allen reveals that he saved the eleventh book from the hearth, and Hall agrees to read it. At the close of "Morte d'Arthur," the company experiences renewed faith in the power of such heroic poetry to guide and inspire. The speaker of the poem dreams of King Arthur as a Christ-figure who returns to earth and brings a message of hope and unity. Tennyson appears to be arguing that legends and myths of the past, and epic poetry that deals with them, remain powerful and necessary even in a modern era of science and doubt.
Forerun thy peers, thy time, and let / Thy feet, millenniums hence, be set / In midst of knowledge, dream’d not yet.
The central debate between the speaker and the voice in his head in "The Two Voices" is whether or not the speaker should take his own life due to his immense grief over the death of his friend. This profound and personal poem, inspired by Tennyson's own grief over losing Arthur Henry Hallam, is also an interesting study of psychology, epistemology, and philosophy. The voice's arguments are insidious, but they are also more intellectually argued and ultimately seem more compelling than the speaker's argument for staying alive. This line is indicative of the voice's reasoning. He tells the speaker to depart the earth before his friends and before his allotted time in order to acquire the knowledge that he can not even imagine at this time. Once he leaves his corporeal form and becomes spirit, he will have access to mysteries of the universe and will not miss out on seeing what has been happening among mankind. Why should he remain in the world of ignorance? This is very appealing, and it resonates with the legendary German tale of Faust, who also craved inhuman levels of knowledge. The voice reminds the speaker that his body and senses are limited, and that there is a vastness he should seek in the beyond now rather than later.
Yet, the voice is ignoring the possible value of learning other kinds of lessons and having other kinds of enjoyments in this limited world. Slightly earlier, the voice had told the speaker that, in his sadness, it is too late for him to find any enjoyments ("What drug can make a withered palsy cease to shake?"). Still, the hope of something to appreciate in life keeps firing the speaker's motivation to continue.
‘So careful of the type?’ but no. / From scarped cliff and quarried stone / She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go.
One of the issues Tennyson confronted in "In Memoriam" and other poetry was the contemporary conflict over geological findings that foreshadowed the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. Such ideas caused debate and disillusionment in the religious Victorian era, putting mankind far from the scientific center of the Earth's history. Tennyson's grief over losing Arthur Henry Hallam dovetailed with his unmoored religious faith.
These lines from Canto LVI express his bleak thoughts that Nature cares little for life in itself or any particular species, let alone humans or the individual man. (In the previous canto, the speaker stated, "So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.") Species come and go, and fossil records (from cliffs and stones) point to a span of geologic time profoundly longer than hitherto accepted. Hallam's death is thus an even more meaningless situation that emphasizes Nature's indifference.
Tennyson also wonders whether his spirit can endure after the death of his body. The indifference of Nature, the problem of religious faith, and the questioning of what happens to a soul after it departs this world are three of the most significant themes in "In Memoriam," and the poetic treatment of these topics contributes to its reputation as Tennyson's most powerful and important work.
I will not shut me from my kind, / And, lest I stiffen into stone, / I will not eat my heart alone, / Nor feed with sighs a passing wind:
Critics point to different phases in the lengthy "In Memoriam." The first set of poems are bleak and despairing as Tennyson grieves for his deceased friends. The poems in the middle confront his lack of religious faith, science vs. religion, the question of what happens to the soul after death, and how to come to terms with an absent loved one. The last set of poems evince the poet's return to his faith, his acceptance of Hallam's death and his peace with his loss, and his hope that they will be reunited soon. Canto CVIII, in this last part, is an unambiguous statement that the poet is not giving up on life; he does not want to isolate himself from friends and family anymore, or allow his heart to harden to the pleasures found in life. He understands that death will come to him someday, and he looks forward to the union of his soul with Hallam's, but he does not wish to wallow in melancholy anymore, and he chooses an active life with others, short as it must be, over sighing alone. The wound of the loss of Hallam will always pain him, but it is dulled now, and he has found a way to come back to himself and his poetic voice.
When then can their glory fade? / O the wild charge they made! / All the world wonder’d. / Honour the charge they made! / Honour the Light Brigade, / Noble six hundred!
"The Charge of the Light Brigade" is one of Tennyson's most popular poems, being very approachable. It dealt with a contemporary event, the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, focusing on the heroic and ill-fated charge of 600 loyal and courageous soldiers in a brigade who received a mistaken order from superiors. Tennyson was struck by this event, and his poem captures his fervent desire for history to remember and acclaim the heroic men who followed orders into a hellish situation in which most perished simply because someone had "blundered." His tight rhymes and short lines convey the frenzy of war, and the copious exclamation points whip the reader into indignation and patriotism.
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, / And after many a summer dies the swan. / Me only cruel immortality / Consumes ...
Tithonus was granted eternal life by Zeus, but his love Aurora, who requested this gift, failed to ask for what was truly desired: eternal youth. Thus, Tithonus lingers on, decaying, decrepit, and only wishing to die. He begins his monologue by noting that flora and fauna, animals, and other men are able to partake in the cycle of life and death that is a reality for all living creatures but himself. He is enervated, depressed (much like Mariana), and disillusioned. This poem was written not long after Tennyson's friend Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly, and the utter weariness of long life resonates with the reader even more when one sees that Tennyson himself lamented being a living man who longed for death.
Note also that death is portrayed here as particularly natural for man, who works with the very soil that he will later lie under in death. The swan, in contrast, does not work but enjoys many summers, but it also dies. The paradox is that Tithonus' immortality is actually cruel even though it is a gift, since decay still consumes him; the difference is that he is aware of his decay, while the dead farmer or swan is not.
Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark! / And may there be no sadness of farewell, / When I embark;
Tennyson deals with death in many of his poems, but none of them employs the hopeful and optimistic tone of "Crossing the Bar" when treating death. Written near the end of his life and usually included as the very last poem in collections of his work, the poem expresses none of the bitter and weary longing of "Tithonus" or the disgust for the weakness of one's physical form and the desire to accomplish more great deeds before time runs out as in "Ulysses." This poem presents death as a voyage out to sea. It is filled with luminous and positive imagery, a brisk tone, and a positive acceptance of the reality of the cycle of life: the bell rings, and the poet is ready now that his time has come. Tennyson knows he is going to be reunited with those who have gone before him (not least, Arthur Henry Hallam), and he is ready to meet his "Pilot" (God/Jesus, from other signs in the poem). He does not want anyone to grieve for him--unlike Tennyson's grief over those he lost--because this is an unavoidable yet wonderful and exciting experience. He will leave the darkness behind.
For when we ceased / There came a minute’s pause, and Walter said, / ‘I wish she had not yielded!’
"The Princess" is Tennyson's treatment of the desirability of gender equality, particularly in education. While an oftentimes stirring examination of the inherent intellectual and philosophical potential of women and the pressures on them not to achieve that potential (Prologue: "convention beats them down"), the poem also is a very traditional love story that leaves the reader wondering just how independent the lead female character really is. This line from Sir Walter, the man in the framing poem who asks that "The Princess" be composed, expresses the disquieting sense that for all of Princess Ida's ambitions and strong words about changing society, she has not really accomplished it by the end of the poem when she agrees to marry the Prince.
It is notable that Walter is the one who, after thinking for a minute, wishes aloud that she had not yielded, since in the Prologue he had expressed offense and disdain at a woman's expression of desire for equality (calling her "Ogress") and had even asked that the poem include a "prince to win her."
Tennyson’s Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Tennyson’s Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.