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“And those lone rites I have not seen,/And one drear sound I have not heard,/Are dreams that scarce will let me be,/Not there to bid my boy farewell,/When that within the coffin fell,/Fell – and flashed into the Red Sea,/Beneath a hard Arabian moon/And alien stars” [Alfred, Lord Tennyson].

by Catherine Owen

In these lines from a rarely-read poem, “To the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava,” on the death of Tennyson’s 32 year old son, Lionel, who caught a fever in India and died on the ship coming home, Tennyson so beautifully encapsulates the feelings one has in knowing that a beloved died apart from one, beyond any possibility of succor, assistance, hope. I love the unabashed yet still troubled quality of his elegies, how he wrote his epic “In Memoriam”, inspired by the death of his young writer friend Arthur Hallam over such a long period of time, expressing a sense of guilt that his mourning period is so extensive and yet continuing to write of the loss that altered everything for him. But of course, this was the time of Queen Victoria, who wore black for 40 years, held her lost husband’s nightshirt in bed and refused to return to her public duties for a lengthy time, so deep and demanding was her state of grief. A more well-known poem by Tennyson embeds in us this sense of relentless yearning. One doesn’t persist as before. Life is still loved, perhaps, but shifted, changed, discoloured. & art will not bring anything back. & yet it cannot, must not, be stoppered.

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break,
    On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
    The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
    That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
    That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
    To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
    And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
    At the foot of thy crags, O sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
    Will never come back to me.