Tennyson: Art imitates life and proves me wrong yet again

Heavily hangs the broad sunflower. Keswick, Gunning 25th December 2018. Photo by Michael de Percy.

Alfred, Lord TennysonAlfred, Lord Tennyson by Alfred Tennyson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Stoics were happy to be proven wrong so that they might root out their own ignorance. Only recently have I begun to really enjoy poetry, and a visit to the bookstore at a time my mind was open brought me to this selection of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Tennyson became Poet Laureate of Britain in 1850 following William Wordworth's death. He wasn't the first choice. Not knowing what the position of poet laureate even meant, my class self-consciousness went off on its usual tangent. Typical, an "appointed" artist. State-contrived creativity. What nonsense.

I once felt the same about Hemingway. Americans uber-promoting their own as the best in the world, without considering anyone else, anywhere else. And then I read Islands in the Stream. Wow. And I have since devoured all the works I could find written by Hemingway. He is my favourite author.

So when I purchased this book, I thought I'd give it a go. And then my class-self-consciousness kicked in. Until page 4:
        Earthward he boweth the heavy stalks
of the mouldering flowers:
       Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i' the earth so chilly; 
Before reading the book, I had been out preparing the garden for the ensuing heatwave. An enormous sunflower had opened up, the biggest I have ever seen. Then it began to droop.

I added a longer stake to keep the flower upright. But after I put the stake in, I realised that the flower was not drooping for lack of water or support. It was solid, bent over in the position shown in the photograph above.

A few hours later I read page 4 of Tennyson's Song. And in it was all the beauty and reason of my broad sunflower in its present condition. A work of God. 

My Damascene moment instantly converted me to Tennyson. Once again, my own bullshit had been called and I was wrong. 

The rest of the works are an absolute delight, and I made an interesting discovery. Tennyson used the phrase "a handful of dust" (p. 48). Evelyn Waugh had borrowed the phrase as the title for his novel, from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

The Waste Land is what got me into poetry in the first place, so the miracle of life continues, the circle of literary learning turns, and I live and learn.

View all my reviews