Beauty in Death: Tennyson and Howe

Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a heartbreaking poetic elegy to his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, each verse filled with a painful remembrance and yearning for Arthur to be sitting beside him. However, while the pain of missing someone never quite subsides, we find ways to move on. By the end of In Memoriam, Tennyson comes to a sort of acceptance that his friend is gone, but affirms that the love he has for him will never dissipate; we carry our loved ones in our hearts. The last few cantos of In Memoriam reminded me greatly of Marie Howe’s poem, “What the Living Do”. Tennyson and Howe’s poetry serve to demonstrate an appreciation for life along with an affirmation of love in dark times of grief and mourning.

In canto CVI, Tennyson describes the ringing of bells, presumably ringing out the New Year. At the end of the first stanza Tennyson writes, “Ring out, wild bells, and let him die” (p. 183). The bells ringing out the new year simultaneously symbolize the acceptance of Arthur’s death along with ringing out the painful feelings of grief. As Tennyson calls for the removal of all negative feelings of sin, depression and mourning, he calls for the ringing in of “love of truth and right” along with the “common love of good” (p. 184).

Canto CVI and Howe’s poem both demonstrate a cherishing of life. They are reminders that even in the face of death there are things to be thankful for. As Tennyson calls for the bells to ring in love and peace, he shows the reader that he wants to keep living. In “This is What the Living Do” Howe similarly lists simple things that she cherishes. The purchasing of a hairbrush. The coffee running down her sleeve and wrist. These are things, albeit small, that she can still do because she is alive. In the wake of death, Tennyson and Howe both show us that there are things to look forward to and be appreciative of simply because we are still alive.

Moreover, in Canto CXXX, Tennyson describes how he feels Arthur around him in nature. Tennyson describes how he hears his friends voice on the rolling air and sees him standing in the silhouette of the sun rising and setting (p. 185). At the end of the canto Tennyson beautifully writes, “Far off thou art, but ever nigh; / I have thee still, and I rejoice; / I prosper, circled with thy voice; / I shall not lose thee tho’ I die.” Tennyson’s final stanza has a striking similarity to the end of Howe’s poem. Howe writes about how as she goes through her day, catching glimpses of herself in store windows, she is overcome with an appreciation of life and a remembrance of her departed beloved. Howe writes, “I am living. I remember you.”

Both Howe and Tennyson’s poems are written to someone who is passed yet demonstrate a beautiful appreciation for life and a declaration of remembrance. Howe and Tennyson both show us that even in times of death and grief, there are still things to be grateful for, beauty to be found, and that the love we have for our departed will never be forgotten. This is how we remember and honor our deceased loved ones.

Fleeting Emotion and Uncertainty in “Dover Beach”

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” describes the fleeting nature of the human condition. By the fleeting nature of the human condition, I am referring to the sensation of the world and human state being temporal. Arnold invokes the sound of crashing waves, the loss of Christianity and the feeling of romantic love as a background for understanding this aspect of life.

Arnold begins with a description of Dover Beach and the auditory sensation of the waves crashing over the rocks. Arnold writes that the waves “begin, and cease, and then begin again” (line 12) creating cyclical imagery. Arnold then associates the continuous ebb and flow of the waves with human emotion, specifically, “the eternal note of sadness” (line 14). At first, Arnold’s description of the unceasing ocean may seem to be in contrast to the idea that there is an inconsistency in human nature. However, through Arnold’s appeal to the Ancient Greeks, it becomes clear that for centuries, we have been contemplating the “turbid ebb and flow / of human misery” (lines 17-18). The only thing constant in life, besides the crashing of the waves, is the prospect of turbulent human emotion. We know that when we are sad, we will be happy again, and we know that when we are happy it will not last forever. Emotions, like the ocean, are a cyclical motion.

Straying away from the idea of emotion and human sentimentality, Arnold arrives at an examination of Christianity in the third stanza. Arnold writes, “The Seat of Faith / Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore” (lines 21-22). Using our knowledge of Victorian-era history, we can infer that Christianity’s presence is beginning to fade due to science and the mission of progress. Arnold suggests that Christianity’s once powerful roar is transforming into a quiet breath (lines 25-26). Thus, abstract concepts such as religion are just as temporal as the emotional state of a human. Again, “Dover Beach” serves to suggest that nothing is constant in our world except the prospect of change, be it a change in human emotion or a larger abstract change in societal thought.

In the final stanza of the poem, the poetic voice speaks directly to the object of its affection writing, “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” (lines 29-30). Matthew Arnold, who is also the poetic voice, is aware of the changing state of the world and asks his lover to be the one thing that remains constant. Moreover, Arnold embarks on a bleak description of the world, citing that is “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light” (line 33) among many other pains. Arnold writes that he and his lover are “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight” (line 36) creating an image of the couple attempting to remain grounded as the world around them changes.

Ultimately, at the center of “Dover Beach” lives a couple, imploring that the other remain constant in a time of uncertainty surrounding large societal change and the familiar human condition of fleeting emotion.  Arnold’s poem perfectly details the various changes occurring in Victorian history, along with Victorian poetry, and allows us as readers to sympathize with the turbulence of the time period.


desire, danger, and a paradoxical blazon

Mary Robbinson’s “Sappho and Phaon” describes the love-struck Sappho’s infatuation with Phaon that ultimately results in her fatal end. The long poem is broken up into sonnets, each titled and reserved for a specific emotion or scene. Sappho’s desire and yet her condemnation of these desires color Robbinson’s poem and result in the transformation of the blazon.

In the section titled, “Describes Phaon” Sappho’s awareness of the danger that accompanies her lust and the lust itself come to a head. Robbinson writes, “Dangerous to hear is that melodious tongue, / And fatal to the sense those murderous eyes,” (lines 127-8). Already, the adjectives Sappho is using to describe her beloved have negative connotations, creating tension in the traditional blazon form. These opposing alliterate adjectives being used to describe the physical attributes of Phaon, melodious and murderous, serve to amplify what is at the core of Sappho’s emotions: confusion. Sappho is being torn in two different directions by her heart and head which ultimately results in a blazon that is not traditional. Instead, we end up with a paradoxical blazon, one that lists the beauties and charms of a beloved but also seems to demonstrate an understanding of the harmful and dangerous effect these attributes have on the beholder. Nevertheless, Sappho continues to describe Phaon invoking images of an arrow in a sapphire sheath made to represent the danger that lurks in Phaon’s beautiful but haunting eyes (lines 129-30).  Sappho’s descriptions take a sharp turn, represented as the volta of the sonnet, as she positively describes her beloved’s “smooth cheek” (line 132) and “polished brow” (line 135). Robbinson writes, “That lip, like Cupid’s bow, with rubies strung,” (line 134) can be paralleled to the earlier description of the arrow in a sapphire sheath. Much like how Cupid has a bow and an arrow, something that can kill and something that cannot, Phaon has the power to evoke both desire and danger in Sappho through his physical characteristics.

Sappho’s processing of this information results in a transformed blazon.  Robbinson modifies the blazon by simply writing in this form as a woman and cataloging the physical attributes of a male beloved. However, the blazon is also transformed through the opposing feelings regarding love, which are danger and desire. The beloved doesn’t have eyes that are “nothing like the sun” (Sonnet 130, Shakespeare) but instead eyes that are murderous. The beloved’s tongue while melodious and pleasurable inspires feelings of danger. Through this formation of what I have coined the paradoxical blazon, one can begin to see commentary on love emerging. Sappho, and therefore Robbinson, are acknowledging the pain that accompanies love. By reworking the blazon and creating space within it to talk about the danger of lust and the power physical attractiveness can have over individuals, Robbinson is providing commentary on our traditional notions of love and desire. The feeling of danger that arises as one begins to fall in love, or lust, is just as strong as the lust itself and therefore, deserves to be written about.

Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft, and The Female Vagrant

William Wordsworth’s “The Female Vagrant” tells the first-person narrative of a woman whose life and family have been destroyed by war. Wordsworth details the destructions of war through a feminine lens and emphasizes the lasting ramifications of war on the family and woman. By doing this, Wordsworth presents war not as a singular event on a battlefield, but as an event that harms all involved at various points in time.

In Wordsworth’s poem, even before the husband is officially sent to war, the family is facing destruction. Wordsworth writes, “My husband’s arms now only served to strain / Me and his children, hungering in his view” (lines 302-303). The grammar and line structure of this sentence is particularly interesting. On the one hand, one could read this line as the narrator saying the husband’s labor has forced the family to relocate. They are straining, or pulling, themselves to move to America. Alternatively, this line could be read as the husband’s arms no longer having the ability to be around his children and wife. His body is no longer meant for love, only work. He is property. This leaves the wife and children begging for his attention in his view. Read either way, the husband can see his family, but due to the demand for his labor, he is unable to properly fill the role of loving father and husband.

The concept of the body being strained for physical labor is present in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Wollstonecraft writes that for the poor man who has no liberty or property, “His property is in his nervous arms” (125). Wollstonecraft follows with the image of these arms pulling at a “strange rope” highlighting the absurdity of this labor. As Wollstonecraft and Wordsworth point out, the poor man becomes property of the nation.

However, Wordsworth goes even further to suggest that the entire family is part of the war effort. Each member of the family is partaking in some form of labor, even if it is solely emotional. The second stanza ends with the line, “We reached the western world a poor devoted crew” (line 304). The words ‘poor’ and ‘devoted’ following one another is crucial. The family could be poor in the sense of not having wealth or in the sense of being afflicted with a terrible situation. Either way, this family’s devotion is forced. Moreover, the woman refers to her family as a ‘crew.’ The female narrator is acknowledging that herself and her children are as much a part of the war effort as her husband. Each member of the family has made a sacrifice.

Wollstonecraft calls attention to the concept of the family as a unit or crew. She writes that the “distress of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them […] were regarded as “vulgar sorrows” (125). Though Wollstonecraft is exposing the mindset of the rich, she still regards the family as a unit.

Unfortunately, this unit does not remain intact for our female vagrant. Wordsworth writes, “All perished, all, in one remorseless year” (line 320). The poem then takes an especially dark turn as the woman returns to England only to discover a nation she does not recognize. As heartbreaking as the second half of Wordsworth’s poem is, it is crucial to recognize that the poem continues even after the narrator’s children and husband die. She has to go on living. The effects of war do not end once the fighting on the battlefield is over. War has never-ending consequences, absurd heartbreaking beginnings, and demands labor from all as both Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft detail.

Emerging Binaries through Burns


Robert Burns’ poem, ““Epistle to J. Laparik, An Old Scot Bard” sets up a sort of binary between traditional ways of learning such as school, and unconventional forms of gaining, knowledge such as through Nature. Nature, according to Burns, is the most beneficial and rewarding way to learn and become privy to knowledge. This idea is demonstrated through the fact that the concept of Nature, with an intentional capital N, envelopes Burn’s poem. The first stanza of the poem begins with Burns painting a scene of budding flowers and an animal running across the green. He regards nature as “an unknown frien’” and writes that this friendship provides Burns with a sort of freedom (line 5). From the previous lines we can infer that this freedom alludes to the capability to create something from nothing; the capability to write three beautiful lines of verse by simply looking around. The concept of freedom can also be found in additional poetry from the Romantic Era. Nevertheless, this intimate relationship with nature is mirrored in the last stanza of the poem when Burns regards Nature as “My Muse” (line 77). As previously mentioned, Burns’ capitalization of certain words is intentional. When Burns regards nature with a capital N, he is implying that Nature has authority and is a source of knowledge. It is something that we can and should learn from. “My Muse” emphasizes the intimate relationship Burns and Nature have. Burns has a sort of ownership over Nature that can only come from a passionate relationship that inspires.

The binary between traditional and unconventional ways of learning begins to emerge in the eleventh and twelfth stanzas. Within the eleventh stanza Burns takes on a sarcastic tone when he asks, “What’s a’ your jargon o’ the schools, / Your Latin names for horns an’ stools;” (lines 61-62). Burns is regarding this traditional form of learning as flashy and ostentatious. Schooling has all the adornments but is lacking in its production of knowledge. In fact, within the twelfth stanza emerges another binary, this time between information and knowledge.  Burns writes that individuals who go to college “gang in stirks, and come out asses” (line 69) implying that students leave college with a false confidence that could be attributed to the conflation between information and knowledge. This false confidence then spawns unachievable ambitions such as climbing Parnassus (line 72). Thus, traditional ways of schooling appear to only set its students up for failure, something which Nature avoids. Moreover, the concept of school is a stand-in for British rule over Scotland. When contrasted one can begin to see that disparities between the two sources of authority and knowledge but more importantly, everything Scotland can provide that England cannot. Read this way, this poem functions as an ode to Scottish Nature specifically.

Furthermore, Burns acknowledges that while Nature might not be as outwardly extravagant as college, it provides inspiration. Burns writes, “My Muse, though hamely in attire, / May touch the heart…” (lines 77-78). Although one may have to search for the beauty in nature and “drudge through dub an’ mire” (line 75) the outcome of learning through Nature is indispensable.

Lastly, through the uninterrupted meter and rhythm of this poem, Burns’ poem emphasizes structure through Nature. Though nature may be an abstract concept, it still offers structure and protection. One does not need traditional forms of schooling and knowledge to achieve this, according to Burns. Grammatically, the poem ending with an ellipse rather than a period can be inferred as Burns noting that this conversation is not over. There is still more to say because there is still more that Nature can provide.