Saturday, May 18, 2013

'after many a summer dies the swan'

Lee mentions Virginia, in 1899, testing her new pens in the back of her journal "with some fragments and quotations -- including the first verse of Tennyson's sad Tithonus...." I remember Woolf quoting that in other journal entries, too, and at least one book. It must have echoed frequently in her mind:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Which is Mopey High Victorian at its finest, and not as risible to a later irony-ridden age as, say, "Mariana," but there's something unsettling about Tennyson, a modern weariness, once all the smoke and cannons from "Crossing the Bar" or "Charge of the Light Brigade" die off* -- something of the same sad music in Morris. Remember me a little then, I pray, The idle singer of an empty day, which has haunted me ever since I first studied it in college. You hear the same echo in -- Housman? altho that's what he's fighting against, with his tough-minded strenuous irony. Hopkins maybe: O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed....

"Tithonus" goes on too long, and is too fluent, fluidly beautiful, mellifluous (as Charlotte Bronte tartly said of "In Memoriam") and yet --

....the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground....

*Then again, I doubt anyone under the age of forty even remembers "Crossing the Bar" to dismiss it. Or perhaps fifty. I remember a teacher in grad school being amazed that nobody in the class knew "Light Brigade" when we were reading To the Lighthouse -- I did, but I kept quiet because that's what you do when nobody else in an American classroom knows the answer.