Friday, August 10, 2012

Behind the Veil

The following is an extract from Alfred Tennyson’s 1849 poem, In Memoriam A.H.H., cantos 55 and 56. The initials stand for Arthur Henry Hallam, a fellow poet and a young man who died at 22; he was engaged to Tennyson’s sister, Emily. The work was originally titled “The Way of the Soul,” and the quoted portions in a way summarize the “problem” we all face here.

The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

'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.

'Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.' And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law—
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

Although context provides the explanation, the word “type” used first in the second stanza of 55 means “species,” but that word would jar poetic nerves. Another as it were poetic work-around is in the last line of the first stanza, “the likest God within the soul,” where saying “the likeness of God within the soul” would much trouble the meter. Those fanes in the third stanza of 55? Banners.

The segments illustrate the problem faced by the sincere and active soul attempting to grapple with traditional understanding of the divine arrangements and actual observation. As Tennyson himself remarks in this work (Canto 96): “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” There is discernible here also the path by which portions of humanity reach a gnostic vision of the fallen world.

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