21 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 21

Today we shall be lachrymal:

Tears, Idle Tears

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892)

Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell

At midnight tears
Run into your ears.

– Louise Bogan (1897 - 1970)

Two poems that take different routes to the same place. The Tennyson is lush, languorous, erotic in its intense exploration of every filament of its theme; the Bogan is stripped, stark, ironic. Yet both explore the sorrow of loss, particularly romantic loss, and the sorrow of remembering past loss and past love. The slightly overblown melodrama of Bogan's title, which is longer than the actual poem, provides a certain ironic distance from the experience, but it also reflects how the narrator felt at the wrenching time of the experience. Indirection and implication tell us the circumstance: It's midnight, she's presumably in bed, and clearly alone, staring at the ceiling, weeping in the dark (in fact, under these circumstances, tears do run down the side of your face and into your ears). It's exactly the sort of weirdly precise physical observation that can distract you in moments of great emotional pain. Tennyson expands his emotion to cover worlds: the sunrise, sailing ships on the sea, birds singing at dawn, light dying in a dying man's eyes; he subtly gives us unexpected modifiers that alter and extend what he's describing: the despair is divine; the Autumn-fields, near the end of their productive life, are happy; the summer dawn is dark, sad, and strange.

Tennyson's poem can be found in any collection of his works, and indeed in almost any anthology of English poetry that includes the nineteenth century. Bogan's poem is from The Blue Estuaries.

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