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Words and Grief: Tennyson’s Wisdom

For a long while I’ve been meaning to write a little about how an old poem has helped me in dealing with my new grief. A new blogger friend of mine reminded me, coincidentally, of Alfred Tennyson’s great poem, In Memoriam, written after the unexpected death of his best friend, whose life was cut short in its prime. The poem is really a series of shorter poems, each numbered. My favorite, I think, is number 5:

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel:
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
But the large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

What Tennyson means by “weeds,” by the way, is garments. We wrap ourselves in words like we wrap ourselves in clothing to keep out the cold. But our grief cannot be fully covered — only expressed in outline form through our words.

Over the last four months since I started blogging, I’ve found other sites where folks used words to help themselves grieve: Mariel’s Garden, The Price of Love, Dying Man’s Daily Journal, etc. Always, I find these sites moving. We try to express…the pain…the memories…the anger…the sadness. Words are inadequate, yes, but they help us like a “narcotic,” deadening some of the pain at least sometimes.

Is it “half a sin” to try to use words to help us grieve? We can’t do justice to the lost loved one nor to our own feelings. Yet, I think Tennyson sees that writing is necessary for him, despite its inadequacy as a medium for healing. And as for me, I think this blog has helped me work through some of my pain at the loss of my beloved grandmother and writing partner. I wanted to take the opportunity to thank those of you who have offered me support here. Your words have wrapped me up against the cold.

Thank you.

5 Responses

  1. Thank you too for opening your heart to us and giving us warmth when we needed it most. Your grandma , God bless her, lives on through your words, continuing to give comfort and light to those of us who grieve.

  2. Your post is beautifully written. Often words are all we have and you have used them so well, thank you for sharing this.

  3. Thank you both for your kind words. There is a comfort, isn’t there, to sharing with each other? Thanks for being there for me.

  4. Many thanks from me, too. It’s true that the ones we lose leave behind their wishes in many different ways, helping to shape our lives through our commitment to honour those hopes and expectations and take them forwards through our own actions, as best we can.

    The term ‘a widow’s weeds’ was still in relatively recent use here in England to describe the dowdy garb, often of rough cloth, traditionally worn by a wife after the loss of her husband.

    So when Tennyson writes of wrapping himself in ‘weeds’, it’s likely he had this very specific usage in mind.

  5. Yes, I agree with you that he is probably referring to widow’s weeds. So many layers in his great poem.

    Thanks for stopping by and adding to the discussion.

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