In Memoriam A.H.H. – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

By way of complete contrast with last weeks blog on happiness, this week I have read, to give the poem its full title, ‘In Memoriam Arthur H. Hallam’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which is his long eulogy to his fellow student at Cambridge university who died in 1833 of a brain haemorrhage aged just twenty two. He started writing almost immediately after Hallam’s death and kept adding to the work over the ensuing years until it was finally published in 1850 by which time it had grown to 725 four line verses (2,900 lines in total) split into 131 cantos along with a prologue and epilogue although these first and last blocks of verse were not called that by Tennyson himself but rather have gained those titles over the years. Not only did this, one of Tennyson’s greatest works, finally get published in 1850 but in November that year he became Poet Laureate, a title he held until his death in 1892 the longest time that anyone has held the post.

Although the poem was published in 1850 Tennyson was still not satisfied with it and continued to tinker meaning that there are several versions produced by him over the next forty years and indeed the version included in my copy, and what is now regarded as the definitive version, was the one further amended by his son Hallam Tennyson after the poets death. For such a long poem on such a sad subject it is surprisingly readable once you get into the rhythm of the work. Each of the verses take the rhyming format of A B B A, meaning that the first and fourth lines rhyme as do the second and third, although sometimes the rhyme is rather forced as can be seen in the very first verse of the prologue. The middle lines are fine as they pair ‘face’ with ’embrace’ but lines one and four are rather shaky pairing ‘love’ with ‘prove’, I’m not sure what accent you would need for that to work but it is rather jarring and doesn’t get the work off to a flying start.

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

There is, as you would expect for a Victorian English work of literature, a Christian emphasis to a significant part of the poem, but probably less than you would imagine. Tennyson is far more concerned about getting his feelings, along with those of his sister Emily who was engaged to Arthur Hallam at the time of his death, onto paper than expressing a strong religious position and the work is all the more powerful for it. It includes a very famous quote as the last two lines of canto twenty seven which can be seen in the image below as the third verse on the left hand side.

“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ actually shows Tennyson starting to come to terms with the loss of his friend and prospective brother in law and contrasts with the last lines of canto one ‘Behold the man who loved and lost, but all he was is overworn’. The rest of the text in the image above is part of the three cantos that deal with the first family Christmas after the death of Arthur Hallam, which eventually has the family able to sing together although somewhat reticently. Canto seventy eight deals with the following Christmas in 1834 where things are somewhat more normal although still strained and later in the poem he also covers the 1837 and 1838 Christmas festivities as he finds greater solace in his faith. The poem ends on a bright note with the marriage of another of his sisters, Cecilia, signifying the gradual coming to terms with loss of his friend.

Another famous line from the poem occurs in canto fifty six “Nature, red in tooth and claw” which came to be associated with the theory of natural selection as set out by Charles Darwin nine years later and indeed some parts of In Memoriam can be read as indicating that Tennyson was at least passingly familiar with the concept even then as he wrestles with his faith in the aftermath of his friends death. The quote isn’t entirely original to Tennyson but this is the first appearance of the full phrase.

My copy of the book is by the Folio Society and was printed in 1975. It is quarter bound in fine grained black leather with olive green cloth boards and printed on Abbey Mills antique laid paper which makes the whole book lovely to handle and a pleasure to read. The headings to the cantos are particularly attractive and the Bulmer typeface chosen for the text is very clear. It is pretty easy to get hold of this edition, at the time of writing there were four copies available on abebooks starting at just £6.60 plus postage. I probably still wouldn’t have picked it off the shelf if I hadn’t been in lock down due to coronavirus as a poem of almost three thousand lines is rather daunting, especially given the subject matter but it is definitely worth a read.

Hansel and Gretel – Simon Armitage

This was not the book I expected to be writing about at the beginning of June as the publication date is not until the 24th of this month, but on the 31st May a wonderful package arrived and I couldn’t help abandoning what I had been reading and starting on this beautiful volume straight away.

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Simon Armitage has just been made the Poet Laureate for the next ten years and this is therefore his first newly published work since that honour. The poem originally appeared as a ‘libretto’ to a puppet production designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins which toured England between July and November 2018 but this is its first book publication.

You can see the entire production with the darkly appropriate music by Matthew Kaner, performed by the Goldfield Ensemble here

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has produced a wonderful series of illustrations for this book published by Design For Today. These are clearly based on the theatre production without being limited by his original work.

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The subtitle of the poem is ‘A Nightmare in Eight Scenes’ as the Hansel and Gretel story has been re-interpreted as a modern tale of refugees from a war zone. Without giving too much away the family are starving as the bombs rain amongst them at the start of the book and the parents decide to at least get the children away from there to somewhere where they stand more chance of survival. Hansel and Gretel though mishear their parents planning and think they are simply to be abandoned. This is not the only time that mishearing becomes a plot device in the poem.

As in the original Brothers Grimm tale there is a ‘witch’ and a gingerbread cottage, a trail of stones, a trail of breadcrumbs and abandonment to avoid famine followed by a return only this time without the treasure that would lead to a happy ending. In the modern world of war meted out against helpless civilians there is rarely a happy ending…

The illustrations fit the text so well and the design of the book is beautifully done. I particularly like the colour coding of the words so that you know who is speaking, each character has their own colour as specified in the cast list at the start.

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Oddly I’d never read any Simon Armitage before this but I will definitely be seeking out more of his work. According to his website there are a lot of books to check out

The total production run of this book is two thousand copies, of which one hundred form a further limited edition signed by Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins and which include two extra art prints. Mine is copy number twenty two.

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Summoned by Bells – John Betjeman

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This autobiography in verse covers Betjeman’s early life from his Edwardian childhood (he was born in 1906) to his university days at Magdalen College in Oxford where he was taught by C.S. Lewis. The book was first printed in 1960 just as Betjeman was getting serious recognition as a poet with a dozen volumes published before this and it is also the year he received The Queen’s Medal for Poetry and was made a CBE. The verse has his characteristic humour but also darker times like describing being bullied at school. It is uncharacteristic also in being, for the most part, blank verse, though he can’t stop himself at times, from adding in some parts in rhymes. The book is split into nine chapters as we follow him growing up.

We start in Highgate where the family had moved when he was three years old, they were clearly relatively well to do as they owned a four wheeled carriage and regularly holidayed in Cornwall. Apart from Maud, his overbearing nurse, who seemed to delight in punishing him for slight misdemeanors he appears to have had a happy childhood up until he went to school. Apart from one traumatic incident that clearly haunted him right up to his fifties when he wrote the lines on just the second page of Summoned by Bells.

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world
When firelight shone on green linoleum;
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky,
Deep beyond deep, like never ending stars,
And turned to Archibald, my safe old bear,
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidence,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down,
I used to wait for hours to see him move,
Convinced that he could breathe. One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

His father was the third generation owner of a silversmith and cabinet making business and was very disappointed in John because he refused to carry on the firm and all this is covered in the second chapter of the book. In this edition each of the chapters has a small line drawing by Michael Tree and a brief summary of what will be covered. The description of the workshops for the business in this section and the hours that John spent clearly enjoying himself with the craftsmen employed there made it all the more galling for his father when he later expressed no interest in continuing it

To all my father’s hopes. In later years,
Now old and ill, he asked me once again
To carry on the firm, I still refused.
And now when I behold, fresh-published, new,
A further volume of my verse, I see
His kind grey eyes look woundedly at mine,
I see his workmen seeking other jobs,
And that red granite obelisk that marks
The family grave in Highgate cemetery
Points an accusing finger to the sky.

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Chapter three has him at school and being bullied at both his junior schools, he seems unclear why at the first one but at the second his apparently German surname in 1913/4, spelt then Betjemann, led to him being picked on by gangs and having to come up with various routes home to avoid them. Ironically the family was actually originally Dutch and the additional ‘n’ was added when they came to the UK over a century earlier but soon Britain was at war with the Netherlands, so they wanted to appear German. During WWI the second ‘n’ was quietly dropped again. Chapter four and the family is on holiday in Cornwall leading to the start of the young Betjeman’s love affair with railways and the English countryside.

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Chapters five and seven describe his private education, first at Dragon preparatory school in Oxfordshire and then Marlborough college in Wiltshire. His time at Dragon appears to have been pretty happy and exploring by bicycle leads him to churches and that other great love of his throughout his life, architecture. Marlborough however was a more difficult time, there are stories of beatings and the prefects birching the boys and terrorising them as a group known to the younger boys as “Big Fire” because of where they sat in the evenings. A boy who had transgressed would be called to “Big Fire” for a beating or sometimes worse. I skipped chapter six which covers being back in London during holidays exploring the London Underground and buying books, the family had moved to Chelsea and the bookshops abounded

Untidy bookshops gave me such delight,
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire

I’m with Betjeman all the way with those sentiments.

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The summary above of chapter eight pretty well covers it, his father is even more dominating than before but now John is big enough to escape and does so on long cycle rides round the area discovering yet more churches.

The final section deals with his years at Oxford, a place he freely admits to doing little or no work at and certainly not studying for his degree. Instead he builds a wide social network which become extremely useful to him in later years

No wonder, looking back, I never worked.
Too pleased with life, swept in the social round,
I soon left Old Marlburians behind.
(As one more solemn of our number said:
“Spiritually I was at Eton, John”)
I cut tutorials with wild excuse,
For life was luncheons, luncheons all the way-
And evening dining with the Georgeoisie

How much of this lack of drive towards his degree was down to the mutual dislike between himself and C S Lewis it is difficult to tell, it’s quite possible that even with a more sympathetic tutor who may have got more out of him he would still have left without a degree. In the poem he blames a failure of the compulsory divinity course but in reality he really put so little effort into his studies that he was never going to pass.

The book is a fun read and so unusual in the use of verse throughout. I first read it many years ago and had forgotten how much I enjoyed it.