74

Sarah Tolmie

copyright ©Sarah Tolmie 2018

In memoriam Tennyson said
Nine years of things about his friend
Who’d died. He brought him back by slow
Degrees, from sunsets, wind in the trees,

Gathering pieces painstakingly.
Tennyson, in his purity,
He never lied, never missed his line.
Grief became him metrically.

It made him blind. All he could see
Was Hallam’s absence: the whole world
A cancelled cheque, crumpled and furled,
Unspent inside his pocketbook.

There its yellowing edges curled
Until his friend crept out, imbued
Everything and made it new.
At second look, he saw it through

Lost eyes, and it was dearer far
Than it had been before. A borrowed
Death does that for you. Your own cannot.
We each will miss the lesson that

We’ve taught. Compassion is what we learn
From those who die and don’t return.
Grief gives us that hitch in the eye,
Catching on things as they pass by.

Notes on the Poem

In the 74th poem of the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection The Art of Dying, poet Sarah Tolmie examines a well-known and revered meditation on grief. In the process, she reconsiders it with simple and elucidating compassion. Tolmie casts her sights on "In Memoriam A.H.H." by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson's poem struggles with his particular and acute grief at the sudden demise of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 22. The work, comprised of 133 cantos in total, was completed in 1849, 16 years after Hallam's death. Read it and learn more about it here. A lament like this can overwhelm as you try to take it in fully, yet somehow Tolmie manages to encapsulate Tennyson's piercing and copious sorrow in six comparatively brief stanzas without giving it short shrift. She strikes notes of concern for poor, stricken Tennyson ... "It made him blind. All he could see Was Hallam’s absence: the whole world A cancelled cheque, crumpled and furled, Unspent inside his pocketbook." ... that are caring and motherly, consistent with the Griffin Poetry Prize judges' observation in their citation about the ways in which she establishes intimacy in her poems. That said, Tolmie is clear-eyed here, as she is throughout this collection that is faithful to the themes denoted and connoted by the book's title. In the Wikipedia article about Tennyson's poem, someone poses this question about the poem's form:
"In Memoriam" is written in four-line ABBA stanzas of iambic tetrameter, and such stanzas are now called In Memoriam Stanzas. Though not metrically unusual, given the length of the work, the metre creates a tonal effect that often divides readers – is it the natural sound of mourning and grief, or merely monotonous?
and Tolmie firmly takes on this very question with this stanza of her own: "Gathering pieces painstakingly. Tennyson, in his purity, He never lied, never missed his line. Grief became him metrically." By incorporating one of the iconic reflections on death with the overall charter of her collection, Tolmie offers up a wide range of tones, voices and approaches to the contemplation of mortality. While this one lends particular thematic heft to the exercise, the poet does not shy away from putting in perspective what it achieves from how it achieves it, and whether that gave the original poet or readers of the work suitable solace. At the same time, she doesn't sacrifice poignance or empathy in the process of providing a succinct but still sensitive assessment.

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