March 29, 2016; 1:30 p.m. It was the middle of professor Richard Ruppel’s Lit III class and we were talking about poems as per usual. One woman shared her favorite from a collection of poems that Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote. The last line read, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
We’ve all heard that line thrown around like it was the end all to all heartbreak. Usually it’s used in the context of a breakup. What most people don’t understand, though, is who it was actually written for.
Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” consisting of more than 100 cantos or individual poems, was written over the course of seventeen years. He did not spend all this time, like most poets, lamenting over the loss of his lover. He spent it on his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died too young.
It wasn’t about soulmates at all; more like soulbrothers.
Soulsisters, you can think about this too: What would you do without your best friend?
I never fully understood that kind of loss, only the “breakup” kind. I do, however, see it more clearly now.
On December 7, 2015, Alex didn’t show up for school. Alex was my sixteen-year-old brother Jake’s best friend. Alex’s friends didn’t know where he was. He never came home even when day turned to night. It was a car accident. He was also sixteen.
All of “In Memoriam” finds Tennyson experiencing his grief and doubt in waves. Tennyson couldn’t understand why it had to happen to his friend.
I know I’d give my life for my best friend. Wouldn’t you?
“And shall I take a thing so blind, / Embrace her as my natural good; / or crush her, like a vice of blood, / Upon the threshold of the mind?” (Canto III; Lines 13-16).
When you lose a loved one at the hand of death, you have a hard time accepting death as a natural occurrence. It seems unnatural that one should be gone so soon.
However, it’s not the end. Remember the famous line? Right before that, Tennyson said that even in his deepest sorrow he knows it’s going to better him.
“I envy not in any moods / The captive void of noble rage, / The linnet born within the cage / That never knew the summer woods” (Canto XXVII; Lines 1-4).
Tennyson is discovering how wonderful and difficult it is to be alive. He begs the question: would you rather never experience the world than to never experience hardship?
If you had never experienced sadness, how would you know happiness?
Everyone is being chased by time, and it’s going to hurt when it catches up because you knew unconditional love. When you love someone, even the little things become so important and worthwhile. Something as simple as a song can remind you of someone. Even something as simple as the instrument you hear.
Alex played the canjo. A canjo is a can attached to a piece of wood and strung like a guitar. It’s a makeshift banjo. Jake has a canjo, recently gifted to him by Alex’s mom, that sits in his room.
Most people who walk in there will see this and not think twice about it unless it’s along the lines of: What’s that? Jake sees it and remembers when Alex would play it.
My brothers and I wear a bracelet, just a simple rubber wristband, that says “World’s Best Canjo Player.” Everyone sees it and thinks we’re so close that we have cute, little friendships bracelets. I see it on my arm when I’m sitting at my desk or waving to a friend I pass on campus.
I remember the day I met Alex. I remember seeing how cool Jake and he were and thinking, “That kind of friendship is priceless.” Everyone else could see that too when Jake spoke his part of the eulogy.
By the end of Tennyson’s seventeen year eulogy, he found a way to live again. The only way to move on is to feel pain and let it motivate you. Talk about it if you’re a talker, or write about it if you’re not.
Novelist Mik Everett said, “Even if you leave, a part of you will always be left behind. If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.”
She talks of “in love” or the “breakup” loss, but can’t this apply to all love?
I would venture to say if a writer loves you and writes about you, you live forever. The memory of A.H.H. has been preserved in Tennyson’s poems since their completion in 1849. Alex was only sixteen and will always be sixteen.
You don’t have to lose someone if they live on in your heart and mind. The world won’t lose them either if they live in your spoken or unspoken words. Maybe that’s the point of a eulogy; it’s for you more than it’s for the subject.