Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A Confession of Literary Sins

Confession #1

Recently in a comment on Via Negativa Dave remarked upon the tinny metronome of Victorian verse. I can't pretend not to know what he means, but I have to confess that I love that tinny metronome. Sitting in my cafe this morning, vainly wishing my friend would unexpectedly show for breakfast, I had Tennyson's Mariana running through my head for nearly an hour --

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creaked;
The blue fly sung i' the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked,
Or from the crevice peer'd about.
Old faces glimmered through the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!"

It's cast in a woman's voice, of course, because male poets are generally too bashful or too macho to speak about the feelings of abandonment in their own voices. Give them a woman's voice though, and they descend to the utmost maudlin, down to Hardy's line, which not even I can take seriously:

O woe is me, O woe is me, O woe is me, O misery!

The Victorians make a gorgeous fat target. Probably no one is easier or more fun to parody than Tennyson. "Mariana" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "The Lady of Shalott" must have inspired thousands of parodies. But they also give a shape to my own maudlin moments. I'm glad I had Tennyson's murmur in my head this morning. Tennyson himself found the Charge of the Light Brigade embarassing, but whenever he contemplated withdrawing it from his collected poems, he remembered the survivors of that charge who had written him and thanked him for the poem. It belonged to them, he said, not to him.

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