The mind is not only its own place, as Milton’s Satan observes, but it can also be a pretty strange place, or mine can anyway, especially these days. Today, for example, it has been six months (six months!) since Owen’s death, and what keeps running through my mind is a mangled version of lines from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “half a year, half a year, half a year onward, into the valley of death …” and then nothing comes next, it just starts over, because not only (of course) are these not the poem’s actual words but I don’t know what words of my own should follow to finish the thought.
It’s hard to imagine a poem that is less apt, for the occasion or for my feelings about it. (I hate this poem, actually, though I love so much of Tennyson’s poetry.*) I can’t think of any reason for this mental hiccup besides the generally cluttered condition of my mind thanks to two years of COVID isolation and now six months (six months!) of grieving. Six months is half a year—half a year! I have to keep repeating it to make myself believe it, and it’s probably just the repetition and rhythm of that phrase that trips my tired brain over into Tennyson’s too-familiar verse.
Half a year. That stretch of time seemed unfathomably long to me in the first days and weeks after Owen’s death—a future too far away to imagine, never mind plan or prepare for. Time passing was supposed to be what helped, but that oversimplifies it, as everyone who told us “it takes time” probably knew but didn’t know how to (or didn’t want to) explain. That feeling I had that he was receding—not from our memories or our hearts, of course, but from our present reality—is even stronger now, which is worse, not better. I don’t want him to belong to the past, but time doesn’t stop. I can’t hide from my own future any more, either: my sabbatical (so eagerly awaited, so much of its work so different than I expected, and so much more difficult) ends today. Half a year, half a year, half a year onward: it’s relentless.
How should the thought finish? As I walk through the valley of the shadow of Owen’s death, I have no sure path or comfort. All I know, or hope I know, is that at some point, in some way, I will emerge from it and he will not. Six months ago today, devastated beyond any words of my own, I copied stanzas from Tennyson’s In Memoriam into my journal. It remains the best poem I know about grief, though as it turns towards a resolution not available to me, maybe it’s more accurate to say that it contains the best poetry I know about grief. (For that, I can forgive him the jingoistic tedium of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”) This has always been my favorite section—it is so powerful in its stark simplicity:
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasp’d no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
He is not here. Half a year. How long, how short, how impossible that feels.
*It is amazing that you can listen to a recording of Tennyson actually reciting it, however. Why do I find this so moving? Maybe for the same reason that I found myself in tears when I ran across some of the original issues of Bleak House at the V&A.
The words of Tennyson are very point to poignant. Please keep up the blog. Thank you. Carolyn
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I love that section of “In Memoriam”, those short, staccato phrases, it’s a grasping at something so unfathomably hard, just so so hard. I think of you a lot and pray (I know you’re not religious!) you’re well.
Thank you, Kay. Yes, that’s such a good way to explain what these lines are doing. Tennyson is probably best known for more “flowery” or elaborate language, but the last line here is a master class in conveying emotion without flourishes, all those lone syllables one after another.
That’s true, isn’t it? He’s got the “flowery” Victorian “Lady of Shalott” vibe, or reputation, but these are marvelous.
On the bald street breaks the blank day
This December will mark three years since my wife and I suffered a loss that for a long time emptied the world of meaning. I have been reading your blog the last six months with sympathy and understanding, but I have nothing to say of any use, if “use” is even applicable to grief. People will tell you that you will move past this, or move somehow out of this, but that will not happen. You will move into it, have moved into it, and will learn to live in this new world. And you will do this, I am certain. A month ago, my brother-in-law lost his wife to cancer, a sudden terrible surprise that came swiftly and now here he is, lost and dazed and he doesn’t recognize the world. Our interior landscapes are altered permanently and we must learn to find the way forward without our beloved landmarks. I hate it. I hate it so much. But there is (to risk sounding platitudinous) consolation and there is still the world, and I urge you to hang onto what consoles you and to what the world still offers. Like poetry. I was thinking of “Light Brigade” last week. It is so bad, but it’s the first long poem I was made to read when I was in grammar school. I will say that some of the leggy, rhythmic lines are fun to recite.
Thank you so much for this kind and thoughtful comment, Scott, and my heart goes out to you and your wife for your own loss. It does help to know that other people have found their own ways to live in a version of the world that they too initially found completely unacceptable, unrecognizable.
I love “The Raven” for that reason: I don’t think that it has much significance or depth, but it is so much fun to recite.