“The death of his father brought out emotions which he had never experienced before…”

The “he” in this sentence is Alfred, Lord Tennyson. That fact is probably important in making the rest of the sentence bizarre:

“The death of his father brought out emotions which he had never experienced before, so he wrote them on a piece of paper.”

Talk about anticlimax.

Tennyson’s father took charge of much of his education until illness made the man abusive and unstable; he left the family to live abroad when Tennyson was in his late teens, returning when Tennyson was 22, dying shortly thereafter. The following year (1833), Tennyson published his second solo volume of poetry; coincidentally, his close friend Arthur Hallam died that same year, and Tennyson began work on a long poem dedicated to Hallam, the famous In Memoriam A.H.H., which he published seventeen years later.

The death of Tennyson’s father must have brought out the strong emotion, principally, of relief. Mentally unstable off and on, the older Tennyson had repeatedly threatened his son with violence and was verbally abusive to his entire family as he descended into paranoia and madness. I don’t know of any poem written about that man’s death. If Tennyson wrote something down “on a piece of paper,” that paper is long gone.

My student must have been thinking of Hallam, whose death was sudden and whose life was so closely entwined with Tennyson’s that he had planned to marry Tennyson’s sister. The two men were intense friends and colleagues, intellectually akin. Tennyson was devastated by his death, and In Memoriam tracks a heroic struggle to come to terms with it and with the universe in which it took place.

If In Memoriam is what my student is referring to as “emotions” written down “on a piece of paper,” he’s got an awfully casual notion of poetic composition and spiritual and artistic struggle.

I do like, though, the cause-effect relationship here: death of father causes emotions; emotions therefore written down. The “piece of paper” makes me think of paper napkins, backs of envelopes, pages torn out of notebooks, scraps left in the bottoms of wastebaskets. In the grips of unaccustomed emotion, one grabs whatever’s handy and scribbles it all down.

William Wordsworth, the strong-emotion-recollected-in-tranquility man, couldn’t have rolled over in his grave at the time, since he didn’t die until the year In Memoriam was actually published; but he must have done some rolling when my student described Tennyson in the grips of poetic inspiration. The picture also doesn’t seem true to what we know of Tennyson—who, worried about his own mental health, family obligations, and poetic aspirations, took his time with just about everything (he met “the love of his life” in 1830, became engaged in 1839, lost much of his money and became unengaged in 1840, and married her in 1850).

Well, as they say, Whatever. My student’s version of poetic inspiration should be a lesson to us all, though: never be without a piece of paper. If something happens that brings out unfamiliar emotions in you, you’ve go to be ready to write them down.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““The death of his father brought out emotions which he had never experienced before…”

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