National Poetry Day Theme 'Truth'

Of all Tennyson’s poetry, ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ is the poem that most explicitly deals with this year’s National Poetry Day theme ‘Truth’.

‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ is, of all Tennyson’s poetry, the poem of his that most explicitly deals with this year’s National Poetry Day theme ‘Truth’.

‘Tho' truths in manhood darkly join,
Deep-seated in our mystic frame.
We yield all blessing to the name
Of Him that made them current coin;

For Wisdom dealt with mortal powers,
Where truth in closest words shall fail,
When truth embodied in a tale
Shall enter in at lowly doors.’ – ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’

This extract from ‘In Memoriam’ draws on St Paul’s exclamation: 

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ 

Thus linking it not only to 2000 years in the past, but also to the future, and to a genre that repeatedly deals with the relationship between truth and fiction: Sci-Fi and Philip K Dick’s ‘Through a Scanner Darkly’ a novel amongst whose sci-fi technology are ‘scramble suits’ that allow the wearer to constantly shift the appearance of the wearer and thus conceal their identity, as well as a high tech surveillance system. Like Tennyson’s poem, Dick’s novel deals with the relationship between truth and identity, and with whether it is possible for truth to be contained within our physical appearances. 

This passage of Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ is for me, reminiscent also of George Herbert’s 1633 poem ‘Love’, which like Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ and Dicks ‘Through a Scanner Darkly’ deals with the impact of guilt and sin on a physical body that has entered into a space occupied by God, speaking and seeing Him no longer ‘through a glass, darkly’, but now ‘face to face’.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

The speaker of the poem, entering through a door into God’s presence, argues that his sin as physically damaged his body. In the poem the figure ‘Love’, or God, argues ‘Who made the eyes but I?’ to which the speaker replies ‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them’, the physical ‘truth’ of the body has been marred by sin. The healing process of the poem, which occurs through the meal that the speaker shares with the character ‘love’ at its end, is a physical replenishing, in a rite reminiscent of the Eucharist, a process that also finds ‘Truth’ physically lodged within the body.

The very opening of Tennyson’s poem ‘In Memoriam’ unites all these different ideas:

‘Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

 Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.’

Tennyson describes humanity as not having seen God’s face, ‘we have not seen thy face’, for the moment, they see only ‘through a glass, darkly’; but he finds faith in the idea that God made his ‘Orbs’ or eyes, just as George Herbert does ‘Who made the eyes but I?’  knowing that one day they will be used to see God’s face, and faith will no longer be a matter of ‘believing where we cannot prove’, but will become a matter of truth proved through vision as clear as a reflection in a glass.

Further reading: Queen Victoria turned to In Memoriam in her grief after Prince Albert’s death.

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