Perhaps we are most likely to associate Tennyson with long poems, like ‘In Memoriam’ or ‘Maud’ or ‘The Princess’, and his short poems are all too often squeezed out by these longer works. The short poem is a strange beast, slight in form, it seems to have little to say, and its meaning is often squeezed and folded into it, as though it is an envelope rather than a sheet of paper. Speaking of envelopes, most of Emily Dickinson’s short poems were written on envelopes, constricted by their shape they are tiny in size but packed with meaning.
“In this short Life
that only [merely] lasts an hour?
power.” – Dickinson 252
For many, like Dickinson, short poems become a way of expressing the brevity of life, and a lack of an ability to act. The small poem is therefore in proportion to the small act, the everyday activities that make up living. It is a similar motive to that which lies behind Thoreau’s ‘My Life has been the Poem I would have writ’:
‘My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.’ – ‘My Life has been the Poem I would have writ’
That Tennyson’s poem ‘Crossing the Bar’, a poem about the brevity of life, and his own mortality, is short, is therefore not surprising. Only 16 lines, in the face of Tennyson’s other poem on death ‘In Memoriam’, ‘Crossing the Bar’ is modest.
‘Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.’ – ‘Crossing the Bar’
Perhaps ‘Crossing the Bar’ is so small because it is Tennyson’s own personal reflection on death, rather than, like ‘In Memoriam’ being a poem about the death of his friend. In its own way, however, it is also a long poem. By Tennyson’s demand it is put at the end of each of his collected works, suggesting that it is a natural closure to all his poems, springing out of, or even extending them. Its own length therefore spreads beyond its bounds.
In a series called ‘Short Talks’ Anne Carson writes on Major and Minor.
'Short Talk On Major and Minor
Major things are wind, evil, a good fighting horse, prepositions, inexhaustible love, the way people choose their king. Minor things include dirt, the names of schools of philosophy, mood and not having a mood, the correct time. There are more major things than minor things overall, yet there are more minor things than I have written here, but it is disheartening to list them. When I think of you reading this, I do not want you to be taken captive, separated by a wire mesh lined with glass from your life itself, like some Elektra.’
In Sophocles’ Electra, Orestes pretends to be dead, and unknowingly speaks to his sister, Electra, about his own ashes: ‘He is dead; and in a small urn, as thou seest, we bring the scanty relics home.’ Within the urn is dust, a minor thing, but like these short poems, it holds within it a major thing, the possibility for death, contained, as though in an envelope, just like Emily Dickinson’s short poems.
Image: Emily Dickinson, early 1847, currently located in Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.