It is well known that Queen Victoria turned to the poem In Memoriam in her grief after Prince Albert’s death. What is less well known is how she personalised the poems in her copy. The Duke of Argyll visited her at Osborne House in February 1861 and she had substituted ‘widow’ for ‘widower’ and ‘her’ for ‘his’ in section XIII of the poem. The Duke told Tennyson of this in a letter, but he added ‘Till I see you I can’t tell you all about the Queen’s marking in “In Memoriam”. Indeed some of them seemed so sacred that except to you I should never speak of them’ (Dear and Honoured Lady, p. 67).
The Queen’s personal “revisions” are touching. They show how she was able to make Tennyson’s expression of his grief at Hallam’s passing apply specifically to her own situation. Forlorn lovers have been doing a similar thing for many decades with another section of
I envy not in any moods
The captive void of noble rage,
The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods:
I envy not the beast that takes
His license in the field of time,
Unfetter'd by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;
Nor, what may count itself as blest,
The heart that never plighted troth
But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
How many of us when a romantic relationship has not worked out heard the closing lines of this poem without realising or remembering where they originated? Our slight twisting of the meaning and the implication that the loss is that of a relationship rather than of death makes it speak more to our lives in such moments.
These sorts of “revisions” don’t, however, damage the original message of the poem. In this section Tennyson is not only acknowledging and expressing his grief, he is also discussing the human condition. The speaker understands that at times, to be human is to suffer. And he would rather deal with that pain than live in ignorance of suffering like the beasts of the field. He is saying that if we are to avoid suffering we must never experience love. This isn’t a sacrifice he is willing to make.
What poems do you turn to in times of grief or distress?
In the next blog I will be looking at a section of this poem that shows Tennyson struggling with the fast changing world around him, but I will gladly return to other sections of this poem that you are interested in.
Dr Jennifer Jones