Thinking about my dead son in this Christmas season brings to mind Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the lengthy poem that he wrote over the course of 17 years lamenting the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam was a young man when he died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Tennyson describes his spirit hanging heavily over that year’s Christmas gathering.
In the course of the poem, Tennyson then goes on to describe two more Christmas celebrations—three in all—and comparing his state of mind at each of them allows him to understand how he has evolved in his grieving. In a way, they function as a common denominator. In Memoriam was very important to me in the five years following Justin’s death. In fact, I became riveted by it. I will spend this post and the next two looking at each of the Christmas passages.
For the first Christmas, the poet begins by talking about hearing the church bells from four surrounding hamlets. But instead of his heart swelling, he says that he feels cuts off from them, as though as door were shutting him off from them. His feelings are mixed. On the one hand, he wishes that he were dead. Yet the bells also awaken for him a happier time when he was a child:
The time draws near the birth of Christ:
The moon is hid; the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.
Four voices of four hamlets round,
From far and near, on mead and moor,
Swell out and fail, as if a door
Were shut between me and the sound:
Each voice four changes on the wind,
That now dilate, and now decrease,
Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.
This year I slept and woke with pain,
I almost wish’d no more to wake,
And that my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again:
But they my troubled spirit rule,
For they controll’d me when a boy;
They bring me sorrow touch’d with joy,
The merry merry bells of Yule.
He then goes on to ask himself whether it is appropriate to celebrate a joyous occasion at this sad time. How “dare we keep our Christmas-eve” when we have “such compelling cause to grieve”:
With such compelling cause to grieve
As daily vexes household peace,
And chains regret to his decease,
How dare we keep our Christmas-eve;
Which brings no more a welcome guest
To enrich the threshold of the night
With shower’d largess of delight
In dance and song and game and jest?
Celebrating Christmas just feels like going through the motions. Tennyson and the two families feel the heavy weight of Hallam’s absence—a “mute shadow”—as a cold wind sweeps through the barren landscape
With trembling fingers did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
A rainy cloud possess’d the earth,
And sadly fell our Christmas-eve.
At our old pastimes in the hall
We gambol’d, making vain pretence
Of gladness, with an awful sense
Of one mute Shadow watching all.
We paused: the winds were in the beech:
We heard them sweep the winter land;
And in a circle hand-in-hand
Sat silent, looking each at each.
Then, however, the mood shifts somewhat as they sing a carol they remember singing with Hallam. A peace steals over them and they imagine Hallam himself at peace:
Then echo-like our voices rang;
We sung, tho’ every eye was dim,
A merry song we sang with him
Last year: impetuously we sang:
We ceased: a gentler feeling crept
Upon us: surely rest is meet:
‘They rest,’ we said, ‘their sleep is sweet,’
And silence follow’d, and we wept.
The passage then ends with words of hope that are very much in the spirit of Christmas. Death does not change us at our essence but allows us to penetrate the veil that separates us from God:
Our voices took a higher range;
Once more we sang: ‘They do not die
Nor lose their mortal sympathy,
Nor change to us, although they change;
‘Rapt from the fickle and the frail
With gather’d power, yet the same,
Pierces the keen seraphic flame
From orb to orb, from veil to veil.’
Rise, happy morn, rise, holy morn,
Draw forth the cheerful day from night:
O Father, touch the east, and light
The light that shone when Hope was born.
Christmas promises us that light will overcome the darkness. Tennyson turns to his faith in an attempt to talk himself into hope. The songs the family sings are like candles flickering desperately to stay alight as they are battered by the storm. Some days are better than others.