Needless to recount again my extreme enthusiasm for Tennyson’s In Memoriam AHH. For today’s “poem that helps” I offer you ‘Be near me when my light is low’, poem 50 out of In Mem‘s 131-poem length. It’s in the public domain, so the text is below; but if you want a laugh, you can listen to a computer read it here. It’s hilarious. For what it should sound like, try this one.
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is racked with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
One of the glories of Ian RIchardson’s reading is the way he brings out the steady iambs’ pulse all through the poem, preserving the line-ends (as at ll. 2-3 or 11-12 for example) and yet simultaneously allowing the sense to run on. (It’s like hearing Shakespeare spoken well: the verse comes to life.) In a poem so saturated with lethargy, exhaustion, hurt and death, the metre mimics the way cruel-seeming way in which, even in deepest grief or despair, “life goes on”. At the same time, the abba rhyme scheme appears to open out in the abb sounds and then closes back down in the repetition of the a sound in line four. It’s a circular rhyme form, so apt for the experience of grief.
Read in context, Poem 50 is but one of the many addressed to the friend whose death the poem mourns. But even in amongst so many apostrophes (in literary terms, an apostrophe addresses a subject not literally present; might be someone dead or absent, an inanimate object, or even an abstract idea) this one stands out: there’s something about the pleading quality of the repetitions of ‘Be near me’ which is immensely touching. There’s an ambiguity, of course: is the poem indeed an address to Arthur’s spirit; is it a prayer; is it a cry of longing flung into the empty air? Or all three?
The poem’s evocation of the nadir state is superb. It’s immensely powerful without being dramatic. The slow monosyllables of stanza one—the sense dragged over the line end from l2-l3—evoke the sheer slog of being when you are without a sense of hope or meaning. Stanza two offers us a sense of the sheer physicality of grief (or anxiety, or despair): the ‘sensous frame/… racked’. It reminds us how violently we can be hurt by life, and how our plans, dreams and hopes can be shattered in an instant (the ‘maniac scattering dust’; and we, of course, are the ‘dust’). Stanza three reeks of a loss of meaning and trust: that quiet little pun on the meaning of ‘cell’ (biology/existence as prison); the hopeless, bitter scorn of all that is human which lifts up off the page in those marvellous, loooooong repeated vowel sounds—’spring/… sting… sing’—and the way the sense of the sentence is prolonged, almost unbearably, all the way through the stanza, only to end in ‘die’. I mean, the verse does exactly what it’s talking about! How nifty is that??
The final stanza doesn’t resolve it all in an unbelievable way but simply asks to be accompanied and ‘point[ed]’ towards the ‘term of human strife’; term in the sense of a fixed or limited period. It ends up not at dawn but at least at the promise of twilight and rest which, given the state of being conjured in the rest of the poem, is achievement enough. Who wouldn’t long for accompaniment through all this, or the hope of an end to it?
You may be wondering why I find this helpful. Well, there’s the whole “we read to know we’re not alone” thing. Be near me when my light is low is something I can say to myself when I need to. It accompanies me. And when I hear those words crossing my mind I’m able to recognise where I am. I can hear myself: I’m reminded that perhaps it’s time for me to be extra kind to myself. There’s something important for me in the authenticity with which the poet speaks, and the completeness with which he surrenders to (and evokes) his experience. Yes, I shiver; but I’m also reminded of the power which lies in naming and articulating. And that brings me to the other way in which I find this poem helpful: it reminds me that, if you can express what’s happening to you, then there’s some part of you, however tiny, which is not lost in or consumed by it. That’s sometimes a really good thing to remember.
In Mem as therapy, for writer and readers alike.