Obitt MDCCCXXXIII (“To the memory of A.H.H., died 1833”)


I held it truth, with him who sings

To one clear harp in divers tones,

That men may rise on stepping-stones

Of their dead selves to higher things.

But who shall so forecast the years

And find in loss a gain to match?

Or reach a hand thro’ time to catch

The far-off interest of tears?

Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d,

Let darkness keep her raven gloss:

Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss,

To dance with death, to beat the ground,

Than that the victor Hours should scorn

The long result of love, and boast,

‘Behold the man that loved and lost,

But all he was is overworn.’

So begins Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a lengthy poem mourning the death of a friend.  This morning, I was struck yet again by how reticent American culture is to embrace mourning.  When a loved one dies, we are expected to take a few days off and then move on with our lives, to go on and get happy.  Yet, as the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible demonstrates, mourning over death and suffering is right and proper.  Death is not natural.  As Tennyson writes to God in the Prologue to In Memoriam, “Thou madest man, he knows not why, he thinks he was not made to die” (ll. 10-11).

This first section following the Prologue reflects the belief that a “learn and move on to higher things” mentality does not do justice to the human condition.  We must dance with death, embrace grief and feel bereft.  This does not mean that we will never heal or be able to continue life again – it simply means that mourning and sorrow are a necessary part of life and we are only doing Death a favor when we treat him as if he doesn’t bother us.