This guy was once famous. Not just writer-famous, but Beyoncé or Beatles famous. In England, and to a large degree in America, he was the face of, and center of, Victorian poetry. And poetry in Victorian times, the written-down and printed in books kind, was still a force in mass culture.
The town I grew up in was platted and settled around 1880, its success achieved by the industrious Swedish-American farmers around it and the railroad that went through it. The town was named Stratford, after Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the town’s main street with it’s block of stores was met crosswise just north of the shops by it’s central east-west cross street, Tennyson Avenue.
That’s a remarkable piece of trivia isn’t it? Think of how many suburbs and housing developments were similarly planned and platted in the centuries since in the United States. How many of them had the main streets named for contemporary poets? Milton and Byron had their streets along with Shakespeare in Strafford, but even Byron was 50 years dead; but here was Tennyson, a man still in his career across half a continent and one ocean, and here this proud avenue in a farming town was written down to bear his name.
The problem with being a big-thing Victorian, as Tennyson was, is that our Modernists came after them. Even though you can see the influences of the Victorians on the early work of the Modernists, you can also see the things they came to reject in search of an art for their own time. In those scattered small settlements where page poetry is still read or studied, we are many times more likely to be reading Hopkins or Hardy for the English, or Dickinson or Whitman for Americans or hinge figures like Yeats who spanned the eras than Tennyson.
Besides the street in my tiny town, Tennyson lives on in a handful of phrases from his poems that have become commonplace mottos such as “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” which is famous enough that many people think it must be Shakespeare’s.
Today’s words come from another section in the same long poem or collection that the “loved and lost” phrase was in, Tennyson’s broad meditation on loss and perseverance “In Memoriam A.H.H.” If we’ve forgotten Tennyson, this makes it possible for him to be new again, and this is a piece, that as I recast it, seems very appropriate for our age and even this year, which we know is ending. The New Year’s bells ring in a new year, but they also chase away the devils of the old one.
So Enjoy the music as you listen to "Ring Out, Wild Bells", but see if you can sing along with the words as 2017 ends.