Well, here’s a challenge to take up against the incoming squadrons of ignominious e-books… the most beautiful book I possess cost me only £2.50 a couple of years ago from a second-hand bookshop at Logie Steading near Forres. It’s Alfred Lord Tennyson’s long poem of 1850 “In Memoriam A.H.H”, a tiny little hardback printed in 1901, with magnificent fin-de-siecle illustrations by Alfred Garth Jones. Tennyson wrote it to mourn the untimely death of his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Among many other things, this poem gave us moderns the phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” and explores the great intellectual crisis brought on by the collision of tradition and christianity with the (then) new theories of Darwin’s Origin Of Species and Lyell’s Principles of Geology. In that sense, in the abscence of any coherent materialist answer to the enigma of death, it still remains as relevant today as then. There’s only space to quote a little bit of it, but it is all hauntingly beautiful, as are Jones’ illustrations (click on the thumbnails above and use the magnifying glass to expand):
Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last–far off–at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
* * * * * * *
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
* * * * * * *
‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.
‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,
Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.
O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.