O Sorrow, cruel fellowship,
O Priestess in the vaults of Death,
O sweet and bitter in a breath,
What whispers from thy lying lip?

‘The stars,’ she whispers, `blindly run;
A web is wov’n across the sky;
From out waste places comes a cry,
And murmurs from the dying sun:

‘And all the phantom, Nature, stands—
With all the music in her tone,
A hollow echo of my own,—
A hollow form with empty hands.’

And shall I take a thing so blind,
Embrace her as my natural good;
Or crush her, like a vice of blood,
Upon the threshold of the mind?

Here Tennyson confronts a temptation of grief: to allow one sad event to define the nature of life. Sorrow whispers that all of nature is a mere shell that hides the nothingness within. That I did not experience this temptation owes a great deal to Eleanor’s commitment to matter, to the rocks that constitute her beloved mountains and the bodies that constitute her beloved animals. Thinking about her is never a movement away from stuff of life.

At this point in his poem, however, Tennyson creates a needless dichotomy: either sorrow must be welcomed as a natural good or rejected as a vice of mind. Christianity in its modern, Western form has tended to reject as heresy any questioning of material existence, while more ancient, Eastern traditions have permitted, at times encouraged, a scepticism about matter, in face of the eternal being of God.

I have explored Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching that nothing evident to our senses has self-identity or substance, but exists as something “empty and marvellous.” Tennyson himself gradually came to accept God and material existence as more questionable than his contemporaries imagined. He can listen to sorrow’s voice without losing his trust in the world or God.

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