I envy not in any moods
The captive void of noble rage,
The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods:
I envy not the beast that takes
His license in the field of time,
Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;
Nor, what may count itself as blest,
The heart that never plighted troth
But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
This canto contains Tennyson’s most famous declaration, but his setting of it is not often remembered. He compares ‘never to have loved” with the captive who feels no rage, the caged bird that never longs for freedom, the beast that does its will without conscience, the person who makes no promises, the rest that issues from mere lack of energy. These all refuse a certain strenuousness that Tennyson thinks essential to true life. Love is given, but it has to be received.
The condition of having loved and lost is central to the poem’s ethos, namely a courageous openness to experience desirable in a time when the old order is changing and loss unavoidable. He wants us to ‘strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’ in the face of experience, but he does not minimise the losses.
In aftermath of my daughter’s death, I have not abandoned the values by which I have tried to live, in spite of my many betrayals of them. But there is a change: I no longer expect that good will happen. The worst has happened and may easily happen again. I find parties more difficult than funerals. Maybe Tennyson would accuse me of having yielded.