Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

Here in the 50th canto of his work, there is evident a new gravity. Tennyson leaves behind his sly explanations of poetic purpose and goes for broke: “Be near me!” To whom is he speaking? Perhaps his equally bereaved sister, some suggest; perhaps his lost friend; perhaps even God; but certainly his readers. He asks us to be with him in his most desolate moments, when we can admit that we too have felt these savage doubts.

The poetry mimics the agitation by crafting a second line which bursts through the set metre and length: “when the blood creeps and the nerves prick.” The poetry is abandoning surface games. The words are savage: “Time a maniac scattering dust/ and Life a fury slinging flame.” (Did they have flame -throwers in Tennyson’s day?) When he wants to express the futility of life, like Shakespeare he calls on flies, in this case, those that live and mate and lay eggs and die. There is a theatricality about the canto which allows for some irony, while not undermining its force. It represents the low dark verge of life, where it may be possible to see the twilight of eternal day.

Although I have never seen this life as a vale of tears, I have always known it’s nastiness and brutishness as much as its goodness and saintliness. My beliefs were not therefore much challenged by our daughter’s death: I knew this kind of thing could happen. My struggle was to resist sweetening it by any kind of comforting piety.

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