Dost thou look back on what hath been,
As some divinely gifted man,
Whose life in low estate began
And on a simple village green;

Who breaks his birth’s invidious bar,
And grasps the skirts of happy chance,
And breasts the blows of circumstance,
And grapples with his evil star;

Who makes by force his merit known
And lives to clutch the golden keys,
To mould a mighty state’s decrees,
And shape the whisper of the throne;

And moving up from high to higher,
Becomes on Fortune’s crowning slope
The pillar of a people’s hope,
The centre of a world’s desire;

Yet feels, as in a pensive dream,
When all his active powers are still,
A distant dearness in the hill,
A secret sweetness in the stream,

The limit of his narrower fate,
While yet beside its vocal springs
He play’d at counsellors and kings,
With one that was his earliest mate;

Who ploughs with pain his native lea
And reaps the labour of his hands,
Or in the furrow musing stands;
‘Does my old friend remember me?’

The irresistible rise to power of a gifted peasant is used as an image of Hallam in heaven. This is the kind of thinking that led T. S. Eliot to say that “Tennyson’s faith is a poor thing”. The judgement is unfair, but not wholly without cause.

The fantasy of the “distant dearness of the hill/ a secret sweetness in the stream” might perhaps be imagined of the dead. I find it hard to think of my daughter without her affection for mountains and rivers. Does she miss them?

Faith in heaven is after all,absurd, and leads to absurd questions like that. I sympathise with Tennyson’s difficulty in giving any substantial image of heaven, but find many of his images in this section unconvincing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: