I’m reading Lord, Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and section 25 practically lept off the page and has nestled it’s way into my bones without any intention of leaving. Tennyson is mourning his best friend, but – bear with me, here – I honestly read this section as a wife who has lost her husband, marriage being the consummate friendship. It’s one the shorter poems-within-the-poem that creates In Memoriam, and I’m so glad I chose not to merely skim to save time:
I know that this was Life – the track
Whereon with equal feet we fared;
And then, as now, the day prepared
The daily burden for the back.
But this it was that made me move
As light as carrier birds in air;
I loved the weight I had to bear,
Because it needed help of Love;
Nor could I weary, heart or limb,
When mighty Love would cleave in twain
The [burden] of a single pain,
And part of it, giving half to him.
First, he pays reverence to the movement of the day, and his own lack of power over nature and time. He gives us the first image of he and his friend as on “equal feet” – no one giving or taking more from the friendship than the other, stepping through the seasons of the day together, in a beautiful rhythm. Each day posed it’s own challenges, work, and responsibility.
“But,” he claims, the work wasn’t a burden, but rather a pleasure. He did not move forward and work or toil merely to survive, or to achieve wealth or status or esteem. He was not driven by these things, but rather his friendship, his love for his friend – “this is what that made me move,” as natural and essential as the birds move in the currents of the air that we can’t even see. He loved stepping through each day with his best friend, because the burden “needed the help of Love,” so the “burden” was, in fact, the reward – what he already had that drove him forward each new day was what he sought – was what he ultimately desired. (Already, and not yet. Remind you of anyone?)
He couldn’t grow tired of this burden, even if he had wanted to. It wasn’t easy, but it was shared, equally, “half to him.” And isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that how we’re built? We don’t want to go at it alone. And if we’re really living, we can’t carry the burden of life alone.
I love that although Tennyson is speaking of his friend that has died, and he does use the past tense, his images are spoken with a soft smile, as though his friend were alive, as though they were two old men sitting in rocking chairs telling one of their wives or grand-sons about how they were in their youth.
I wish more people could still believe in this friendship, in this love. I do.