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.
Tennyson wrote In Mem in response to the early and unexpected death of his best friend; but as well as the work’s faithful anatomising of the iterative and bewildering nature of grief, In Mem explores many of the challenges and shocks with which Victorian society was faced. There’s too much going on in it—even in individual poems, never mind in the work as a whole—for me to feel competent, here, to say anything beyond: read it. It repays the time and attention it demands.
The lines with which 27 ends are so often encountered out of context, and it’s good to see them in their proper place. The poet makes a bold claim: that even in the worst of moods, even when gripped by the agony of loss, he still feels glad to feel that agony, rather than to have lived in the dull “safe” nothingness of never having felt love. There’s a determination in these lines which moves me, and comforts me, too. I experience them as a reminder that grief is but another face of love; and if we are feeling it, it is a kind of evidence that we have lived, and lived fully. We have walked the ‘summer woods’.