“Tis Better To Have Loved” — Quickfire Poetry Analysis

posted in: Poetry 2
This is a silk brocade from France, made just after the start of the 19th century, when Tennyson was born. He wasn't French but I love this thing. Photo: Wikipedia
This is a silk brocade from France, made just after the start of the 19th century, when Tennyson was born. He wasn’t French but it seems appropriate here. Photo: Wikipedia

Today, a poetry lesson. I promise you will like it and when you are done reading this, you will be smarter and as you roll the poem around in your head, you might even cry the tears you cry when great art pokes you in the eye. I get misty every time I recite this poem at hand; I can’t be the only one.

Here is our text, which is a stand-alone part of a much larger poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I hesitate to give you the title because it’s terrifying, but here you go:

In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 27

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.

By the end there, you surely smiled and thought, “Ah, yes!” or “That’s where that comes from, then!”

Okay, now let’s take a look at this thing. This is my personal analysis, born of reading and re-reading this for the past month as I worked on memorizing it.

In the first stanza, Ten-Ten ask us to consider the prisoner who doesn’t care he’s in prison, or the bird (linnet = bird) who is in a birdcage but doesn’t really mind because she’s never been outside. The man and the bird are like, “Whatever, this is fine.” Tennyson says he’d rather be a captive psychotically enraged that he’s in jail because he misses his wife or his family; he’d rather be a bird devastated that she’s been trapped, aching for the beauty she knew outside.

In the next stanza, the poet tells us he’d rather be a psycho axe-murderer who has a conscience. To be a psychopath axe-murderer who has no sense of his crimes would be somehow more horrible. As a criminal, it would be far more painful to understand all the horrible things you’ve done, but at least you’d be more human.

And in the third stanza, Ol’ Tenny says that the people who say, “Love! Who needs it! I’d rather be alone and not cry than put myself out there and get stomped. No, no love for me. I’ll just stay inside and have my cheese and crumpets, son.” Well, the poet doesn’t think much of these people. He doesn’t want to be like them because they suck.

No, in the fourth stanza, our narrator tells us just what he wants — and he second line is the one that makes my chest ache every time because it’s this aside. He’s making his point and he pauses to say, “And look, I feel this way even when I’m in it, even when the breakup is happening, even when she says she doesn’t love me anymore, even when I miss her, even when I sorrow most — even then…”

You don’t need me to analyze the last two lines. You understand him, don’t you.

Roses On Noses.

Go ahead. Try it sometime.
Go ahead. Try it sometime.

I dated a vaudevillian magician. Talk about confessions!

This was an astonishing eight years ago, before I got sick, before I got married and divorced, before all of that.

The Magician and I met at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a legendary jazz club here in Chicago. If you are good at jazz, you work a long, long time to get to play at the Mill — all the known greats have done so, all the future greats will. But every Sunday night for the past twenty-five years, the Uptown Poetry Slam takes over the club and it’s “See ya later, jazz, hello, poetry.”

The show’s format includes a half-hour set from a feature performer. The night I met The Magician, he was that act. Usually it’s a poet in the slot, or on rare occasions it’s a music group, but because The Magician was/is a bit of a lyricist and, as he would tell you, a sesquipedalian, (lover of big words) he fit right in and his act was quite popular with the slam crowd. He wore a three-piece suit and he was in his thirties and he had this broad smile and a head of thick black hair and I was smitten. He saw me be a bloodsport poet onstage that night. I saw him pull a Queen of Spades from his shoe. We met and were laughing with each other in under twelve seconds. Et voila: le boyfriend.

One morning months later, I was lounging in his spacious apartment in Logan Square, beaming at him as I watched him rehearse. He was always rehearsing because being good at magic was his profession (it still is.) Magic is all that he does, work-wise, and he’s made his living doing it for over twenty years. I was admiring his dedication and also his jacket and tie; he always wore a jacket and a tie, always. He didn’t own bluejeans. I thought that was so cool.

“Would you like to see something special, Mary?” he asked me. I nodded and clapped and bounced in my seat. Watching magic tricks makes you seven.

He took a rose from his magic case. He kind of shook himself once to loosen up and focus. Then, talking to me sweetly while he moved, he tilted his head back and brought the stem of the rose up to the tip of his nose. That is where he placed it, the tip of the long-stemmed rose, right there on the end of his nose. And then…he let go.

He was balancing it. I couldn’t believe it. He made microscopic movements to the right, back, left, left, backforward, backright to keep the rose upright, right there on his nose! He had definitely stopped talking. I didn’t even breathe. This was not a fake rose, a trick rose. This was a rose rose, and he was magnificent, like a seal or a cartoon come to life. My boyfriend kept it there for fifteen seconds or so until “ah!” it tipped over and he caught it and bowed deeply.

“Wow,” I said, mouth hanging open. “That was so cool! Do it again! Do it again!” And he did do it again for me and many times after that. But I’ll never forget what he said when I asked him how long it took to be able to do it.

He said it took him about ten years.

“Ten years??” I pictured him practicing tilting his head back every day for ten years. All those roses!

“That’s right. Ten years of daily practice for ten seconds of your enjoyment,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. He turned back to his case and began to put away his tools. I sat and thought about the time it takes to really learn something, the years that we spend to get good at what we do, and how there are no overnight successes. Roses fall off noses for years and years and then, with a pinch of luck, we keep them up there. And someone sees.