“Tis Better To Have Loved” — Quickfire Poetry Analysis

posted in: Poetry 1
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.