Post five: your “comfort” book

16 Jan

Thanks again to Blogs of a Bookaholic for creating this challenge. 🙂

Comfort books are a beautiful bunch. Less dangerous than drugs, less calorific than Krispy Kremes, they give us all the love of a parent (sometimes even more) and make the world seem that bit less cold.

I have two go-to books I turn to for comfort on dark days. One is a novel that I’ll mention later in this challenge as it’s also one of my favourite books; the other’s a book of poetry called In Memoriam A.H.H. by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

I don’t know how well-known Tennyson is beyond the British Isles, but he wrote The Lady of Shalott, Idylls of the King and The Charge of the Light Brigade, all of which are a pretty big deal over here. He was also crowned Poet Laureate after Wordsworth died and held the post for over four decades.

In short, he wrote a lot of good stuff.

That stuff however was mostly rather sad, T.S. Eliot once said that Tennyson was “the saddest of all English poets” and that is, in my opinion, true. (Even Mr. Ode-to-a-Nightingale-Keats wrote the occasional humorous sonnet about cats). But from sadness and the raw pain of loss in In Memoriam comes wisdom and solace:

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.’

So why is such a sad book my favourite comfort read?

The first time I read In Memoriam, I was 14 and struggling to come to terms with the death of a close friend who’d passed away a year before in addition to the change that advanced Alzheimer’s had wrought on my grandfather (who’d moved in with us so that we could keep an eye on him). Back in the day I was a pretty average English teen; stiff upper-lip, silent rebellion and all that, so I spent a fair amount of time burying any particularly strong emotions or re-working them into sarcasm instead of acknowledging them.

Tennyson’s poetry metaphorically sat me down and told me that it was actually OK to be sad and to express that sadness, that it was good to remember one I’d loved and lost. Then he reminded me that the rest of the lives of others I cared for, and would one day care for, remained. In the course of 133 cantos, Tennyson led me from the graveside to the future and pointed out that joy would be all the sweeter after having felt any sadness:

‘Regret is dead, but love is more
Than in the summers that are flown,
For I myself with these have grown
To something greater than before;’

So every time I finish In Memoriam, I close my eyes, feel fortified and count every single one of my blessings. Then my heart,

‘[Stands] up and answer[s], “I have felt.”’

  And just because I can, here’s the canto (and the first 2 stanzas of the next) that struck me the most the first time I read it:

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.


One writes, that `Other friends remain,’
That `Loss is common to the race’—
And common is the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.


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