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So the year begins. Resolutions aren’t really my thing as much as finding time to recommit to the things I know I should already be pursuing.

But one of the texts that most encourages me in the ways I should go is one I get to teach most semesters (including the one just past and the one coming up): Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.. Tennyson lost his closest friend (and brother-in-law to be), Arthur Henry Hallam, right after college to a brain hemorrhage. Hallam was considered by his classmates (including folks who became future prime ministers and the like) as the best of their class. The loss for Tennyson was immense–and it was one that fractured out into the “big” questions: grief and mortality, faith and doubt, the role of science and reason, the very nature of God. For the Victorians, including Queen Victoria herself after the death of Prince Albert, In Memoriam was a key text in navigating a world that, in the words of Matthew Arnold, was experiencing the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith.”

But the poem resonates because it engages these questions through a highly personal recounting of grief. Over the 17 years–and many stanzas–it took Tennyson to compose the poem, he does not hold back in these verses or say the “correct” or expected thing. His emotion is raw and unapologetic. But as importantly, as he moves to a kind of resolution, he comes to an answer beyond just a personal salvation. Structuring the poem around 3 Christmases, Tennyson ultimately finds not only a God with him, but a God with us. The faith that he celebrates in the section I’ve included below is one that loudly proclaims justice in a catalogue that is impressively public-centered. The “Christ to be,” then, comes through every action done in his name.

Ring the bells–here’s to 2019.

In Memoriam A. H. H. #106
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

4 Comments

  • Karen says:

    Wow… He could have written that today… I suppose that’s the point! But for me it’s an epiphany. Thank you!

  • Harris says:

    Brings to mind this drowned victim:

    Yet once more, O ye laurels and once more
    Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
    I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
    And with forced fingers rude,
    Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
    Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
    Compels me to disturb your season due;
    For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
    Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
    Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
    Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
    He must not float upon his watery bier
    Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
    Without the meed of some melodious tear.

    “Lycidas”, John Milton.

  • Jenny/Dennis deGroot says:

    Jennifer, thank you, you will in turn enjoy this new year’s song by Canadian singer songwriter Alana Levandoski honouring Tennyson’s Wild Bells. Hope it works to post a link here https://www.alanalevandoski.com/sundaysongandrumination
    Jenny deGroot

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