Monday, September 12, 2011

The Big In The Small, The Form In The Matter: Starting With The Literal In Tennyson's Tears, idle tears

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Fresh at the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
Ad, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!
What is art? It begins as something imagined. An artist imagines something and turns that imagined thing into something concrete. The thing imagined can be a scene, a character, an event, or a whole bunch of these strung together in relationship to one another to make up a story. The medium by which it is made concrete can be marble, sound, movement (as in the case of dance), or spoken or written words. This concretezation (or we can even say incarnation) is what makes it possible for others to share the artist's vision. The artist's skill is greater or lesser depending on the level to which he is able to convert his interior vision into his medium. This is what makes the difference between an artist and the rest of us. We all have imaginations. One is only an artist when one can accurately incarnate a vision into stone, music, or words.

This is the sense in which God is the first artist. It was he who had a vision of Creation and caused it to come into being. Of course, rather than making the universe out of something, God made his art out of nothing. So in fact we should not be comparing Creation to art, but our work to God's. J.R.R. Tolkien did just that when he called the artistic process "sub-creation."

The artist's vision is not the art. The work of art itself is the art. Nevertheless, if the artist is successful, the nature of the concrete work of art flows out of the artist's vision. As such, if we are to truly understand the nature of the work of art, we must come to understand the artist's vision. That being said, it is only by studying the work of art itself that this can occur, since it is the work of art which expresses the artist's vision. It is as the work of art that the vision exists.

This is called the "literal level" of the work of art. It is the incarnated, material form of the artist's imaginal vision. To be sure there are deeper, more spiritual levels of meaning. Nevertheless, if they are truly there, they must develop by way of analogy out of the literal level, for that is what the art truly is. As such, in works of art (like some poetry) where it is not immediately evident what exactly is going on in the poem, the first job of the interpreter is to determine of what the poem itself actually consists.

In Tennyson's poem Tears, idle tears a man looks "on the happy Autumn fields," and the vision conjures up thoughts "of the days that are no more." These thoughts give rise to "idle tears," because it's not like crying over heartbreak or the death of a friend, it's just crying. T reason he can't figure out why exactly the tears are coming is that they're "from the depth of some divine despair." The sadness is too profound, too fundamental to understand completely. All he knows is they have something to do with days gone by. Not sad days, but happy days. The sadness comes in realizing they're gone forever.

He goes on to compare the sadness of lost time to that "fresh" pang "as the first beam glittering on a sail" when one is waiting at the dock for a loved one to return by sea. It is like those tears of "joy" upon reuniting with a long lost friend, which rise because, even if one doesn't realize it at the time, deep down it is always a bittersweet reunion knowing that it will eventually come to an end. It is also like the sadness that accompanies the farewell when the reunion does come to an end.

Tintern Abbey, "the casement"
It is like the birds' first morning chirps with the sunrise for which one has waited up all night. Sad because it too is but a fleeting moment, gone too soon. It is like "remembered kisses after death," or imagining what it might be like to kiss a beautiful woman one will never. It is "deep as first love, and wild with all regret." Is there anything else the realization that time is passing us by can make us do but regret? Regret how poorly we spent it, and how little we have left? "Life" itself is "Death," for all living is really only dying.

By describing a single imaginal and emotional experience, Tennyson has hit at the "deep," "divine despair" at the heart of what it means to be human. This is the essence of humanity: temporality, passability, transitoriness, loss, lamentation, death. For all humanity, all life is an ache for immortality, for eternity, for a perfect world. For all Creation, all life is a longing for the Garden that was lost and that shall be remade better even that it was: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail," (Rom. 8:22-3) awaiting the coming of the Kingdom.

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