Commentary by George Laver
I Stood on a Tower
I stood on a tower in the wet,
And New Year and Old Year met,
And winds were roaring and blowing;
And I said, ‘O years, that meet in tears,
Have you aught that is worth the knowing?
Science enough and exploring,
Wanderers coming and going,
Matter enough for deploring,
But aught that is worth the knowing?
Seas at my feet were flowing,
Waves on the shingle pouring,
Old year roaring and blowing,
And New Year blowing and roaring.
By Lord Alfred Tennyson
This may seem a slightly unusual selection given the time of year, but having come across and greatly enjoyed reading Lord Alfred Tennyson’s I Stood on a Tower only recently I felt that its power and depth made it an ideal addition for the blog. Although the poem centres on a New Year experience, its enjoyment should certainly not be subject to the date.
Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire into a religious middle-class family on the 6th of August 1809, the fourth of the twelve children of the rector George Cleyton Tennyson and Elizabeth Fytche. His father was known to have an active involvement in the education of his children; by the age of only 17, Alfred’s works had been published locally in a collection along with others written by two of his older brothers, Charles and Frederick. His poetic excellence became recognized during his time at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was awarded the prestigious Chancellor’s Gold Medal in 1829 for his pieceTimbuctoo. His first solo publication, Poems Chiefly Lyrical, followed shortly after in 1830. Two years after returning to his home town following the death of his father in 1831, Tennyson’s second book of poetry was published and met with heavy criticism despite containing one of his most popular works, The Lady of Shallot. The death of close friend Arthur Hallam is thought to have had a profound impact on his personal life over the next 10 years, during which time he ceased to publish but wrote some of his finest pieces including In the Valley of Cauteretz and In Memoriam A.H.H. After an ill-advised financial investment in an ecclesiastical wood-carving business and the subsequent loss of a significant part of the family fortune, Tennyson moved to London where, although living modestly, he met with great literary success, publishing earlier works and writing new pieces. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1850, succeeding William Wordsworth, and became the first person to earn a Peerage for his writing. He remained Poet Laureate until his death in 1892; this remains the longest term for which anyone has held the title.
I Stood on a Tower places the narrator in the midst of a significant transition, in both a real and Romantically symbolic sense. From his vantage point, the speaker observes nature’s motions as the old year rolls into the next and ponders the meaning and significance of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual endeavours. Despite the fact that both years hold their own fair share of seemingly great personal joys and tribulations, the unified world, both natural and human, appears to be surging regardless towards a destination which neither narrator nor reader seems to be able to determine, and the “tears” in which the two years meet are made as nothing in the face of the vast oceanic forces surrounding the speaker. The work was itself written upon a New Year’s Eve and reflects the writer’s thoughts during this time as well as the common Victorian artistic debate between science and faith. The reversed parallelism of the closing couplet leaves the reader on a transitional precipice between the experiences of the past and those which are to come.