Literature

A Short Analysis of Tennyson’s ‘Dark House, by Which Once More I Stand’

‘Dark House, by Which Once More I Stand’ is one canto (the seventh) from a much longer work of poetry, In Memoriam A. H. H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92). The poem shows Tennyson revisiting the home of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, whose untimely death in 1833 inspired the poem. Before we proceed to offer an analysis of this section of the poem, here’s a reminder of the ‘Dark house’ canto.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

‘Dark House, by Which Once More I Stand’ is the seventh canto from In Memoriam A. H. H. The whole poem is divided into 133 cantos – shorter lyric poems – which, collectively, make up one long elegy for Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1833, aged just 22. Tennyson’s grief for his close friend inspired a number of poems Tennyson wrote, especially in the 1830s, but the most ambitious of these was In Memoriam, which he worked on for sixteen years between 1833 and 1849. It was published in 1850, the year Tennyson became UK Poet Laureate following the death of Wordsworth.

Every elegy is a balance of private grief and public mourning, and In Memoriam reveals the complex interrelationship between the two more clearly than most elegies. Let’s go through the three stanzas which make up this short canto from the poem, offering a summary and analysis of each.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

In the first stanza, Tennyson visits the house on Wimpole Street in London where Arthur Hallam lived. But note that he does something else: he addresses the house (addresses Hallam’s address, we might say), or, to use the rhetorical term, he apostrophises the house: ‘Dark house, by which once more I stand …’

Wimpole Street certainly is a long street. At number 50 Elizabeth Barrett lived; her correspondence – and subsequent elopement – with fellow poet Robert Browning inspired a play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Hallam’s childhood home was at number 67. Meanwhile, Wilkie Collins moved to no. 82 Wimpole Street in 1888, a year before he died.

Whether it’s also ‘unlovely’ is obviously more subjective, but given the upsetting memories Hallam’s house now holds for the poet, Tennyson’s reasons for using this adjective are obvious.

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

The first stanza runs into the second without a full-stop: ‘a hand, // A hand’. This repetition beautifully yet cruelly mirrors the joining of hands which will never take place again, between Tennyson and Hallam: both hands are Hallam’s, and they are both beyond the poet’s reach now, at least in this world.

The phrase ‘like a guilty thing’ is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Horatio describing the behaviour of the Ghost on the battlements of Elsinore Castle (‘And then it started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons’).

In Tennyson’s poem, it is the living, not the dead, that acts ‘like a guilty thing’, perhaps because Tennyson feels guilty for surviving when his friend had his own life cruelly snatched away, or because he feels guilty at slinking away to visit Hallam’s old home at early morning. (It is significant that it is not even dawn yet – see the next stanza – suggesting that Tennyson has been tossing and turning and has come to this house because he is plagued by worries, anxieties, grief, and, yes, guilt. ‘I cannot sleep’: he has been driven to insomnia by his grief over losing Hallam.)

He ‘creep[s]’ to Hallam’s door not just because it is ‘earliest morning’ and he doesn’t want to wake the street, but because he feels guilty for even being there, for indulging in such futile behaviour – as if that ‘door’ will suddenly open and Hallam will step out.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

The final stanza of ‘Dark House, by Which Once More I Stand’ is a masterclass in caesura (mid-line pauses) and enjambment (run-on lines). Note how Tennyson concludes, as if surprised at the realisation, that Hallam ‘is not here’. Then we get that pause or caesura thanks to the semi-colon, while the realisation slowly sinks in.

But then, after admitting that Hallam is not here, in this house where he used to live, there is a far-off glimmer of hope offered by that ‘but’: ‘He is not here; but far away’ – what? He is not here with me, but he is far away somewhere, in heaven, where I will be reunited with him after my own death?

No: even that faint hope is then cruelly snatched from us, as it was from the poet, by continuing on to the next line and discovering that that ‘far away’ refers not to Hallam’s location but to the distant sound of the workaday world starting up again:

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again

Life, yes, but not Hallam’s. Note also how, in this final stanza, Tennyson uses the abba rhyme scheme which he deploys throughout In Memoriam (what is also known as envelope rhyme or enclosed rhyme): the a and the b rhymes are both joined, through their shared assonance, by the long ‘a’ sound (away, again, rain, day), bringing them in closer, tighter, so they are both, as it were, pointing the same way, and suggestive of a long wail or moan of despair.

It’s also worth observing, as one final piece of close textual analysis, how Tennyson disrupts the usual metre he employs for that final line. In Memoriam is written in iambic tetrameter, which means there are four iambs (a metric foot comprising one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) per line. You can see this in the following line:

A HAND that CAN be CLASP’D no MORE

This ‘ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM’ rhythm is the norm for In Memoriam, although by the time we get to the final stanza, Tennyson is introducing some variations which success the troubling realisation he is experiencing:

HE is not HERE; but FAR a-WAY

Where the first iamb is replaced by the opposite foot, a trochee (TUM-ti rather than ti-TUM), with the disturbed metre drawing attention to the disturbing mini-epiphany the poet has had. He is not here. The rest of the world is still here, but Hallam really has gone …

And then, in that final line of the third stanza, the metre is even more uneven:

ON the BALD STREET BREAKS the BLANK DAY.

In other words, instead of iambic tetrameter, we get a trochee, a spondee (where both syllables are stressed), another trochee, and then another spondee. Just as the day breaks, so the metre does; and with it comes the crashing (and crushing) realisation that life must go on again, without Hallam.

One Comment

  1. mhall46184@aol.com

    You are GOOD! Thank you!

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