In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the meaning and origin of a well-known proverb
‘Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ It’s become a proverb, and proverbs are, usually, authorless.
Actually, that’s not really true. Although ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ or ‘if you want to sup with the Devil, you’d better have a long spoon’ are attributed to that most prolific of authors, ‘Anon.’, many other proverbial pearls of wisdom do have a clear and recognisable author. ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ we owe to Edward Young, the eighteenth-century author of the long meditative poem Night Thoughts. And ‘Love conquers all’ appeared in the works of the Roman poet, Virgil.
And ‘better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ is one of those proverbs which definitely have an author we can point to. In this case, perhaps surprisingly, we only have to go back to the mid-nineteenth century to find its origins. For this quotation was penned by the most famous English poet of the Victorian era, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).
One of Tennyson’s most ambitious poems, and one of his most celebrated, is a long elegy he wrote for the death of a friend he knew from his student days at Cambridge. In Memoriam A. H. H. 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, himself only in his early twenties when Hallam died, was inconsolable: his 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. Throughout the poem, we see Tennyson examining some private memory – a visit to Hallam’s childhood home, or something his friend once said to him – and then working outwards from it to offer some universally applicable truth about death, grief, and love.
Yes, love. For it’s clear that Tennyson loved Hallam dearly – whether just as a close friend, or as something more, has been the subject of speculation ever since. But love is clearly an important theme of In Memoriam.
And it’s in Canto XXVII of In Memoriam that we find the words ‘’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’:
I envy not in any moods
The captive void of noble rage,
The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods:
I envy not the beast that takes
His licence in the field of time,
Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;
Nor, what may count itself as blest,
The heart that never plighted troth
But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.
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 although loving someone and losing them is heart-breaking, never having known love is worse.
But like so many proverbs, there is a counterpoint to such a sentiment: ‘what you never had, you never miss’. The example usually given is blindness: someone who has never known what it is to have sight cannot miss the gift of vision, at least not in the way we usually understand ‘missing’ something. Few people would probably unequivocally accept the wisdom of a proverb that said ‘’tis better to have seen and lost your sight than never to have seen at all’. Such a statement would, at the very least, be questionable.
Other proverbs often have a counter-proverb which cuts across the wisdom they supposedly impart: ‘look before you leap’ advises caution, while ‘he who hesitates is lost’ counsels hasty action as the most effective course. So what about ‘’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’?
This seems to be different because of our conception of ‘love’: as something we give to another, something that goes beyond ourselves, something that enriches our lives but also our personalities, having had to put someone else ahead of ourselves, or at least (arguably, in the case of true love) on a par with ourselves.
The soul that has never known love is smaller, a slighter and meaner thing than one which has loved, even if the object of that love has since been taken from us. In other words, I think Tennyson’s words don’t just address the nice memories that having loved provide us with: they speak to a deeper truth about love, and loving another, and the benefits it imparts to our experience of life, and our knowledge of ourselves.
The idea of ‘loving and losing’ is found elsewhere in Tennyson’s long poem. Indeed, In Memoriam opens with a reference to having ‘loved and lost’. Canto I reads:
I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
But who shall so forecast the years
And find in loss a gain to match?
Or reach a hand thro’ time to catch
The far-off interest of tears?
Let love clasp grief lest both be drown’d.
Let darkness keep her raven gloss:
Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss,
To dance with Death, to beat the ground,
Than that the victor Hours should scorn
The long result of love, and boast,
‘Behold the man that loved and lost,
But all he was is overworn.’
This canto frames and introduces the poem that will follow, and shows that love and grief are closely intertwined emotions: we grieve those whom we loved, and whom we have lost. But this opening canto also shows Tennyson’s desire and determination to use his experience of having loved and lost to create great art that will speak to other lovers and friends who will grieve the losses of those they loved.
Viewed this way, ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all’ may as well stand in as a two-line abstract for the poem as a whole: Tennyson does indeed emerge, at the end of his long examination of his own loss, a better man who can celebrate Hallam’s memory and the brief time he knew him before Hallam’s untimely death.
Curiously, although Tennyson was the first to use the exact wording of the sentiment as it is now known (‘’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’), the idea behind the quotation, as is so often the case with a good proverb, is older. In his 1700 play The Way of the World, William Congreve has a character assert, ‘Say what you will, ’tis better to be left than never to have loved.’ And Mary Wollstonecraft, in her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, wrote, ‘It is far better to be often deceived than never to trust; to be disappointed in love, than never to love.’ (Thanks to Daedalus Rex in the comments below for drawing my attention to the Wollstonecraft.)
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.