Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Reading with my Kids: Halloween Edition

Source of books: I own all of these.

I didn’t initially plan it this way, but we ended up reading three scary or spooky tales for the month of October.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning

I suppose most have at least a passing idea of the plot, and may have read a prose adaptation. But seriously, the poem is so much fun! Why haven’t more people read it? I remain puzzled about the lack of interest in poetry these days, and have yet to form a grand unification theory of of poetical uninterest.

Anyway, my kids loved this poem. I knew that my second daughter, who has loved all things rodent since she adopted “Mousie” as her favorite stuffed animal before she even turned one. She now has more stuffed rats and mice than I can keep track of, and finds them fascinating - even the dead ones our cat leaves as presents. I had to explain a few words, but not many. Browning’s skill as a poet makes this a good introduction to narrative poetry for children - or adults.

Their favorite part, which I had to read over and over for them afterward:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

The legend wasn’t original with Browning, of course. It had existed at least since the 1300s, and may have arisen as a parable for an epidemic which killed a large number of children. (This would be a bit ironic, since at the time the legend arose, the Black Plague was known, but its cause - fleas transmitting the bacteria from rats - was not.

Other notable versions of the tale were written by the Brothers Grimm (the version perhaps most familiar) and Goethe. I am particularly partial to Browning’s version. It has a bit of sly humor, and delightful rhymes. And, let it be said, a moral that lawyers everywhere can appreciate:

So, Willy, let me and you be wipers
Of scores out with all men -- especially pipers!
And, whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice,
If we've promised them aught, let us keep our promise! 

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This is another poem I loved when I first read it in high school, and thought it might work well for the kids - particularly since they wanted to hear something spooky. (My kids are fairly fearless, and find the macabre fascinating. I’m not sure where that came from.)

This poem has some interesting social commentary, which the kids didn’t really get yet. So, a few things went over their heads. However, they enjoyed the story itself, and the older ones definitely understood the problems with killing purely for sport or boredom. My kids are interested in birds, including the condor, and love seeing and identifying them whenever we can. They also liked the ghost ship and the game played for the life of the sailor.

Although I didn’t really try to explain it to the kids, I did note the bit about superstition. I hadn’t really seen this before, but it is interesting now, to my older self. The other sailors initially cheer the killing of the albatross because they think it brought them wind, and then they change their minds rapidly. Either way, it is superstition adopted to match whatever current circumstances are at any given time.

I definitely have to quote the best known section, full of memorable lines.

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
'Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Totally unforgettable. Coleridge brings the picture to life, and uses the rhythms of the traditional ballad stanza to emphasize the rocking and the flow of the narrative.

And then the ghost ship appears.

The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.

And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
'The game is done! I've won! I've won!'
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

It is well worth seeking out the Gustave Doré illustrations - particularly for this scene. The ghost woman throwing dice with Death in a ghoulish game.

This poem was a little more challenging than The Pied Piper, but still rather accessible.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

Washington Irving is on my short list of unjustly neglected authors. (I would also put Anthony Trollope and P. G. Wodehouse on the list.) Again, most are familiar with this tale - at least through the many thoroughly bastardized movie and television adaptations. Alas, most think that it is the tale of a supernatural being that terrorizes Ichabod Crane. This completely misses the point of the story - and indeed much of Irving’s work. (It is the equivalent of describing Scooby Doo as being about actual ghosts and monsters rather than the debunking of said legends.) Sleepy Hollow is the story of a rather designing young man, eager to marry for money, who is scared off by an enterprising rival, who takes advantage of the fact that Ichabod has spent far too much time marinating his brain in the witch hunt tales of Cotton Mather. (Specifically, Wonders of the Invisible World.)

While I enjoy Irving greatly (Tales of the Alhambra and Tales of a Traveler come to mind as favorite story collections - but his non-fiction is rather good too), his language was a bit over the heads of the children in this case. They liked parts of the story once it got going, but the opening required a good bit of explanation. I expect it will be a good one to return to when they get older.

The two parts they did like were the description of Ichabod’s drooling over the feast put on by the father of his intended conquest, and the chase scene at the end.

Bonus fun facts about Irving: he originated the phrase, “the almighty dollar,” the use of “gotham” for New York City, and the idea of Santa Claus flying through the sky in a wagon or sleigh. How about that for influence?

I suspect we will revisit Irving at a later time, when the advanced language will be more understandable, and the dry humor more familiar.

Anyway, three interesting works with a spooky theme. I can’t wait until I can introduce them to Edgar Allan Poe in a few years.


Okay, one final bit. My dad used to sing us this song when we were kids.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Source of book: Borrowed from the library. I haven’t found a good used hardback yet…

This book is the October selection for the Reading to Know Book Club, hosted by my friend Carrie at This will be my final book club review for this year. Next month is Little Women, which I have read, but didn’t find all that interesting, so I’m skipping reading it again. December is A Tale of Two Cities, which I read just a few years back. I liked it, but decided to skip reading it again both because I did recently read it and because December is my most insane music month, so I seriously doubt I would have time to tackle a Dickens novel. I will note in advance that A Tale of Two Cities is only novel for which I can quote the beginning and the ending. No other novel has such memorable lines at both ends. So, if you haven’t already read it, this might be a good chance.

This book also fits into the category of “Books I Should Have Read in High School.”

Photograph by Napoleon Sarony, 1882

I should point out at the outset that I love Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest is, hands down, one of the wittiest and most quotable plays of all time. Any time one needs a pithy - or poisonous - quote, Wilde is always a good bet. So I rather expected to find some good lines in this book, and I was not disappointed.

The central idea of The Picture of Dorian Gray is so well known that it isn’t much of a spoiler to disclose it. Dorian Gray remains young and unspotted by his vice while a portrait of him suffers the consequences of his debauchery.

The plot is also a variation on the age-old story of Faust. The German legend is best known through the plays by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the earliest versions, Faust sells his soul to the devil for early knowledge (contrasted with heavenly wisdom). In Marlowe’s version, Faust seeks power as much - perhaps more than - knowledge. Goethe makes Faust’s bargain to be the result of his quest for something that transcends the limits of human knowledge and experience - almost the flip side of the original. (I am currently reading part two of Goethe’s Faust, so I will have more thoughts on this soon.)

Wilde makes Dorian Gray rather more shallow than Faust. Where Faust seeks knowledge, power, or transcendence, Dorian wishes to look pretty. He is horrified initially at the thought that he will age and become ugly. At one point, he cannot decided which is worse: to show the signs of cruelty and debauchery, or to simply look old.

He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age.

This vanity, combined with the new-found temptation of the experiences of hedonism, leads him to wish that the portrait would age, rather than himself.

The part of Mephistopheles is played by Sir Henry, who resembles Algernon Moncrief (in The Importance of Being Earnest), except more jaded and worldly-wise. He tempts Dorian (and everyone who will listen) with a delightfully witty never-ending stream of paradoxes and repartees that contain a mixture of truth and poison. He is a living representation of the hedonistic philosophy. Pleasure is everything. Aesthetics is everything.

And he does have some pleasing lines.

I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool.

Or this one, which has more than a grain of truth in it:

Each class would have preached the importance of those virtues, for whose exercise there was no necessity in their own lives. The rich would have spoken of the value of thrift, and the idle grown eloquent over the dignity of labour.

It’s hard to believe this wasn’t written yesterday. (Do a web search for McDonalds and how to live on minimum wage.) And there are many, many more. In most cases, there is a grain of truth, mixed with an utterly selfish and self absorbed view of life. At its core, however, it is an empty philosophy, as Wilde makes utterly clear by the end of the book. Henry, and eventually his acolyte Dorian, are incapable of love. Infatuation, yes. (Dorian’s passion for and eventual destruction of, Sybil parallels Faust’s relationship with Margaret.) True love in the sense of believing others exist beyond their capacity for giving one gratification, no. Sir Henry has disdain for his wife (who eventually leaves him for another man) and indeed women in general. One of many examples:

My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.

This inability to love results in one of the most disconcerting scenes in the book. Dorian tells Henry that he is reforming, and that he did a good deed. Henry (and the portrait) reveal that Dorian has merely done good out of vanity and a quest for sensation. Exactly the same reason he engaged in his life of pleasure and debauchery. Although he feels that true repentance would give him freedom, Dorian resists to the end, and eventually destroys himself as a result.

The Picture of Dorian Gray caused a huge scandal when it was published. Before it even made it there, it was revised in part to get past the censors. The revisions seem rather minor to us in retrospect. They were primarily the modification of certain homoerotic elements which might lead to the idea that the painter Basil and Dorian were sexually involved. Nothing even remotely explicit. Perhaps the strongest line was Basil’s remark, “It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives to a friend.” Actually, this isn’t any stronger than the words King David and his friend Jonathan say to each other in the Bible, but the interpretation of the words was undoubtedly colored by Wilde’s own homosexuality. Wilde was pretty widely suspected of homosexual relationships when he wrote Dorian Gray, but the real scandal came later. As a result of a public accusation (in a manner that would have led to a duel a few decades earlier), Wilde sued a man who accused him of sodomy. In the course of the trial, some of Wilde’s letters came to light, and he was eventually convicted and sent to prison for a couple of years. So yes, the censors seem to have overreacted a bit to some fairly mild elements.

While the reaction to the homoerotic undercurrent was understandable, the work was also condemned by many who felt it condoned hedonism.

One wonders if these critics actually read the book.

If anything, Dorian Gray is a compelling argument against hedonism. It is hard to think of a better vision of just how empty selfish pleasure really is. Sir Henry sounds great. One can see how the naive and vain Dorian would become attracted to his ideas. But the point isn’t that Dorian is punished by a cruel society that doesn’t understand him. Because society loves him, for the most part. He gets his way, and does what he wants. He even seems to escape conscience itself until he crosses over his own line and commits a murder.

And yet he becomes increasingly empty and unhappy. He escapes the physical consequences of his sin, but continues to pay the price in his soul - and indeed in his very essence. That which he believed would lead to happiness destroys him inside long before it leads to his final destruction. “"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, borrowing from Samuel Johnson’s Latin aphorism.) It is difficult to imagine a more unhappy man than Dorian. And this encourages debauchery?

Perhaps one like Miss Prism (also in Earnest) might interpret it that way. (Such people as my wife knew from her teen years - see the note at the bottom of this review - definitely fell in this category.) If one cannot abide the idea that anyone would ever do anything wrong, even in literature, then this book would be dangerous indeed. (And heaven forbid anyone of this opinion would actually read the Bible. Good lord, there is a lot of sex and violence in there!) But, if one looks beyond the presence of genuine evil in this book, one might note that Wilde’s point is the vanity of, well, vanity and hedonism. As Wilde himself puts it, "The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

At his best, Wilde is perceptive in his criticisms of the hypocrisy of society, not because he comes out and says “society is bad and hypocritical” but because he strips away the pretty veneer. Sir Henry isn’t really saying things that we don’t all think. He just says them outright rather than coating them in a shell of respectability. Dorian isn’t doing anything we don’t do. He just does them to the extreme. We are all Dorian Gray - and Faust, which is why the legend endures. All of us have our moments of compromise when we think we will not be caught. If we are honest with ourselves, we would undoubtedly discover that Dorian’s bargain would be hard to resist. If our selfishness were truly hidden, and we would never pay the consequences, what would we do? The answer lies in the everyday actions we take to reduce others to means of our fulfilment. (This one thing alone keeps divorce lawyers in business.) And then we justify our selfish actions in ways that seem to leave our own souls unspotted. But what if someone could look at that magical portrait of our souls. What would they see? Would we really want anyone to know what we really look like? Do we really want all our motives laid bare? If one can answer “yes” to that question, one must be a thorough hypocrite indeed.

Note on the ennui of debauchery:

Another quote that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the main body of my review:

There were sins whose fascination was more in the memory than in the doing of them; strange triumphs that gratified the pride more than the more than the passions, and gave to the intellect a quickened sense of joy, greater than any joy they brought, or could ever bring, to the senses.

Wilde is on to something here. Dante, for example, distinguished between the sins of passion and the sins of deliberate planning. Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo are in the outer circles because their adultery was a sensual affair, while the worst punishment (being stuck in Satan’s mouth) was reserved for infamous traitors such as Judas Iscariot. Somehow, the line between sins of a lack of self control and sins purely to gratify the ego are different in our minds. (Perhaps they are different in an absolute sense too.) This is a powerful description. The acts no longer bring pleasure to the senses, but they feed the pride. An interesting idea to ponder.

Note on the most famous quote from this book:

I had heard this numerous times before, but did not realise it came from Dorian Gray - and was one of Sir Henry’s fun lines:

When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs.

Now, confirmation bias is a legitimate problem here. Still, my own practice indicates that Wilde (and Sir Henry) were speaking at least a partial truth. In my experience, one facet in particular does appear to be nearly universally true: A man who has had a long and happy marriage either dies soon after she does, or remarries quickly - and often unwisely.

The other parts of this are less universal. I do see a general tendency after the breakup of a bad marriage. Women tend to think that they just picked badly and will do better next time. And then, they seem to pick, as we lawyers say, “The same person, with a different face.” And men, while they may enter a new relationship after a bad breakup, are more resistant to marrying and having children with a new woman. Once bitten, twice shy. Finally, I do think that one finds more women who remain widows after the end of a good marriage. Although, this may also be due to the fact that men generally tend to die earlier - so there may not be much to choose from after a certain age.

Note on Wilde’s view of his own book:

I am hesitant to take anything Wilde said entirely at face value, because his tongue was pretty much grafted into his cheek. That said, this is Wilde’s statement about Dorian Gray, in a letter to an admirer of the book:

I am so glad that you like that strange coloured book of mine: it contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages, perhaps.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Poems (1833) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Source of book: I own the complete Tennyson

Portrait by P.Krämer-Friedrich Bruckmann

Even those who are not fans of poetry have heard of Tennyson; although, I must say, many of those cannot actually name one of his poems. However, his name is instantly recognizable, and most can place him in the Nineteenth Century and associate him with the culture of Queen Victoria.

Tennyson’s reputation is well deserved, as he was thoroughly skilled at writing rhythms and pictures and moods. Even his worst poetry shows skill, if not always inspiration. (Given the quantity he wrote, he was bound to have a few duds. All prolific writers have some works that fail to rise to the highest level.)

In some ways, it is odd that I have reviewed Tennyson last of the three greatest Victorian poets, since he is the best known. I read a play by Robert Browning earlier this year, and reviewed Matthew Arnold in 2011.

Since most of the poems in this collection are fairly long, I have decided to link some of them, rather than quote them.

This particular collection was the second book of poetry written by Tennyson, and the one that established his reputation. It contains several of his best and best known works: “The Lotos Eaters,” one of a number of his poems that explore the emotional depths latent in The Odyssey is one of my favorites.

However, I must mention the opening poem. “The Lady of Shalott” can be quoted in part by any fan of Anne of Green Gables. (I have previously mentioned that Anne, particularly as portrayed by Megan Follows, was my junior high crush.)

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
          To look down to Camelot.

If you can quote this from memory, you may be an Anne fan.

(Interesting note: this is the 1842 version. The original had different wording here, but I think the revised version is better, which may be why it is more commonly seen in print than the original.)

Here is the attempt to re-create the scene in which the body of the lady is floated down the river. (Anne’s quotations are selective, not sequential.)


The poem itself has an interesting form. The stanzas are nine lines long, and are divided into two sections of five and four lines, respectively. The first four lines of the first part rhyme, and the first three of the second part likewise rhyme. The fifth and ninth lines of each stanza not only rhyme, and rhyme with those corresponding lines throughout the entire poem, they end in one of only three words throughout: Shalott, Camelot, and Lancelot. This could easily feel forced, but Tennyson makes it all seem natural and inevitable.

The theme of the poem also fits with one of Tennyson’s favorite concerns: the balance between freedom and innocence. The lady may view the happenings of the world through a mirror only. She can never experience life directly, because of the vague curse. Tennyson perhaps deliberately alludes to Plato’s cave. In this instance, however, the lady does desire to see more than shadows, but it is her undoing. And yet, it is difficult to fault the lady for her actions. (Tennyson’s famous line in his later work, In Memoriam, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / than never to have loved at all.” comes to mind.) Better, perhaps, to have lived - and died - than never to have lived. Tennyson may well have been describing his own feelings of alienation. He creates art - the magic web - but cannot leave his art to merely live.

The titles of at least two books have been drawn from this poem. The Mirror Crack’d is my wife’s least favorite Agatha Christie book. I previously reviewed I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley.

The Lady of Shalott (1905) by William Hunt and Edward Hughes

I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott (1915) BY John Waterhouse

Tennyson explores this theme further in “The Two Voices,” another of my favorites from this collection.  This poem was originally titled “Thoughts of a Suicide,” and was written shortly after the death of his best friend, Arthur Hallam. (In Memoriam would be his monumental tribute to his friend.) Tennyson was prone to depression, and this catastrophic event brought him to the brink. The poem explores the poet’s thoughts as he hears the voices of his worse and better natures. He questions whether life is even worth living, and the voices argue back and forth about the meaning of life. Is there even a meaning? Is the world getting better or worse? Does that even matter? Ultimately, there is no satisfying resolution. Indeed, pain is endured, not explained away.

“O dull, one-sided voice,” said I,
“Wilt thou make everything a lie,
To flatter me that I may die?

“I know that age to age succeeds,
Blowing a noise of tongues and deeds,
A dust of systems and of creeds.”

As Job well knew, all the “systems and creeds” in the world are just a noise to a man in pain. Tennyson captures the irritation caused when a “comforter” spouts platitudes, whether secular or sacred during a time of grief. Ultimately, his refusal to give in to the easy answers of his own time gives this poem its timeless power.

“The Palace of Art” also addresses the state of the inner self.  Tennyson imagines building a palace within his soul, wherein all of the greatness of art and literature can dwell. It is truly an amazing edifice, but Tennyson fails to find the satisfaction he craves, instead finding himself sickened. He wishes to find a form of repentance in a small cottage, and yet, as the poem concludes, he leaves open the possibility that after his soul is cleansed, he may yet enjoy the beauty of the palace, without his pleasure being mere emptiness.

Just a few random excerpts:

I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house
 Wherein at ease for aye to dwell.
 I said, "O Soul, make merry and carouse,
 Dear soul, for all is well".
Full of long-sounding corridors it was,
 That over-vaulted grateful gloom,
 Thro' which the livelong day my soul did pass,
 Well-pleased, from room to room.

Full of great rooms and small the palace stood,
 All various, each a perfect whole
 From living Nature, fit for every mood
 And change of my still soul.
Then in the towers I placed great bells that swung,
 Moved of themselves, with silver sound;
 And with choice paintings of wise men I hung
 The royal dais round.

For there was Milton like a seraph strong,
 Beside him Shakespeare bland and mild;
 And there the world-worn Dante grasp'd his song,
 And somewhat grimly smiled.

And there the Ionian father of the rest;
 A million wrinkles carved his skin;
 A hundred winters snow'd upon his breast,
 From cheek and throat and chin.

Beautiful language, and unforgettable images. The form also contributes to the experience. Tennyson tweaks the ballad form by lengthening each line by a foot. Pentameter followed by tetrameter, so it feels sort of like a ballad rhythm, but more stately and unhurried. To me, it seemed as if the earthy rush of the ballad was melded with the solemn pacing of the venerable pentameter, fusing sensual emotion with intellect. This ties in perfectly with the description of the palace, appealing alike to emotion and thought.

Loss is a favorite theme of Tennyson’s poems - and he and his friends experienced plenty of it. “To J.S.” was written to his friend James Spedding after the death of Spedding’s brother. It is worth quoting in full.

The wind, that beats the mountain, blows
More softly round the open wold,
And gently comes the world to those
That are cast in gentle mould.

And me this knowledge bolder made,
Or else I had not dared to flow
In these words toward you, and invade
Even with a verse your holy woe.

'Tis strange that those we lean on most,
Those in whose laps our limbs are nursed,
Fall into shadow, soonest lost:
Those we love first are taken first.

God gives us love. Something to love
He lends us; but, when love is grown
To ripeness, that on which it throve
Falls off, and love is left alone.

This is the curse of time. Alas!
In grief I am not all unlearn'd;
Once thro' mine own doors Death did pass;
One went, who never hath return'd.

He will not smile--nor speak to me
Once more. Two years his chair is seen
Empty before us. That was he
Without whose life I had not been.

Your loss is rarer; for this star
Rose with you thro' a little arc
Of heaven, nor having wander'd far
Shot on the sudden into dark.

I knew your brother: his mute dust
I honour and his living worth:
A man more pure and bold and just
Was never born into the earth.

I have not look'd upon you nigh,
Since that dear soul hath fall'n asleep.
Great Nature is more wise than I:
I will not tell you not to weep.

And tho' mine own eyes fill with dew,
Drawn from the spirit thro' the brain,
I will not even preach to you,
"Weep, weeping dulls the inward pain".

Let Grief be her own mistress still.
She loveth her own anguish deep
More than much pleasure. Let her will
Be done--to weep or not to weep.

I will not say "God's ordinance
Of Death is blown in every wind";
For that is not a common chance
That takes away a noble mind.

His memory long will live alone
In all our hearts, as mournful light
That broods above the fallen sun,
And dwells in heaven half the night.

Vain solace! Memory standing near
Cast down her eyes, and in her throat
Her voice seem'd distant, and a tear
Dropt on the letters as I wrote.

I wrote I know not what. In truth,
How should I soothe you anyway,
Who miss the brother of your youth?
Yet something I did wish to say:

For he too was a friend to me:
Both are my friends, and my true breast
Bleedeth for both; yet it may be
That only silence suiteth best.

Words weaker than your grief would make
Grief more. 'Twere better I should cease;
Although myself could almost take
The place of him that sleeps in peace.

Sleep sweetly, tender heart, in peace:
Sleep, holy spirit, blessed soul,
While the stars burn, the moons increase,
And the great ages onward roll.

Sleep till the end, true soul and sweet.
Nothing comes to thee new or strange.
Sleep full of rest from head to feet;
Lie still, dry dust, secure of change.
This is why Tennyson would be a good choice to read during times of sadness. His pain feels real and honest, but his despair isn’t complete, and his empathy is gentle.

“The Lotos Eaters” takes the story from Homer’s Odyssey, where the sailors eat of the fruit and forget their homeland, wishing to stay there forever. In Tennyson’s hands, we view the incident, not from Odysseus’ point of view, but from that of the sailors themselves. We experience their own conflicts of emotion as they are drawn between their love for their homeland and families, and the peace and joy they feel under the influence of the lotos fruit. During his lifetime, Tennyson was accused of promoting living in an opium stupor, or, alternately, advocating for the rejection of the Christian faith. With enough squinting, either could possibly be read into the text. I didn’t find either idea particularly necessary or helpful in enjoying this work. The poem works because it reflects universal human emotional conflicts. One need not eat a magic fruit to fantasize about a life without responsibility or an end to seemingly endless conflict.
Illustration by W.E.F Britten (1901)

I love the opening lines:

"Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land,
"This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

And these, dreaming of the ultimate rest from striving and conflict:

Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o'er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

And the stark reality Homer realized: after ten years of war, everything would be irrevocably changed anyway.

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears: but all hath suffer'd change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
Or else the island princes over-bold
Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings
Before them of the ten years' war in Troy,
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
Is there confusion in the little isle?
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile:
'Tis hard to settle order once again.
There is confusion worse than death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
Long labour unto aged breath,
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.

“The Lotos Eaters” inspired other artists. Edward Elgar set the opening stanza of the “Choric Song” for acapella choir.

Hubert Parry set the entire work to music, but I cannot find a clip of that, unfortunately. 

The Lotos/Lotus of the story is believed to be a relative of the jujube fruit, for what that is worth.
I’ll end on a more humorous note. This is “The Goose,” Tennyson’s take on the legend of the golden egg. At the time, it was politically charged, but can be enjoyed out of that context.

I knew an old wife lean and poor,
Her rags scarce held together;
There strode a stranger to the door,
And it was windy weather.

He held a goose upon his arm,
He utter'd rhyme and reason,
"Here, take the goose, and keep you warm,
It is a stormy season".

She caught the white goose by the leg,
A goose--'twas no great matter.
The goose let fall a golden egg
With cackle and with clatter.

She dropt the goose, and caught the pelf,
And ran to tell her neighbours;
And bless'd herself, and cursed herself,
And rested from her labours.

And feeding high, and living soft,
Grew plump and able-bodied;
Until the grave churchwarden doff'd,
The parson smirk'd and nodded.

So sitting, served by man and maid,
She felt her heart grow prouder:
But, ah! the more the white goose laid
It clack'd and cackled louder.

It clutter'd here, it chuckled there;
It stirr'd the old wife's mettle:
She shifted in her elbow-chair,
And hurl'd the pan and kettle.

"A quinsy choke thy cursed note!"
Then wax'd her anger stronger:
"Go, take the goose, and wring her throat,
I will not bear it longer".

Then yelp'd the cur, and yawl'd the cat;
Ran Gaffer, stumbled Gammer.
The goose flew this way and flew that,
And fill'd the house with clamour.

As head and heels upon the floor
They flounder'd all together,
There strode a stranger to the door,
And it was windy weather:

He took the goose upon his arm,
He utter'd words of scorning;
"So keep you cold, or keep you warm,
It is a stormy morning".

The wild wind rang from park and plain,
And round the attics rumbled,
Till all the tables danced again,
And half the chimneys tumbled.

The glass blew in, the fire blew out,
The blast was hard and harder.
Her cap blew off, her gown blew up,
And a whirlwind clear'd the larder;

And while on all sides breaking loose
Her household fled the danger,
Quoth she, "The Devil take the goose,
And God forget the stranger!"

It’s hard to suggest a bad place to start when it comes to Tennyson. (My kids like “The Eagle.”) This collection is a pretty good place to start. Whether or not you like Victorian poetry in general, it is hard not to enjoy Tennyson’s marvelous use of language and rhythm and the way he makes his words augment his meaning by their very sounds.