Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
First published in 1842, though begun as early as 1833 and in course of composition in 1834. See Spedding's letter dated 19th September, 1834. Its original title was 'The Thoughts of a Suicide'. No alterations were made in the poem after 1842.
It adds interest to this poem to know that it is autobiographical. It was written soon after the death of Arthur Hallam when Tennyson's depression was deepest. "When I wrote 'The Two Voices' I was so utterly miserable, a burden to myself and to my family, that I said, 'Is life worth anything?'" It is the history--as Spedding put it--of the agitations, the suggestions and counter-suggestions of a mind sunk in hopeless despondency, and meditating self-destruction, together with the manner of its recovery to a more healthy condition. We have two singularly interesting parallels to it in preceding poetry. The one is in the third book of Lucretius (830-1095), where the arguments for suicide are urged, not merely by the poet himself, but by arguments placed by him in the mouth of Nature herself, and urged with such cogency that they are said to have induced one of his editors and translators, Creech, to put an end to his life. The other is in Spenser, in the dialogue between Despair and the Red Cross Knight, where Despair puts the case for self-destruction, and the Red Cross Knight rebuts the arguments ('Faerie Queene', I. ix., st. xxxviii.-liv.).
A still small voice spake unto me, "Thou art so full of misery, Were it not better not to be?"
Then to the still small voice I said; "Let me not cast in endless shade What is so wonderfully made".
To which the voice did urge reply; "To-day I saw the dragon-fly Come from the wells where he did lie.
"An inner impulse rent the veil Of his old husk: from head to tail Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
"He dried his wings: like gauze they grew: Thro' crofts and pastures wet with dew A living flash of light he flew."
I said, "When first the world began Young Nature thro' five cycles ran, And in the sixth she moulded man.
"She gave him mind, the lordliest Proportion, and, above the rest, Dominion in the head and breast."
Thereto the silent voice replied; "Self-blinded are you by your pride: Look up thro' night: the world is wide.
"This truth within thy mind rehearse, That in a boundless universe Is boundless better, boundless worse.
"Think you this mould of hopes and fears Could find no statelier than his peers In yonder hundred million spheres?"
It spake, moreover, in my mind: "Tho' thou wert scatter'd to the wind, Yet is there plenty of the kind".
Then did my response clearer fall: "No compound of this earthly ball Is like another, all in all".
To which he answer'd scoffingly; "Good soul! suppose I grant it thee, Who'll weep for thy deficiency?
"Or will one beam  be less intense, When thy peculiar difference Is cancell'd in the world of sense?"
I would have said, "Thou canst not know," But my full heart, that work'd below, Rain'd thro' my sight its overflow.
Again the voice spake unto me: "Thou art so steep'd in misery, Surely 'twere better not to be.
"Thine anguish will not let thee sleep, Nor any train of reason keep: Thou canst not think, but thou wilt weep."
I said, "The years with change advance: If I make dark my countenance, I shut my life from happier chance.
"Some turn this sickness yet might take, Ev'n yet." But he: "What drug can make A wither'd palsy cease to shake?"
I wept, "Tho' I should die, I know That all about the thorn will blow In tufts of rosy-tinted snow;
"And men, thro' novel spheres of thought Still moving after truth long sought, Will learn new things when I am not."
"Yet," said the secret voice, "some time, Sooner or later, will gray prime Make thy grass hoar with early rime.
"Not less swift souls that yearn for light, Rapt after heaven's starry flight, Would sweep the tracts of day and night.
"Not less the bee would range her cells, The furzy prickle fire the dells, The foxglove cluster dappled bells."
I said that "all the years invent; Each month is various to present The world with some development.
"Were this not well, to bide mine hour, Tho' watching from a ruin'd tower How grows the day of human power?"
"The highest-mounted mind," he said, "Still sees the sacred morning spread The silent summit overhead.
"Will thirty seasons render plain Those lonely lights that still remain, Just breaking over land and main?
"Or make that morn, from his cold crown And crystal silence creeping down, Flood with full daylight glebe and town?
"Forerun thy peers, thy time, and let Thy feet, millenniums hence, be set In midst of knowledge, dream'd not yet.
"Thou hast not gain'd a real height, Nor art thou nearer to the light, Because the scale is infinite.
"'Twere better not to breathe or speak, Than cry for strength, remaining weak, And seem to find, but still to seek.
"Moreover, but to seem to find Asks what thou lackest, thought resign'd, A healthy frame, a quiet mind."
I said, "When I am gone away, 'He dared not tarry,' men will say, Doing dishonour to my clay."
"This is more vile," he made reply, "To breathe and loathe, to live and sigh, Than once from dread of pain to die.
"Sick art thou--a divided will Still heaping on the fear of ill The fear of men, a coward still.
"Do men love thee? Art thou so bound To men, that how thy name may sound Will vex thee lying underground?
"The memory of the wither'd leaf In endless time is scarce more brief Than of the garner'd Autumn-sheaf.
"Go, vexed Spirit, sleep in trust; The right ear, that is fill'd with dust, Hears little of the false or just."
"Hard task, to pluck resolve," I cried, "From emptiness and the waste wide Of that abyss, or scornful pride!
"Nay--rather yet that I could raise One hope that warm'd me in the days While still I yearn'd for human praise.
"When, wide in soul, and bold of tongue, Among the tents I paused and sung, The distant battle flash'd and rung.
"I sung the joyful Paean clear, And, sitting, burnish'd without fear The brand, the buckler, and the spear--
"Waiting to strive a happy strife, To war with falsehood to the knife, And not to lose the good of life--
"Some hidden principle to move, To put together, part and prove, And mete the bounds of hate and love--
"As far as might be, to carve out Free space for every human doubt, That the whole mind might orb about--
"To search thro' all I felt or saw, The springs of life, the depths of awe, And reach the law within the law:
"At least, not rotting like a weed, But, having sown some generous seed, Fruitful of further thought and deed,
"To pass, when Life her light withdraws, Not void of righteous self-applause, Nor in a merely selfish cause--
"In some good cause, not in mine own, To perish, wept for, honour'd, known, And like a warrior overthrown;
"Whose eyes are dim with glorious tears, When, soil'd with noble dust, he hears His country's war-song thrill his ears:
"Then dying of a mortal stroke, What time the foeman's line is broke. And all the war is roll'd in smoke." 
"Yea!" said the voice, "thy dream was good, While thou abodest in the bud. It was the stirring of the blood.
"If Nature put not forth her power  About the opening of the flower, Who is it that could live an hour?
"Then comes the check, the change, the fall. Pain rises up, old pleasures pall. There is one remedy for all.
"Yet hadst thou, thro' enduring pain, Link'd month to month with such a chain Of knitted purport, all were vain.
"Thou hadst not between death and birth Dissolved the riddle of the earth. So were thy labour little worth.
"That men with knowledge merely play'd, I told thee--hardly nigher made, Tho' scaling slow from grade to grade;
"Much less this dreamer, deaf and blind, Named man, may hope some truth to find, That bears relation to the mind.
"For every worm beneath the moon Draws different threads, and late and soon Spins, toiling out his own cocoon.
"Cry, faint not: either Truth is born Beyond the polar gleam forlorn, Or in the gateways of the morn.
"Cry, faint not, climb: the summits slope Beyond the furthest nights of hope, Wrapt in dense cloud from base to cope.
"Sometimes a little corner shines, As over rainy mist inclines A gleaming crag with belts of pines.
"I will go forward, sayest thou, I shall not fail to find her now. Look up, the fold is on her brow.
"If straight thy track, or if oblique, Thou know'st not. Shadows thou dost strike, Embracing cloud, Ixion-like;
"And owning but a little more Than beasts, abidest lame and poor, Calling thyself a little lower
"Than angels. Cease to wail and brawl! Why inch by inch to darkness crawl? There is one remedy for all."
"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.
"I cannot hide that some have striven, Achieving calm, to whom was given The joy that mixes man with Heaven:
"Who, rowing hard against the stream, Saw distant gates of Eden gleam, And did not dream it was a dream";
"But heard, by secret transport led,  Ev'n in the charnels of the dead, The murmur of the fountain-head--
"Which did accomplish their desire,-- Bore and forbore, and did not tire, Like Stephen, an unquenched fire.
"He heeded not reviling tones, Nor sold his heart to idle moans, Tho' cursed and scorn'd, and bruised with stones:
"But looking upward, full of grace, He pray'd, and from a happy place God's glory smote him on the face."
The sullen answer slid betwixt: "Not that the grounds of hope were fix'd, The elements were kindlier mix'd." 
I said, "I toil beneath the curse, But, knowing not the universe, I fear to slide from bad to worse. 
"And that, in seeking to undo One riddle, and to find the true, I knit a hundred others new:
"Or that this anguish fleeting hence, Unmanacled from bonds of sense, Be fix'd and froz'n to permanence:
"For I go, weak from suffering here; Naked I go, and void of cheer: What is it that I may not fear?"
"Consider well," the voice replied, "His face, that two hours since hath died; Wilt thou find passion, pain or pride?
"Will he obey when one commands? Or answer should one press his hands? He answers not, nor understands.
"His palms are folded on his breast: There is no other thing express'd But long disquiet merged in rest.
"His lips are very mild and meek: Tho' one should smite him on the cheek, And on the mouth, he will not speak.
"His little daughter, whose sweet face He kiss'd, taking his last embrace, Becomes dishonour to her race--
"His sons grow up that bear his name, Some grow to honour, some to shame,-- But he is chill to praise or blame. 
"He will not hear the north wind rave, Nor, moaning, household shelter crave From winter rains that beat his grave.
"High up the vapours fold and swim: About him broods the twilight dim: The place he knew forgetteth him."
"If all be dark, vague voice," I said, "These things are wrapt in doubt and dread, Nor canst thou show the dead are dead.
"The sap dries up: the plant declines.  A deeper tale my heart divines. Know I not Death? the outward signs?
"I found him when my years were few; A shadow on the graves I knew, And darkness in the village yew.
"From grave to grave the shadow crept: In her still place the morning wept: Touch'd by his feet the daisy slept.
"The simple senses crown'd his head:  'Omega! thou art Lord,' they said; 'We find no motion in the dead.'
"Why, if man rot in dreamless ease, Should that plain fact, as taught by these, Not make him sure that he shall cease?
"Who forged that other influence, That heat of inward evidence, By which he doubts against the sense?
"He owns the fatal gift of eyes,  That read his spirit blindly wise, Not simple as a thing that dies.
"Here sits he shaping wings to fly: His heart forebodes a mystery: He names the name Eternity.
"That type of Perfect in his mind In Nature can he nowhere find. He sows himself in every wind.
"He seems to hear a Heavenly Friend, And thro' thick veils to apprehend A labour working to an end.
"The end and the beginning vex His reason: many things perplex, With motions, checks, and counterchecks.
"He knows a baseness in his blood At such strange war with something good, He may not do the thing he would.
"Heaven opens inward, chasms yawn. Vast images in glimmering dawn, Half shown, are broken and withdrawn.
"Ah! sure within him and without, Could his dark wisdom find it out, There must be answer to his doubt.
"But thou canst answer not again. With thine own weapon art thou slain, Or thou wilt answer but in vain.
"The doubt would rest, I dare not solve. In the same circle we revolve. Assurance only breeds resolve."
As when a billow, blown against, Falls back, the voice with which I fenced A little ceased, but recommenced.
"Where wert thou when thy father play'd In his free field, and pastime made, A merry boy in sun and shade?
"A merry boy they called him then. He sat upon the knees of men In days that never come again,
"Before the little ducts began To feed thy bones with lime, and ran Their course, till thou wert also man:
"Who took a wife, who rear'd his race, Whose wrinkles gather'd on his face, Whose troubles number with his days:
"A life of nothings, nothing-worth, From that first nothing ere his birth To that last nothing under earth!"
"These words," I said, "are like the rest, No certain clearness, but at best A vague suspicion of the breast:
"But if I grant, thou might'st defend The thesis which thy words intend-- That to begin implies to end;
"Yet how should I for certain hold,  Because my memory is so cold, That I first was in human mould?
"I cannot make this matter plain, But I would shoot, howe'er in vain, A random arrow from the brain.
"It may be that no life is found, Which only to one engine bound Falls off, but cycles always round.
"As old mythologies relate, Some draught of Lethe might await The slipping thro' from state to state.
"As here we find in trances, men Forget the dream that happens then, Until they fall in trance again.
"So might we, if our state were such As one before, remember much, For those two likes might meet and touch. 
"But, if I lapsed from nobler place, Some legend of a fallen race Alone might hint of my disgrace;
"Some vague emotion of delight In gazing up an Alpine height, Some yearning toward the lamps of night.
"Or if thro' lower lives I came-- Tho' all experience past became Consolidate in mind and frame--
"I might forget my weaker lot; For is not our first year forgot? The haunts of memory echo not.
"And men, whose reason long was blind, From cells of madness unconfined,  Oft lose whole years of darker mind.
"Much more, if first I floated free, As naked essence, must I be Incompetent of memory:
"For memory dealing but with time, And he with matter, could she climb Beyond her own material prime?
"Moreover, something is or seems, That touches me with mystic gleams, Like glimpses of forgotten dreams--
"Of something felt, like something here; Of something done, I know not where; Such as no language may declare."
The still voice laugh'd. "I talk," said he, "Not with thy dreams. Suffice it thee Thy pain is a reality."
"But thou," said I, "hast miss'd thy mark, Who sought'st to wreck my mortal ark, By making all the horizon dark.
"Why not set forth, if I should do This rashness, that which might ensue With this old soul in organs new?
"Whatever crazy sorrow saith, No life that breathes with human breath Has ever truly long'd for death.
"'Tis life, whereof our nerves are scant, Oh life, not death, for which we pant; More life, and fuller, that I want."
I ceased, and sat as one forlorn. Then said the voice, in quiet scorn, "Behold it is the Sabbath morn".
And I arose, and I released The casement, and the light increased With freshness in the dawning east.
Like soften'd airs that blowing steal, When meres begin to uncongeal, The sweet church bells began to peal.
On to God's house the people prest: Passing the place where each must rest, Each enter'd like a welcome guest.
One walk'd between his wife and child, With measur'd footfall firm and mild, And now and then he gravely smiled.
The prudent partner of his blood Lean'd on him, faithful, gentle, good,  Wearing the rose of womanhood.
And in their double love secure, The little maiden walk'd demure, Pacing with downward eyelids pure.
These three made unity so sweet, My frozen heart began to beat, Remembering its ancient heat.
I blest them, and they wander'd on: I spoke, but answer came there none: The dull and bitter voice was gone.
A second voice was at mine ear, A little whisper silver-clear, A murmur, "Be of better cheer".
As from some blissful neighbourhood, A notice faintly understood, "I see the end, and know the good".
A little hint to solace woe, A hint, a whisper breathing low, "I may not speak of what I know".
Like an Aeolian harp that wakes No certain air, but overtakes Far thought with music that it makes:
Such seem'd the whisper at my side: "What is it thou knowest, sweet voice?" I cried. "A hidden hope," the voice replied:
So heavenly-toned, that in that hour From out my sullen heart a power Broke, like the rainbow from the shower,
To feel, altho' no tongue can prove That every cloud, that spreads above And veileth love, itself is love.
And forth into the fields I went, And Nature's living motion lent The pulse of hope to discontent.
I wonder'd at the bounteous hours, The slow result of winter showers: You scarce could see the grass for flowers.
I wonder'd, while I paced along: The woods were fill'd so full with song, There seem'd no room for sense of wrong.
So variously seem'd all things wrought,  I marvell'd how the mind was brought To anchor by one gloomy thought;
And wherefore rather I made choice To commune with that barren voice, Than him that said, "Rejoice! rejoice!"
[Footnote 1: The insensibility of Nature to man's death has been the eloquent theme of many poets. 'Cf'. Byron, 'Lara', canto ii. 'ad init'., and Matthew Arnold, 'The Youth of Nature'.]
[Footnote 2: 'Cf. Palace of Art', "the riddle of the painful earth".]
[Footnote 3: 'Seq'. The reference is to Acts of the Apostles vii. 54-60.]
[Footnote 4: Suggested by Shakespeare, 'Julius Cæsar', Act v., Sc. 5:--
and _the elements_ So mix'd in' him that Nature, etc.]
[Footnote 5: An excellent commentary on this is Clough's
_Perché pensa, pensando vecchia_.]
[Footnote 6: 'Cf'. Job xiv. 21:
"His sons come to honour, and he knowcth it not; and they are brought low, but he perceiveth it not of them."]
[Footnote 7: So Bishop Butler, 'Analogy', ch. i.:
"We cannot argue _from the reason of the thing_ that death is the destruction of living agents because we know not at all what death is in itself, but only some of its effects".]
[Footnote 8: So Milton, enfolding this idea of death, 'Paradise Lost', ii., 672-3:--
What seemed his head The _likeness_ of a kingly crown had on.]
[Footnote 9: 'Cf'. Plato, 'Phaedo', x.:--
[Greek: ara echei alaetheian tina opsis te kai akoae tois anthr_opois. Ae ta ge toiauta kai oi poiaetai haemin aei thrulousin oti out akouomen akribes ouden oute or_omen]
"Have sight and hearing any truth in them? Are they not, as poets are always telling us, inaccurate witnesses?"
The proper commentary on the whole of this passage is Plato 'passim', but the 'Phaedo' particularly, 'cf. Republic', vii., viii. and xiv.-xv.]
[Footnote 10: An allusion to the myth that when souls are sent to occupy a body again they drink of Lethe that they may forget their previous existence. See the famous passage towards the end of the tenth book of Plato's 'Republic':
"All persons are compelled to drink a certain quantity of the water, but those who are not preserved by prudence drink more than the quantity, and each as he drinks forgets everything".
So Milton, 'Paradise Lost', ii., 582-4.]
[Footnote 11: The best commentary on this will be found in Herbert Spencer's 'Psychology'.]
[Footnote 12: Compare with this Tennyson's first sonnet ('Works', Globe Edition, 25), and the lines in the 'Ancient Sage' in the 'Passion of the Past' ('Id'., 551). 'Cf'. too the lines in Wordsworth's ode on 'Intimations of Immortality':--
But there's a tree, of many one, A single field which I have looked upon, Both of them speak of something that is gone; The pansy at my feet Doth the same tale repeat.
For other remarkable illustrations of this see the present writer's 'Illustrations of Tennyson', p. 38.]
[Footnote 13: 'Cf'. Coleridge, 'Ancient Mariner, iv'.:--
"O happy living things ... I blessed them The self-same moment I could pray."
There is a close parallel between the former and the latter state described here and in Coleridge's mystic allegory; in both cases the sufferers "wake to love," the curse falling off them when they can "bless".]
[Footnote 14: 1884. And all so variously wrought (with semi-colon instead of full stop at the end of the preceding line).]
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.