Annotating Tennyson


Actually, everything’s like that, isn’t it?

You know: layered, couched in events, touched—soiled, perhaps, or perhaps sanctified—by hands, eyes. Sometimes briefly glimpsed. Sometimes lightly pondered. Occasionally, noted.

But we don’t usually have much access to all these layers. Usually, what we encounter—the pavement, elevator buttons, an ax handle, silverware in a restaurant, and on and on and on—comes to us as only what it is at the moment of the encounter, telling us nothing about what it’s been through.

But this brown, moderately tattered Modern Library edition of The Poems and Plays of Alfred Lord Tennyson is different—it tells, however obscurely, a little story about one reader’s affection for a few lines, for a couple of thoughts. Just that. No more.

Published in 1938, the book most likely became part of the ACS library not too long afterwards.

ACS: that’s the American Community School at Beirut. Beirut, Lebanon: 50 years ago, the Paris of the Middle East; 30 years ago, the poster child for unlivable cities. Now… now it’s hard to tell. One moment all seems well, gentle breezes pulling whitecaps from the surf that breaks against the rocks along the western edge of the city, where fishermen stand waiting as patiently as fishermen wait everywhere, just below the Corniche where lovers and families stroll in the evening.

The next moment—while the autocrats of the Middle East topple all around us like dominos, and Lebanon’s stuck in another political stalemate of its own making—everyone wonders just how close to the abyss the city stands.

This collection of Tennyson has been here through it all. It was purchased back when the school educated the children of Americans and Europeans, some stationed in Beirut, others—who sent their children to the boarding department—stationed in nearby countries that didn’t offer western-style schooling.

The book was still here when the school dwindled to almost nothing, holding on through the late ‘70s and ‘80s, all the ex-pats’ children long gone, and with them the international staff, a few dozen Lebanese students and teachers figuring keeping the school going was as reasonable a thing as there was to be done in a city that had lost its reason. The book was here when the school was hit by mortar fire. It was here when, in the early 1990s, the school began to come back to life. And here it remains, after the library was moved from the ground floor to the newly built fourth floor of the high school building, after the damaged books were weeded from the collection to make room for the new ones for the high-school student body of almost 400. The Tennyson anthology remained, along with a few other relics, like the geography book purchased during the late Ottoman era, when the stamp on the flyleaf read not “Beirut, Lebanon,” but “Beirut, Syria.”

It wasn’t the history of the school’s tribulations that got me started on this, though. This brief odyssey was only digression, a distraction that occurred to me as I pondered ways to unravel the book’s most important secret.

The secret: the glimpse this book gave me into a single, unknown reader’s mind.

Maybe the reader was Tania, the first person recorded as having checked the book out sometime between 1938 and 1955, before the check-out stamp included the year it was due, as well as the day and the month. Maybe it was someone before Tania, before the little pocket was glued onto the first page, the blue card inserted, a date stamp lying at the ready at the check-out desk. Maybe it was later, perhaps Claudia or B. Hume from the early ‘60’s, or Theodore Sets from December, ‘68. Maybe even Leigh Ann, who checked it out in 1998.

Perhaps it was some casual reader. A free period. Homework finished. Arbitrarily pulling the volume from the shelf, and settling onto a couch, or sitting at a carrel. No formal check-out required.

Sometime in the 72 years of this book’s existence, some reader left a mark.

Actually, four marks. Two sets of parentheses, little penciled windows into someone’s mind that I happened to encounter years or decades after the reader curled the pencil lines around two thoughts.

Having checked out The Poems and Plays of Alfred Lord Tennyson from the ACS library, and having made my way through the first third of the book, I decided to jump ahead to page 665, to “Enoch Arden,” a narrative poem I’d enjoyed reading several years before.

The poem is a pleasant little piece of Victorian melodrama. Enoch and Phillip and Annie were playmates in a seaside village. Grown-up, Phillip and Enoch both fell in love with Annie; fisherman Enoch won and wed her; he was injured at sea, couldn’t earn a living, set Annie up as a small shopkeeper and went to work on a merchant ship, promising to send back money; he was not heard from again; Phillip offered to help nearly destitute Annie, who only very reluctantly accepted his help; then—YEARS later—Phillip convinced her (lovingly) that Enoch was dead, and they wed; Enoch was not, of course, dead, having been shipwrecked on a desert isle and eventually rescued; he came home barely alive, found Annie and Phillip happy, died, leaving a note saying how happy he was that they were happy and that she and his children weren’t starving.

It’s a good story, well told, a tear-jerker.

One morning in early January (JAN 2010) I chose it as the poem I’d read first thing in the morning before I packed up and headed out for my day’s work teaching English and history at ACS.

I reached the part where Annie’s world is really falling apart. It turns out she’s not a very good businesswoman, and her youngest child is getting sicker and sicker. I turned the page.

There, almost at the bottom of the second column on page 670, I noticed something I had not noticed anywhere else in this book. Some reader had set parentheses around a line and a half of text.

In pencil. Very faintly.

Annie is agreeing, finally, to accept some help from prosperous Phillip. The reader—B. Jones? Cleveland? Fitzhugh? Francis B.? Leigh Ann?—, coming upon her words, “When you came my sorrow broke me down;/And now I think your kindness breaks me down;/But Enoch lives; that is borne in on me;/He will repay you. Money can be repaid,/Not kindness such as yours.”

Something struck some reader about that last line and a half. He or she noted:

(Money can be repaid, not such kindness as yours.)

I continued reading.

Eight pages on, a sick, weakened Enoch has returned home, only to find out from innkeeper Miriam that Annie has married Phillip and that all is well with the family. He decides to go see for himself.

Now when the dead man come to life beheld

His wife his wife no more, and saw the babe

Hers, yet not his, upon the father’s knee,

And all the warmth, the peace, the happiness,

And his own children tall and beautiful,

And him, that other, reigning in his place,

Lord of his rights and of his children’s love—

Then he, tho’ Miriam Lane had told him all,

Because things seen are mightier than things heard,

Stagger’d and shook, holding the branch, and fear’d

To send abroad a shrill and terrible cry,

Which in one moment, like a blast of doom,

Would shatter all the happiness of the hearth.

Enoch does not utter that cry. He shuffles off stage, sad for his loss but satisfied that those he loves are well and happy, and dies.

It was not, however, the potential cry or Enoch’s selflessness or the fact that Phillip would pay—two pages later—for an elaborate funeral for his former friend, his wife’s former husband, that struck our pencil-wielding reader.

We note, again, faintly parenthesized:

(Because things seen are mightier than things heard).

Only twice in 1122 pages did any of at least 19 readers take special note of anything. And it wasn’t from “Ulysses,” those lines encouraging young romantics “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” It wasn’t from the last, and probably best known, poem in the book, “Crossing the Bar.” It wasn’t to note that Tennyson’s play Becket thickly intertwined Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s plot against Henry’s lover Rosamund into the decision to assassinate the contrary archbishop.

Two statements, and two statements only, were found worthy of note—literally—by all these readers in all these pages over all these years:

Money can be repaid, not such kindness as yours


Because things seen are mightier than things heard

Taking note of the first I can easily understand. A life-lesson: The reader, drawn into the melodrama, has understood that the poet wants us to understand that what matters in life is not what we earn and have, but who we are. Character and all that.

Well and good.

But that same reader then went on to call his or her own attention (never considering that he or she might be calling someone else’s attention to the point years later) to what might best be called a neurophysiological insight. You know, how we’re a visual species, our binocular vision having evolved from the requirements of the savannah and blah-blah-blah.

You know, seeing is believing.

This poem struck some reader strongly enough to cause that person to pause, pick up a pencil, and enclose these two, very disparate, thoughts, in parentheses. It is, I think, safe to say “pick up a pencil” since nothing else was noted, indicating he or she probably did not read “Enoch Arden” with pencil poised in hand. It is, I think, safe to say that one of these readers was “strongly” struck by these lines, these thoughts—by their meanings or, perhaps, simply by the sound of the words—for the same reason.

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps it was just Storm/Stern, the teacher who put the book on reserve in 1961, choosing quotations he or she might use as possible starting points for the essay to be assigned on Tennyson. My instincts tell me not; they tell me no teacher worth his/her salt would have singled out either line for an essay prompt.

So much we cannot know. We cannot know if the reader then went on to remember, as my wife remembers, 40-some years after reading “Ulysses,” “To strive, to seek” and all the rest, or as I vaguely recall being vaguely intrigued by “The Lady of Shalott.” We cannot know if the reader’s attitude to accumulating riches was affected by the first statement, or if the second provoked the reader to go on to study psychology or cultural anthropology. We cannot know how these lines connected with the reader’s life—with the Beirut the reader read them in, or simply with the unfolding of his or her adolescence. Were they noted to serve as rebuttal for parental admonitions made over the dinner table? Were they selected as quotations to be entered into a 1,000-word essay, due Thursday?

Would the reader—no, of course not—remember having noted these lines? Having read the poem? Having read Tennyson?

Is the reader still living?

How many of this book’s other readers were struck here and there, but simply didn’t have a pencil handy, or didn’t want to mar a library book, or…?

The questions mount, diverging.

Who first cracked the spine of this book which at this moment lies atop a stack of papers on my writing desk, just to the left of this computer? Who else has sat at this desk before workmen from the school set it in this little spare bedroom in this little apartment? Who else has slept in this room in this 60-plus-year-old apartment building, closed the door, looked out the window, walked along the street below, stood watching Beirut’s recent wars, or the wars that were fought on this promontory into the Mediterranean 150 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 800 years before that, and on and on and on.

Everything, of course—as I began this essay by suggesting—, is like this little volume, fraught with history and with personal significance.

Not much, though, gives us such glimmers as does this blue card with its fading dates, as those parentheses.

Little of what we encounter, moment by moment, hints at once so clearly and so vaguely at quite so much story.

Nicholas Boke has been teaching in Beirut for several years, prior to which he developed elementary-education-by-radio programs for rural schools in east Africa and worked on family literacy for the Vermont Center for the Book. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Education Week, and Yankee. More from this author →