Sunday, June 12, 2016

Diary: The death of Arthur

Arthur Hallam, remembered. (From Wikimedia.)
This week at work, I spent some time with a 1832 letter from Arthur Hallam to Emily Tennyson, as well as Martin Blocksidge's biography of Hallam. Hallam, the closest friend of Alfred Tennyson, died suddenly of an aneurysm at age twenty-two; the grief that the future Poet Laureate felt eventually gave rise to the great 1849 poem In Memoriam A.H.H., still one of my favorite works of literature. The last time I read it was in the summer after my sophomore year of college; I was just shy of twenty, studying abroad during the break in Cambridge, walking the same streets that Hallam and Tennyson had wandered 180 years earlier. Reading about them then, they belonged in the same patinated category of the historical as everything else I read for the first time that summer—Middlemarch, Hard Times, Cardinal Newman. And above all, there was the sense that the things they did and wrote were the products of people older than I was—like most literature. (Keats wrote his odes at age twenty-four! I still had five whole years to go until I was twenty-four.)

How unheimlich to revisit the story of Hallam now, on the other side of college, almost exactly six years later. Now I can really understand what it would mean to have died at twenty-two—myself, or one of my friends. Beyond that, it's surprising to find that, with time, I have grown less impartial, and more judgmental, toward young men like Hallam. It's the kind of judgment that comes from now having been there in roughly the same spots as Hallam and Tennyson found themselves—both in school and fresh out of it. At nineteen, I found it easier to treat their life decisions as historical abstractions: they were making career choices and impulsive travel plans, falling in love and out of friendships, in a sociological framework that no longer exists. I had anthropological detachment.


At twenty-five, weeks shy of twenty-six, that's no longer possible. In Hallam, I see my friends—the friend or two I've had who have had fantastic creative lives as undergraduates and then waltzed lightly into prestigious law schools, much as Hallam left Trinity College and went straight into the Inns of Court at his father's insistence. (Though law school now is infinitely more demanding than the Inns of Court were in 1832.) I know what it's like to suddenly decide that you're going to wander some foreign country with a friend for a fortnight on little more than enthusiasm and spare change. The debating topics of the Apostles now seem cognate with so many of the overblown and highfalutin debates we used to have over tea in our dorm rooms. Reading Hallam's writing now—the articles on Cicero, on Rossetti, the famous one on Tennyson—makes me sigh: the exuberance, the limitations, the occasional flash of something correct make me all too aware of the fate of the things you wrote when you were twenty-two. (It's miserable and magical?) And seeing Hallam play the critical Aaron to Tennyson's poetic Moses is a feeling I know now, of wanting the world to know the brilliance of the work your most talented friends are out there doing.

There are also the occasional moments when you want to smack a guy like Hallam, and when the cultural (and technological) distance between then and now stands out. The correspondence between him and Emily Tennyson is at times disturbing: he can be domineering and obsessive, constantly hectoring Emily for more frequent letters with more details on her health. One wonders if texting might have solved all their problems; but then again, maybe Hallam would have just been that guy who blows up at you if you don't text back on the hour. He rather callously mentions former and present crushes—that lady in Italy, the actress in London—in the most adoring terms. And the terms in which he expresses his love for Emily sound so far over the top by our standards—they'd barely known each other for three weeks before he was referring to her as "my promised wife"! You realize that young people in the 19th century sometimes got married for, and called love, what we would think of as a major crush, and it's fine until you map it onto your own life and think what terrible circumstances a similar decision might have led you into. Hallam is so besotted, so head-over-heels, in his letters and poetry to Emily that he forces you to realize what a fool you yourself were at that age: you laugh, but you blush, and you wonder what terrible, eye-rolling things you forced the people around you to suffer.

Hallam can make you feel like a slouch, though. Even the soppiest letters to Emily make you wonder: when was the last time you wrote something so expressive, or merely so lengthy, to a friend? He wrote frequently enough, on such a general array of topics, that it boggles the mind. (Granted, Hallam had hired help on the cheap, generated by an oppressive and unfair class system. But still, one doesn't get to 6,000 words easily, even in the best of circumstances.) Blocksidge refers to him as "the eternal undergraduate," forever petrified as Tennyson remembered him in university, which is true; but the extent of what he did as an undergraduate, and shortly thereafter, is pretty daunting to the rest of us.

The only contemporary comparison I can think of for Hallam—although a more considerate, kinder one, by all accounts—is Marina Keegan, the Yale undergraduate and writer who was killed in a car accident shortly after graduating. Like Hallam, she was memorialized by her family and teacher with a collection of her prolific student writings. In both cases, I find myself thinking of lines from Yeats's "Easter, 1916":
He might have won fame in the end:
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought. 
At 19, you look at the story of someone who died before his or her time at age 21 or 22, and it's sad to think of lives with so much promise cut short. But for you, that point still lies off in the future. At 25, that point lies in the past. You think of everything you mean to do that remains a plan deferred. It's also hard not to look at Hallam's letters and Blocksidge's biography—the silly minutiae of undergrad life captured in every bit of detail possible—and feel like it's a moment past, one that you're never going to get back to, that has been sealed off and now exists only in your memory. I felt like an "eternal undergraduate" for a while, and am glad to have moved on; but I didn't anticipate that nostalgia would involve a sense of having lost that analytic detachment from lives like Hallam's. Now I know what it's like to have been Hallam's age, and it's hard to set that aside. 

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