Is it really better to have loved and lost than to not have had love at all?
You probably heard the quote sometime in your life. In a casual survey I did today, most people seem to think it is attributed to either William Shakespeare or John Keats. It is one of the most well-known quotes of all time, and one I find immensely thought provoking. The words appear in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” which he completed in 1849. The lengthy poem, a favorite of Queen Victoria, is about unexpectedly losing a loved one. It explores the wrenching grief process that follows such a loss.
The subject of the poem was Tennyson’s best friend Arthur Henry Hallam (the “A.H.H.” in the title). The men met at Cambridge in 1829. They both loved poetry. Tennyson and Hallam became close friends. Hallam even joined the Tennyson family for holidays. He spent three Christmases with the Tennysons at their Somersby home. Upon his first visit, Hallam fell in love with Tennyson’s younger sister, Emily, who was 18-years-old.
Aside from being dear friends, Tennyson and Hallam worked on a book of poetry together. The first book was published secretly because Tennyson’s father didn’t approve. He also did not approve of Hallam’s relationship with Emily. Hallam was not allowed to visit Tennyson’s home again until he was 21.
Then, in February 1831, Tennyson’s father died. Tennyson could no longer afford Cambridge, but Hallam could now visit Emily. Also, without his father opposing, and with the aid and support of Hallam, Tennyson published his second book of poetry.
In July 1833, after visiting Emily and becoming engaged to her, Hallam traveled to Vienna with his father. Hallam became ill while there, after a few days rest he was feeling better. On September 15, 1833, Hallam was said to be in a good mood. He even went on a short walk with his father. After going to the hotel, Hallam read a book in front of the fire. His father continued on his walk. When his father returned to the hotel, it looked like Hallam had fallen asleep while reading. Soon though, his father realized Hallam was dead. He had died from a stroke.
Tennyson and Emily were shocked. Obviously, they were not expecting the young, seemingly healthy man to die while in his mid-twenties and looking forward to married life. They were expecting to see him when he returned from Vienna. Instead, Tennyson received a letter from Hallam’s uncle bearing the devastating news.
Tennyson worked on his epic poem for 17 years. It has 133 Cantos, or verses, and reflects on the sadness and emptiness that happens when someone beloved suddenly vanishes from your life. Inspired by the grief Tennyson felt, he searches for the meaning of life and death and tries to come to terms with his sense of loss. In Memoriam reflects the struggle to reconcile religious faith, belief in immortality, and then contemporary Victorian theories about evolution. The verses show the development over three years of the poet’s acceptance and understanding of his friend’s death
The most famous lines of the poem are found in Canto 27. The lines are:
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.
I confess that I have myself wrestled with this thought more times than I can count since the night my husband died. The savage grief that marked every day of the first few years after his death was breathtaking in its viciousness. It has mellowed to a painful wound that is always in the back of my consciousness, but that I can usually ignore for most of the day fairly well. Yet every couple of days it flares up in an ugly way. Sometimes it hits with such intensity that it steals all my attention.
I have analyzed it endlessly. Am I grieving for too long? When it rises intensely, is it too intense? Is there something wrong with me for feeling so much sadness after this many years? I loved my husband with all my heart. He was a wonderful guy, but he certainly wasn’t perfect, although he was perfect for me. We argued plenty of times in nearly 30 years! Through all the tough times we had to face together, that’s exactly what we did; we faced those challenges together.
When I lost my husband, I really lost not just my husband, but my sweetheart, my partner, my sounding board, my accomplice in shenanigans. The one with whom I shared endless inside jokes, could have conversations with without speaking, talked with about business and economics and politics and ridiculous facts and social issues and alpaca farming (which is a story for another day). We shared hopes and dreams and failures and fears, all of the things that make up life. He was the kind of father all kids should get to have. Outside of the priceless gift of our children, are the memories worth the despair?
And then he was gone. No preparation, no chance to say goodbye. So much unfinished and unresolved, forever to be in limbo.
Would it have been better to have loved less completely? Surely then the loss would’ve been less overwhelming. Less intense.
The Dance is a very well-known Garth Brooks song. Here is a link to one of the early performances of it. I hope you’ll humor me and watch/listen:
The key lyric is:
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance
A relative and cherished friend this past week lost one of her very dearest friends to cancer. She is truly broken-hearted. Would she have foregone the close relationship they shared so she could avoid the pain she is suffering now? No.
It can be hard to remember when the pain is so real, but great love is worth the risk of great cost.
140 years after British Lord Tennyson’s epic poem, an American country singer recorded a timeless song with the same message. No doubt research would yield many poems and songs that share this message. Love is so precious it is worth the price in pain that it costs sometimes.