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      Sweet and low, sweet and low,
         Wind of the western sea,
      Low, low, breathe and blow,
         Wind of the western sea!
      Over the rolling waters go,
      Come from the dying moon, and blow,
         Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one sleeps.

      Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
         Father will come to thee soon;
      Rest, rest, on mother's breast,
         Father will come to thee soon;
      Father will come to his babe in the nest,
      Silver sails all out of the west
         Under the silver moon;
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1809-1892



Many consider Tennyson the greatest poet of the Victorian period.

If Tennyson was not the greatest, he certainly was the most popular. He was one of the few great poets who received due acclaim for his work while he was still around to hear it. While the work he composed in his twenties received generally adverse criticism, over the next decade he persevered, refining and developing his technique so that he gradually earned stature through the 1840s. He reached his peak in 1850 with In Memoriam, at which time he succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate.

The popular Victorian opinion on child-rearing was criminal. One can find volumes of literature from the period detailing how best to physically and emotionally abuse your child in order to give them strength. The Victorians were a prickly bunch, finding decorum to be the civilized man's top priority, forced out from between the scores of bothersome human impulses that cause things like forehead kisses and belly laughter. Of course this emotional freezing created a disturbing brutality in the new generations — a favorite pastime of Victorian youth was to bury a chicken up to its neck and throw rocks at its head until it died, while this delightful excerpt from a Victorian cookbook gives us a look at the crowd who liked to make food.

How something like Sweet and Low made it out alive was absolutely beyond me, this sweet song of parental love, of terrible and hurtful absense from a beloved infant over silvery seas, until I realized that the infant and all this love really aren't what this poem is about.

The mother misses the father; the father misses the child. This is a story of unrequited love.

Much of the poem can be taken away without losing any of the meaning. It is constructed like a lullaby, with simple and careful rhythms and repetition of phrases that contain no spirit but maintain the structure of the piece. Take away form, take away meter, take away fluff, leaving only that which expresses the feelings of the people involved, and you are left with

         Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one sleeps.

      Rest, rest, on mother's breast,
         Father will come to thee soon;
      Father will come to his babe in the nest,

The simplicity of this arrangement is dazzling. It reads almost like a mathematical analogy, a Venn diagram: this is the engineering of ideas. Take a moment and think about that. The moment you become awestruck is why people read and write poetry.

The first inkling the reader has that there is an infant in the poem is the offhand reference the mother makes in the final line of the stanza. The rest of her narrative is wistful imaginings of her lover returning from moonlit oceans, finding her while their infant sleeps. The father's return is her event—the man is returning to her. Her reference to the child sleeping during the reunion betrays her own sad knowledge that the father's primary concern is not herself, but the child. She wants the baby to be asleep so that she has her lover to herself, if only briefly. She knows that she will be alienated if the little one is available to reunite with its father.

Likewise, the father only mentions the mother offhand — her breasts are a pillow for his infant. His anticipation is not of reuniting with his lover, but with his child. He is the cruelly just-tilted reflection of his other half and the story of countless unpaid loves that sometimes make families cruel things.

Both parents display their loyalties through exclusion; this is a poem carried by what is unsaid.


Sources

Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Sweet and Low." English Victorian Poetry: An Anthology. Ed. Paul Negri. Dover: Mineola. 1999.

Bloom, Howard. "The Lucifer Principle." Atlantic Monthly Press: New York. 1995.

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