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Literary Analysis of "A Farewell" by Tennyson

by Michael Stratford

Most of us envision deathbed farewells as sad biddings to our family members; Alfred Lord Tennyson saw himself saying goodbye to nature itself in "A Farewell." Tennyson, an Anglo-Saxon transcendentalist contemporary of Thoreau and Emerson, was a student of nature up until his death; his farewell is to a river, which might be the same archetypal fountainhead that piloted Ulysses, Huck Finn and Nick Adams to their life revelations.

Natural and Steady, Unto Death

The poem is a straightforward pastoral piece, 16 lines broken up into four quatrains, with a steady ABAB rhyme scheme throughout. Tennyson uses it as an illusive onomatopoeia, the sight and sound of lapping waves along a riverbank. Tennyson knows the brook well enough to give it a personality: the river is traveling, as is Tennyson, "to the sea," and it will grow larger, "a rivulet then a river." It knows him also, sending "thy tribute wave" in Tennyson's memory; its waves wrap around him "forever and forever," since there is no textual hint they will ever part.

Personification and Passage

In his grandiloquent re-do of Homer, Tennyson speaks of the great waters that carry the hero beyond death; his river in "A Farewell" seems to be carrying him also, since he does not walk beside it: "Nowhere by thee my steps shall be, forever and ever." The river becomes his symbolic walkway after death, and his monument is "thy alder" and "thy aspen," twin trees like the gates of Hercules that will "sigh" and "shiver" as the bee hums beside them. Nature is personified as guardian, as tomb-keeper and as worshipper for the poet.

Literary Devices and Earlier Works

Tennyson garnishes his poem with alliteration: "lawn and lea," "suns will stream" describe natural elements near the river but not on it. He uses hyperbole to emphasize permanence: the river will see "a thousand suns ... moons." And he overlays his imagery with the repetition of the word "flow," to keep it all moving on its course. It's highly reminiscent of Tennyson's other juggernaut of time, the ongoing universal law in which "the kindly earth shall slumber" in his "Locksley Hall." For Tennyson, time and the river move as one eternally, "forever and forever."

Other Authors Sail Tennyson's River

Tennyson may not have realize the mythic sense of archetypes when he chose a river for his eternal path, but authors after him drank from the same stream. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn experiences a life's worth of revelations on his raft; Odysseus finds himself in his 20-year odyssey. Even Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams finds eternal permanence in "Big Two-Hearted River." Like Tennyson, Nick "came to the river; the river was there."

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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