Way They Reminisce Over You

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From Tennyson's In Memoriam:


To Sleep I give my powers away; 
     My will is bondsman to the dark; 
     I sit within a helmless bark, 
And with my heart I muse and say: 

O heart, how fares it with thee now, 
      That thou should'st fail from thy desire, 
      Who scarcely darest to inquire, 
'What is it makes me beat so low?' 

Something it is which thou hast lost, 
       Some pleasure from thine early years. 
        Break, thou deep vase of chilling tears, 
That grief hath shaken into frost! 

Such clouds of nameless trouble cross 
       All night below the darken'd eyes; 
       With morning wakes the will, and cries, 
'Thou shalt not be the fool of loss.'

I'm currently exploring the world of a young lady during the antebellum period, who had an intense friendship with a classmate in her seminary days. She lost the friend during childbirth. I've read quite a bit recently on the seminary movement during the mid-19th century and the move to include education as part of the cult of ladyhood. Most interesting to me are the deeply intimate friendships that formed among the teenage girls. (Almost all them were white, with a few exceptions. Charlotte Forten, for instance.)

These homosocial friendships, as the historian Steven Stowe dubs them, are fascinating to me in their intensity. From Stowe's excellent article, "The Thing Not Its Vision"

I sit and think of Bessie, and fancy her by me with that little sweet hand in mine and that soft cheek laid close by mine and then I...hear your sweet voice.

That's Maggie Morgan writing about her best-friend and seminary room-mate Bessie Lacy. She goes on to recall her fond memories of them sleeping together in the same bed. When I read Stowe's piece, the two immediately struck as not homosocial, but homosexual. On reflection, it became clear that could not seriously divorce my own assumptions about intimacy, from a credible appraisal of the two's sexuality. And then I came to wonder why I even cared so much.

Accepting Stowe's designation of a homosocial relationship actually opened up some portion of my own imagination--the possibility of feeling passionate, but not sexual, about someone who I wasn't related to. Short of children and parents, "passion" isn't a word that often enters into the description homosocial friendships these days. And yet its present in the writings of previous generations. I'd probably find it in ours too if I looked harder.

Anyway, Kenyatta suggested I read Tennyson on this point. As usual she's right. He's mourning the lost of his great friend Arthur Hallam. A Victorian T.R.O.Y., if you will. Or more accurately. T.R.O.Y. is a postmodern In Memoriam. I would say a bit on the writing, except that I'm sure I have nothing original to contribute--not yet at least. I love that he describes his dead friend as "one removed" in one of the earlier parts. Describing sleep as being a "bondsman to the dark" is also pretty awesome. 

Give me a few weeks and I'll having something of more substance than this. At present, I don't have much more than, "It's really shiny."

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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