The Difficulty and Necessity of Words

Alfred Lord says in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H.:

I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,

A use in measured language lies;

The sad mechanic exercise

Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,

Like coarsest clothes against the cold:

But that large grief which these enfold

Is given in outline and no more.

In this canto of the poem, Tennyson speaks about how he cannot fully express his grief. Words are restricting to his feeling. The words are like coarse thick clothes covering the true grief, that it his body. And we cannot see his body for what it truly is, only the outline that is shown in the wind blowing against the clothes (words) wrapped around the body (grief).

I agree that words sometimes don’t yield exactly what we feel, or are trying to say, especially in a case like grief, as in Tennyson’s verse. But Frederick Buechner, in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, speaks on the helpfullness of words:

It speaks in a way they cannot avoid hearing for themselves, which is the awesome power of words because, although there are times when they shield us from reality, at other times they assail us with it.

Sometimes, words to constrict us from reality, as they do to Tennyson. However, words can help bring us to reality itself.


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