Well here we are, and today is the last day I am going in to work before Christmas. The rest of the week will be filled with making jam and chocolate things and mince pies for presents. I also have woken up really wanting sticky gingerbread. This does not bode well for my waistline this festive season. Ho hum, on with the abject misery...
|'Never Morning Wore to Evening but Some Heart did Break' (1894) Walter Langley|
Right, I am pulling out the big guns now as we only have a week to go so here we have one of the supreme masters of misery art. Good Birmingham lad, Walter Langley is probably best known for his Newlyn work, bringing that crisp Cornish air into scenes of fishermen and women, often highlighting the hard work and hardship they endured. The scholarships he earned as a young man enabled him to lift himself and his family into the comfortable Victorian middle-class but used his art to highlight the lives of the working class. There is always that gorgeous clarity of light in his art, that does not detract from the gorgeous levels of despair. Look at how the light plays on the placid sea behind the women, but something awful has occurred.
|This is so serious, she's put down her knitting...|
The title is from Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H., an entire poem dedicated to wallowing in grief, that caught the mood of the nation and the Queen after Prince Albert died. The verse that our title comes from reads thus:
That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To Evening but some heart did break.
The poem continues with a rather pertinent example:
O mother, praying God will save
Thy sailor, - while thy head is bow'd,
His heavy-shotted hammock-shroud
Drops in his vast and wandering grave.
That's the spirit! At first look I thought this was a woman concerned or despairing over her husband, but equally it could be a young son who has gone to sea and is really not coming back. The section of the poem highlights the awful commonplaceness of grief and how knowing that we are all in this together is absolutely no damn comfort at all. It is tempting to want to share with someone your own tale of grief when they have been bereaved but Tennyson tells you to shut your face. It's one of the things I love about Tennyson at his best, he is absolutely as unlike a Victorian as you can imagine. In In Memoriam he is many things, and selfish and nihilistic is unexpectedly one of them. For Tennyson, grief is the eternal tension between the personal and the inevitable - what's the point of loving people if they and/or you are just going to die? In fact, just in the time it took you to read that, someone somewhere has just had their world and heart utterly smashed by losing the person who is essential to them.
|For He Will See Them On Tonight (1870) Julia Margaret Cameron|
In Memoriam is a hard read as it speaks of the eternal joke of our blissful existence right up to the moment when it all goes horribly wrong. In For He Will See Them On Tonight, Julia Margaret Cameron gives us an innocent picture of a woman making herself pretty for a lover, but the quote comes from In Memoriam and that woman's husband or lover is already dead and will not be coming home. He's already drowned in a ford or fallen off his horse or died in yet another pointless Victorian manner and there she is almost trying to summon him home with her preparations. 'Nice try, Sister,' says God, 'But his time was up. Soz.'
Going back to the painting, the placidity of nature behind the utter devastation of the women I think speaks to the feeling of the poem. Nature or God or whatever you want to call it doesn't reward or punish with death, it just is. There is no comfort in grief, and I think that is what the older woman knows; you just have to endure and get on with it, not least because if we stopped to comfort every bereaved person, no-one would ever get anything done because every second of the day, someone is being bereaved. Saying that, you go ahead and handle your grief in whatever way you want because it is yours and no-one has a say in what or how much you feel. Grief is a monumental thing because it is that moment that you realise that all that we are stops, sometimes unbelievably abruptly.
This is all unimaginably grim but look, if ever there was a reason to know you are loved and that life, when it doesn't suck, is fabulous, then this is it. If you wake up and find that you are not the women in this picture today, then celebrate, be kind to yourself and others. Tickle a puppy. Eat something amazing. Have a good laugh because tomorrow we might all perish miserably at sea.
See you tomorrow. Probably.