When I flipped through the the first few pages of The Maidens by Alex Michaelides, there it was. An excerpt from a poem to focus the reader’s attention.
Tell me tales of thy first love –
April hopes, the fools of chance;
Till the graves begin to move,
And the dead begin to dance.
The lines are from The Vision of Sin, a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 18920). Not an easy poem to read. The images unfold in a dream-like narrative in which the arrogance of youth is depicted by an old man. Hedonistic pleasures are held up as a cautionary vision reminiscent of Greek tragedy. The telling of the tale is meant to evoke feelings of fear and compassion for those who are struck down. It is a common fate. No one is invincible. Despite the privilege that youth and status often allow – for a time.
Needless to say, the four lines included in the preface merely hint at the larger themes developed in the novel. Like so many well-read authors, Michaelides draws on his knowledge of Tennyson to set up his story. Clearly, the plot will include its share of missteps by main characters, and continue until the last threads are pulled to a close at the end.
It is not incidental that Michaelides studied English literature at Cambridge. It is not incidental that his story is set in Cambridge. And it is not incidental that Tennyson was a well-known student and scholar at Cambridge (1827 – 1830). Moreover, there are a number of literary allusions made in the novel in the course of character and plot development. One of the main characters is a charismatic professor of Greek tragedy, whose scholarly knowledge surfaces on more than one occasion. For me, the reference to Tennyson piques my interest as a reader.
Being somewhat familiar with Tennyson, I found myself reflecting on his life and writing. He is often quoted by contemporary writers. One of his best-known poems was written in 1833 shortly after the death of his close friend and fellow poet, Arthur Hallam. He was only 22. In the well known poem, Ulysses, the Greek hero reflects on his life. He is now an old man.
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, –
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
The last line resonates for many. Despite the losses suffered in life there is a need to forge ahead, no matter what the odds. Sadly, Tennyson’s young friend did not have the opportunity to live out the destiny of becoming a well-known poet like Tennyson. Fortunately, his short life inspired Tennyson to write a number of incredible poems that continue to be read and loved today.
Photo by Eugene Liaschevskyi