Do people still read poetry aloud? In old novels, set during Christmastime, the long winter evenings were often devoted to singing songs around the piano, telling ghost stories and reciting poems, usually patriotic anthems, brokenhearted accounts of lost love or sad, stoic reflections on the passage of time.
Tennyson (1809-1892) — or, as he was always known in my youth, Alfred, Lord Tennyson — is probably the greatest and most versatile master of such public verse. His rousing “Charge of the Light Brigade” — “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred”— and the soul-stirring “Ulysses” are classics that invite declamation. Tennyson’s Greek hero could be any Washingtonian who doesn’t want to retire: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! / As tho’ to breathe were life.” More than one baby boomer, at a class reunion or memorial service, has used as his peroration the poem’s thrilling climax, beginning with “Come, my friends, / ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world,” then slowly building to its defiant final words: