Apologies to those of you who have, no doubt, been assiduously checking this page at the beginning of each week waiting patiently for the next step in our tour through the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. April was truly the cruelest month in the land of the Long 19th Century (though T.S. Eliot would probably not admit that), and in the case of yours truly, that meant–among other things–that Arthur Quiller-Couch’s anthology collected dust on my shelf while I dealt with the 9,000 other things that life decided to throw in my direction. Many of which involved writing about 19th century British poetry, just not…here.

A new month, and we’re back to the OBVV. By all rights, we should be hitting Tennyson next, but, um…I just had a lot of writing on Tennyson come out recently–you can look me up on Project Muse–and I think maybe I should leave it at that for now. (I will say, briefly, that the Tennyson selections are fairly predictable, except for the part where there’s nothing from In Memoriam. My guess is that AQC wanted that to be fully a part of the Oxford Book of English Verse, which he’d previously put together. Or something. There are also a couple other selections that don’t make it into the one-volume selected Tennyson edited by Christopher Ricks. But, like many collections since–I assume–it’s pretty heavily weighted towards the Tennyson of 1855 and before, with the obligatory nod to “Crossing the Bar.”)

And so, with all of that impossible preamble, I give you the long-awaited Poem of the Week, which I fear will not live up to the hype.

180. “Faith” by Frances Anne Kemble

Better trust all, and be deceived,

And weep that trust and that deceiving,

Than doubt one heart that, if believed,

Had bless’d one’s life with true believing.

O, in this mocking world too fast

The doubting fiend o’ertakes our youth!

Better be cheated to the last

Than lose the blessed hope of truth.

(1844? This is a guess.)

I could probably come up with a whole subcategory within this of “poems by people who are famous for things other than poetry.” And Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble–actress, abolitionist, travel writer, memoirist, divorcee–certainly fits here. Seriously, go read her Wikipedia page–she’s someone we should all know about, particularly with the American connection.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between things like faith and stupidity and how they are sometimes kind of indistinguishable (see any of the Great Pumpkin-themed Peanuts strips). My reaction to this poem thus went a bit like the following. First impression: yes, this poem is pretty much the plot of every Victorian novel, ever. Second impression: this poem knows what it’s talking about. What I mean by the second impression is mostly that it’s another lovely example of the Victorian double poem, in that on the first pass it expresses a conventional, almost stereotypical conduct-manual type counsel (“tis better to have loved and lost / then never to have loved at all”; “and may you stay forever young”) and on the second pass it makes us wonder about all of that, without really giving us an out.

A bit more slowly, what I mean is this: the first quatrain is doing something really interesting with its line endings. The deceived/believed and deceiving/believing rhyme scheme suggests, not entirely subtly, the ways in which the two are indistinguishable. But I find it more interesting that we go from the past participle/adjective to the gerund (deceived–>deceiving / believed–>believing), which suggests all kinds of other possibilities, perhaps how we can move from being deceived to going out and deceiving, but also disrupting the self-sameness of these states, particularly since the whole scheme of tenses is already a bit convoluted. (As is my prose here. I apologize. Clearly, The Poem of the Week is not to be analyzed with the baseball game on in the background. Also, the Cardinals lost.) Whether belief and that “hope of truth” are even possible is never really clear in this poem because of the way that first stanza works.

And what is “true believing,” anyway? Especially when by the end of the poem it’s become “the blessed hope of truth”? This does not strike me as being particularly consolatory. The “truth” that seems most evident in the poem lies in something like that movement to action charted in the first stanza–the truth being in the affective investments that we make again and again, even though most of them will lose. If we don’t “trust all” and be deceived, we almost by definition trust more than we don’t trust when we decide to get out of bed in the morning. If we justify it in retrospect as being worth it–well, we’re still here to make that retrospective judgment, so maybe it *is* worth it after all.

I’m not feeling particularly eloquent or focused right now, so I won’t subject you to more ramblings. (Don’t want to presume on how much anyone missed me.) I will say, though, that there’s a lot to be done with thinking about temporality in this poem, particularly the way it is forward-looking, subjunctive, perhaps even suspensive. Possibly I’m just marking this for myself right now, too.

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