I Stood on a Tower?
I stood on a tower in the wet,
And New Year and Old Year met,
And winds were roaring and blowing;
And I said, ‘O years, that meet in tears,
Have you aught that is worth the knowing?
Science enough and exploring,
Wanderers coming and going,
Matter enough for deploring,
But aught that is worth the knowing?
Seas at my feet were flowing,
Waves on the shingle pouring,
Old year roaring and blowing,
And New Year blowing and roaring.
What changed for us in 2011? Are there any lessons we’d want to carry forward in the coming 12 months? Have we made any New Year’s resolutions?
In this poem, Tennyson reflects on this perilous and exhilarating moment between the past and the future. He imagines himself on the battlements of a tower while the tornado of time rages. Gazing into the chaos, like an enchanter in front of an uncontrollable vision, he asks the eternal question, “What does it mean?”
In 2011, was there “aught” or anything “worth the knowing?” In science, the gigantic Hadron Collider created a mini-Big Bang at temperatures a million times hotter than the sun. The so-called “God particle,” present at the moment of creation, may have been found—to reveal some of the fundamental laws of the universe.
We saw a wave of protests sweep across the world, from the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement in America. We even saw rioting in the streets of London. We continue to see vast numbers of people on the march and on the move, “wanderers” who challenge the fixed certainties of home and belonging.
There was certainly “matter enough for deploring.” We are not yet a year from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that claimed so many lives. The damage to nuclear power stations and the danger of fallout called into question our use of technology. Is it for humanity’s good or a ticking time bomb?
These are the big stories—the ones splashed across the front page of every newspaper.
But for us as individuals, when we look back, there may be personal successes or failures that have touched us more deeply. The “years” meet in “tears”: tears of sadness for what we have lost and tears of joy for what we have now. There are tears too of mingled anxiety and hope for what’s to come.
Tennyson’s metaphor of the wind evokes the idea of the zeitgeist—the “spirit of the time” that moves people in different ways at different times. The use of the same rhyme repeated over and over again induces a sense of dizziness and derangement, as if we were spinning round and round, out of control.
Yet the more Tennyson stresses change, with his imagery of the “seas” flowing and “waves” pouring “against the shingle,” the more we realize the need to hold on to what we love. As much as we need to accept the flux and flow of impermanence, we must resist it too. Tennyson reminds us that civilization is a citadel, built to withstand the crushing powers of nature, time, and oblivion. Every letter we write, every thank you, every thoughtful courtesy is a blow against anarchy.
On New Year’s Eve, we tend to band together with friends and lose ourselves in merriment—waking the next morning, rubbing our throbbing heads, wondering what happened. Tennyson gives us another image, another path. This is a moment to be alone and fully conscious: to be an enchanter in an ivory tower, aloof, pensive, contemplative, before we resume the heroic struggle of our everyday life.
Alfred Tennyson (1809 – 1892) was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria’s reign. His poems include “The Lady of Shalott” and “Ulysses.”