A Farewell

Alfred Lord Tennyson

‘A Farewell’ challenges the reader to reflect upon the fleeting nature of human life, especially when compared to nature.

Cite

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Nationality: English

Alfred Lord Tennyson is an influential poet of Romanticism.

Notable works include 'Break, Break, Breakand 'Tears, Idle Tears.' 

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Our lives are short but that doesn't mean they cannot be beautiful.

Themes: Aging, Death, Nature

Speaker: A nameless wanderer by a riverbank

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

'A Farewell' beautifully reflects upon the frailty and brevity of human existence.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘A Farewell‘ expresses the brevity and insignificance of a human life in the face of the natural world, whose movements and patterns appear timeless. Rather than be depressed by this comparison, Tennyson finds beauty in the transient nature of human existence, and the poem’s tone is one of acceptance and contentment.

A Farewell by Alfred Lord Tennyson


Summary

A Farewell‘ by Alfred Lord Tennyson acknowledges the fleeting nature of human life and takes solace in the brief time that we walk the earth.

Written over four stanzas, ‘A Farewell‘ depicts a person taking a regular journey alongside a river, watching it as it grows in size and heads towards the sea. The narrator ponders the nature of the river, reflecting on how smaller streams contribute to creating a larger whole. Similarly, they contend that each individual human life is small and insignificant yet contributes to the wider story of human existence.

Finally, the poem ends with a moment of contemplation regarding the relative permanence of the river and the natural world in comparison to the life of the narrator, which they acknowledge will end millennia before nature will.

Context

Born in Lincolnshire in 1809 and Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1850 until his death in 1892, Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of Britain’s finest ever poets. Best known for his poems,Ulysses,’ ‘Charge of the Light Brigade,’ and ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.,’ many of Tennyson’s most iconic lines have become common phrases in the English language.

The latter of these poems, ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.,’ shares many thematic preoccupations with ‘A Farewell’ as both are concerned with mortality and the fragility of human life. Tennyson wrote ‘In Memoriam A.H.H‘ in response to the death of his close friend, Arthur Hallam, and one suspects that memory also influenced his writing of ‘A Farewell.’

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea,
    Thy tribute wave deliver:
No more by thee my steps shall be,
    For ever and for ever.

The opening stanza begins with the imperative verb “flow,” which might give the impression that the narrator feels they are in control of nature. However, as the poem continues, these imperatives cease to be used, implying the narrator’s attitude to nature and their own sense of humility in comparison to its change over the course of the stanzas. The rivulet, which is small in comparison to a river, could metaphorically represent the narrator, who is one life among many.

Stanza Two

Flow, softly flow, by lawn and lea,
    A rivulet then a river:
Nowhere by thee my steps shall be
    For ever and for ever.

The use of alliteration in the opening line of this stanza helps create a sense of flow and momentum. This mirrors the pace and movement of the rivulet, which becomes part of a river. The movement of rivers connotes the process of aging, as the water is always flowing in one direction, just as people only ever get older. The poet’s use of hyperbole in the third line showcases the narrator’s awareness of their own mortality, as they realize the riverbank will exist long after they have passed away. The fourth line is a refrain, which emphasizes the cyclical nature of the natural world, which continues in perpetuity while human lives begin and end at will.

Stanza Three

But here will sigh thine alder tree
    And here thine aspen shiver;
And here by thee will hum the bee,
    For ever and for ever.

This sense of permanence is continued in this stanza, as demonstrated through Tennyson’s use of anaphora which serves to reflect the manner in which nature exists without any obvious end. The personification of the alder and aspen trees imbues the landscape with personality and emotion, suggesting the narrator has grown to regard the landscape as a companion and an equal. This personal attachment to the riverbank is further reinforced through Tennyson’s use of the direct address in the third line, which establishes an intimacy between the narrator and their familiar environment.

Stanza Four

A thousand suns will stream on thee,
    A thousand moons will quiver;
But not by thee my steps shall be,
    For ever and for ever.

The final stanza begins with the hyperbolic claim that the river will be illuminated by the light of “a thousand suns” and “a thousand moons.” This furthers the narrator’s view that the river is effectively eternal. It also serves to represent to the relative brevity of human life, as each rising of the sun and moon could symbolize a human lifetime, reminding the reader how short our time on the earth is compared to the timelessness of the earth itself.

With these observations in mind, the familiar closing lines evoke feelings of contentment rather than bitterness at the narrator’s impending mortality. They seem aware that they should enjoy the riverbed and nature more broadly for the brief time they are able to walk among it.

FAQs

What is the structure of ‘A Farewell?’

The poem is written in four quatrains and features an ABAB rhyme scheme throughout. This ABAB rhyme scheme could mirror the narrator’s footsteps as they walk alongside the river. It also serves to create a sense of consistency, mirroring the eternal and timeless nature of the river’s path.

What is a “rivulet?”

A rivulet is a small stream of water or some other liquid. In this poem, the rivulet eventually joins up with and becomes assimilated by the larger river.

What is the tone of ‘A Farewell?’

The tone is, at times melancholic, like all farewells are to an extent. However, the overall tone of the poem is one of acceptance, contentment, and gratitude, as the narrator is aware of the fleeting nature of their own life.

Who is the speaker in ‘A Farewell?’

The speaker is nameless and appears to be British on account of the species of tree that line the riverbank. The reflective, introspective nature of the narrator implies they share the same poetic sensibilities as the poem’s creator, Alfred Lord Tennyson.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘A Farewell‘ might want to explore other Alfred Lord Tennyson poems. For example:

  • Ulysses‘ – A powerful monologue that captures the timeless appeal of adventure and travel.
  • The Eagle‘ – Tennyson captures the beauty and majesty of this most iconic bird.

Some other poems that may be of interest include:

Joe Santamaria Poetry Expert
About
Joe has a degree in English and Related Literature from the University of York and a Masters in Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. He is an English tutor and counts W.B Yeats, Emily Brontë and Federico Garcia Lorca among his favourite poets.

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