The Two Voices
The Two Voices is a poem by Alfred Tennyson written between 1833 and 1834, published in his 1842 volume of Poems. Tennyson wrote the poem, titled "Thoughts of a Suicide" in manuscript, after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833. Tennyson explained, "When I wrote 'The Two Voices' I was so utterly miserable, a burden to myself and to my family, that I said, 'Is life worth anything?'". In the poem, one voice urges the other to suicide; the poet's arguments against it range from vanity to desperation, yet the voice discredits all. The poem's ending delivers no conclusions, and has been widely criticized — the poet finds no internal affirmation, invoking "solace outside himself".
A still small voice spake unto me,
"Thou art so full of misery,
Were it not better not to be?"
Then to the still small voice I said;
'Let me not cast in endless shade
What is so wonderfully made.'
- Stanzas 1 & 2.
'Self-blinded are you by your pride:
Look up thro' night: the world is wide.
'This truth within thy mind rehearse,
That in a boundless universe
Is boundless better, boundless worse.
'Think you this mould of hopes and fears
Could find no statelier than his peers
In yonder hundred million spheres?'
It spake, moreover, in my mind:
'Tho' thou wert scatter'd to the wind,
Yet is there plenty of the kind.
'This truth within thy mind rehearse,
That in a boundless universe
Is boundless better, boundless worse.
- Stanzas 8 - 11. Compare: "And fear not lest Existence closing your / Account should lose or know the type no more: / The Eternal Sáki from that Bowl has poured / Millions of Bubbles like us and will pour", FitzGerald, Omar Khayyám (1868). In the edition of 1889 the final line reads: "Account and mine, should know the like no more".
- I said, 'The years with change advance:
If I make dark my countenance,
I shut my life from happier chance.
- Stanza 18.
- I wept, 'Tho' I should die, I know
That all about the thorn will blow
In tufts of rosy-tinted snow;
'And men, thro' novel spheres of thought
Still moving after truth long sought,
Will learn new things when I am not.'
- Stanzas 20 - 21.
"Do men love thee? Art thou so bound
To men, that how thy name may sound
Will vex thee lying underground?
"The memory of the wither'd leaf
In endless time is scarce more brief
Than of the garner'd Autumn-sheaf.
- Stanzas 37-38.
- "Nay rather yet that I could raise
One hope that warm'd me in the days
While still I yearn'd for human praise.
"When, wide in soul, and bold of tongue,
Among the tents I paused and sung,
The distant battle flash'd and rung.
"I sung the joyful Paean clear,
And, sitting, burnish'd without fear
The brand, the buckler, and the spear —
"Waiting to strive a happy strife,
To war with falsehood to the knife,
And not to lose the good of life —
"Some hidden principle to move,
To put together, part and prove,
And mete the bounds of hate and love —
"As far as might be, to carve out
Free space for every human doubt,
That the whole mind might orb about —
"To search thro' all I felt or saw,
The springs of life, the depths of awe,
And reach the law within the law:
"At least, not rotting like a weed,
But, having sown some generous seed,
Fruitful of further thought and deed,
"To pass, when Life her light withdraws,
Not void of righteous self-applause,
Nor in a merely selfish cause —
"In some good cause, not in mine own,
To perish, wept for, honour'd, known,
And like a warrior overthrown...
- Stanzas 41 - 50.
"Yea!" said the voice, "thy dream was good,
While thou abodest in the bud.
It was the stirring of the blood.
"If Nature put not forth her power
About the opening of the flower,
Who is it that could live an hour?
"Then comes the check, the change, the fall.
Pain rises up, old pleasures pall.
There is one remedy for all.
"Yet hadst thou, thro' enduring pain,
Link'd month to month with such a chain
Of knitted purport, all were vain.
"Thou hadst not between death and birth
Dissolved the riddle of the earth.
So were thy labour little worth.
- Stanzas 53 - 57.
"That men with knowledge merely play'd,
I told thee — hardly nigher made,
Tho' scaling slow from grade to grade;
"Much less this dreamer, deaf and blind,
Named man, may hope some truth to find,
That bears relation to the mind.
"For every worm beneath the moon
Draws different threads, and late and soon
Spins, toiling out his own cocoon.
- Stanzas 58 - 60.
"Cry, faint not: either Truth is born
Beyond the polar gleam forlorn,
Or in the gateways of the morn.
"Cry, faint not, climb: the summits slope
Beyond the furthest nights of hope,
Wrapt in dense cloud from base to cope.
"Sometimes a little corner shines,
As over rainy mist inclines
A gleaming crag with belts of pines.
"I will go forward, sayest thou,
I shall not fail to find her now.
Look up, the fold is on her brow.
"If straight thy track, or if oblique,
Thou know'st not. Shadows thou dost strike,
Embracing cloud, Ixion-like;
"And owning but a little more
Than beasts, abidest lame and poor,
Calling thyself a little lower
"Than angels. Cease to wail and brawl!
Why inch by inch to darkness crawl?
There is one remedy for all."
- Stanzas 61 - 67.
"O dull, one-sided voice," said I,
"Wilt thou make everything a lie,
To flatter me that I may die?
"I know that age to age succeeds,
Blowing a noise of tongues and deeds,
A dust of systems and of creeds.
"I cannot hide that some have striven,
Achieving calm, to whom was given
The joy that mixes man with Heaven:
"Who, rowing hard against the stream,
Saw distant gates of Eden gleam,
And did not dream it was a dream";
"But heard, by secret transport led,
Ev'n in the charnels of the dead,
The murmur of the fountain-head —
"Which did accomplish their desire, —
Bore and forbore, and did not tire,
Like Stephen, an unquenched fire.
"He heeded not reviling tones,
Nor sold his heart to idle moans,
Tho' cursed and scorn'd, and bruised with stones:
"But looking upward, full of grace,
He pray'd, and from a happy place
God's glory smote him on the face."
- Stanzas 68 - 75.
I said, "I toil beneath the curse,
But, knowing not the universe,
I fear to slide from bad to worse.
"And that, in seeking to undo
One riddle, and to find the true,
I knit a hundred others new:
"Or that this anguish fleeting hence,
Unmanacled from bonds of sense,
Be fix'd and froz'n to permanence:
"For I go, weak from suffering here;
Naked I go, and void of cheer:
What is it that I may not fear?"
- Stanzas 77 - 80.
"If all be dark, vague voice," I said,
"These things are wrapt in doubt and dread,
Nor canst thou show the dead are dead.
"The sap dries up: the plant declines.
A deeper tale my heart divines.
Know I not Death? the outward signs?
"I found him when my years were few;
A shadow on the graves I knew,
And darkness in the village yew.
- Stanzas 89 - 91.
"Why, if man rot in dreamless ease,
Should that plain fact, as taught by these,
Not make him sure that he shall cease?
"Who forged that other influence,
That heat of inward evidence,
By which he doubts against the sense?
"He owns the fatal gift of eyes,
That read his spirit blindly wise,
Not simple as a thing that dies.
"Here sits he shaping wings to fly:
His heart forebodes a mystery:
He names the name Eternity.
"That type of Perfect in his mind
In Nature can he nowhere find.
He sows himself in every wind.
"He seems to hear a Heavenly Friend,
And thro' thick veils to apprehend
A labour working to an end.
"The end and the beginning vex
His reason: many things perplex,
With motions, checks, and counterchecks.
"He knows a baseness in his blood
At such strange war with something good,
He may not do the thing he would.
"Heaven opens inward, chasms yawn.
Vast images in glimmering dawn,
Half shown, are broken and withdrawn.
"Ah! sure within him and without,
Could his dark wisdom find it out,
There must be answer to his doubt.
- Stanzas 94 - 103.
"Yet how should I for certain hold,
Because my memory is so cold,
That I first was in human mould?
"I cannot make this matter plain,
But I would shoot, howe'er in vain,
A random arrow from the brain.
"It may be that no life is found,
Which only to one engine bound
Falls off, but cycles always round.
"As old mythologies relate,
Some draught of Lethe might await
The slipping thro' from state to state.
"As here we find in trances, men
Forget the dream that happens then,
Until they fall in trance again.
"So might we, if our state were such
As one before, remember much,
For those two likes might meet and touch.
- Stanzas 114 - 119.
- "But, if I lapsed from nobler place,
Some legend of a fallen race
Alone might hint of my disgrace;
"Some vague emotion of delight
In gazing up an Alpine height,
Some yearning toward the lamps of night.
"Or if thro' lower lives I came —
Tho' all experience past became
Consolidate in mind and frame —
"I might forget my weaker lot;
For is not our first year forgot?
The haunts of memory echo not.
"And men, whose reason long was blind,
From cells of madness unconfined,
Oft lose whole years of darker mind.
"Much more, if first I floated free,
As naked essence, must I be
Incompetent of memory:
"For memory dealing but with time,
And he with matter, could she climb
Beyond her own material prime?
- Stanzas 120 - 126.
"Moreover, something is or seems,
That touches me with mystic gleams,
Like glimpses of forgotten dreams —
"Of something felt, like something here;
Of something done, I know not where;
Such as no language may declare."
- Stanzas 127 - 128.
The still voice laugh'd. "I talk," said he,
"Not with thy dreams.
Suffice it thee Thy pain is a reality."
"But thou," said I, "hast miss'd thy mark,
Who sought'st to wreck my mortal ark,
By making all the horizon dark.
- Stanzas 129 - 130.
"Whatever crazy sorrow saith,
No life that breathes with human breath
Has ever truly long'd for death.
"'Tis life, whereof our nerves are scant,
Oh life, not death, for which we pant;
More life, and fuller, that I want."
- Stanzas 132 - 133.
A second voice was at mine ear,
A little whisper silver-clear,
A murmur, "Be of better cheer".
As from some blissful neighbourhood,
A notice faintly understood,
"I see the end, and know the good".
A little hint to solace woe,
A hint, a whisper breathing low,
"I may not speak of what I know".
- Stanzas 143 - 145.
Like an Aeolian harp that wakes
No certain air, but overtakes
Far thought with music that it makes:
Such seem'd the whisper at my side:
"What is it thou knowest, sweet voice?" I cried.
"A hidden hope," the voice replied:
So heavenly-toned, that in that hour
From out my sullen heart a power
Broke, like the rainbow from the shower,
To feel, altho' no tongue can prove
That every cloud, that spreads above
And veileth love, itself is love.
- Stanzas 146 - 149.
And forth into the fields I went,
And Nature's living motion lent
The pulse of hope to discontent.
I wonder'd at the bounteous hours,
The slow result of winter showers:
You scarce could see the grass for flowers.
I wonder'd, while I paced along:
The woods were fill'd so full with song,
There seem'd no room for sense of wrong.
- Stanzas 150 - 152.
So variously seem'd all things wrought,
I marvell'd how the mind was brought
To anchor by one gloomy thought;
And wherefore rather I made choice
To commune with that barren voice,
Than him that said, "Rejoice! rejoice!"
- Stanzas 153 - 154.