‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all

– Tennyson, “In Memoriam”

Tennyson. I’ve never wanted to believe him here. Out of context, his statement feels like the kind of cold-comfort-yoga-self-help advice you’d share with a friend, in a dark moment, when what that friend really wants is a hug and a drink. Honestly, I love this poem, but he’s very far along in his stages of grief. In its early moments, lost love sucks, and the experience always makes me wonder how a broken heart is better than a heart that is still whole.

Maybe Tennyson’s lines just feel too programmatic for me in this particular iteration, too dictatorial, too adult—because otherwise I’ve always gravitated toward melancholic or mournful tales. Take, for example, The Little Prince, a book that both won and broke my heart when I first read it, and continues to do so each time I read it again. I still have my childhood copy, a 1971 hardback edition I must have gotten from a relative, which comes with its own case and musty smell. The pages are yellowed but—strangely, for my reading habits—not dog-eared or torn.  I’ve taken good care of this book, better than most. Still, it’s an old book, with a broken spine that falls open naturally to my favorite episode on page 64.

(photo courtesy of the author)

“It was then that the fox appeared:” how I loved this fox, drawn with his long ears like horns that the Little Prince will later mock. He appears just when the Little Prince wants a friend, and yet at their first meeting they cannot play together, because, as the fox explains, he is not tamed. “What does that mean—‘tame’?” the Little Prince asks, and I wondered, too. Why couldn’t they play if they could talk so comfortably together amidst the grass?  “It is an act too often neglected,” replies the fox. “It means to establish ties … if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique ….”

The fox is an eloquent rhetorician, and his description of taming, which is really a description of love, shot to my childhood heart. I didn’t know about being “tamed,” but I wanted to be unique in all the world, and also, as the fox later explains, understood. Yet I found their conversations ominous, even on a first reading, riddled with ellipses that indicated the inexpressible potential and risk in what the fox narrates. The Prince says at the outset that he has “not much time,” and his tenure with the fox, and indeed on earth, will be brief indeed.  All too soon, just pages after they first meet, the “hour of his departure grew near.”

The emotions of his departure echo my Tennyson epigraph, whose ethos the fox also seems to channel in his closing words. The fox cries; the little prince is confused: “I never wished you any sort of harm … you wanted me to tame you … it has done you no good at all …” “It has done me good,” the fox insists, “because of the color of the wheat …”  He means that now when he looks at the wheat fields, the color of gold, he will be reminded of the Little Prince and his golden hair. I still find this image, of a lonely fox, listening by himself to the wind in the wheat, beautifully sad. He seems “feeling-ful” in his projected isolation, emotional, alive. I get glimpses, here, of the treasure that is a broken heart.

Emily Hodgson Anderson is Professor of English at the University of Southern California, where she teaches classes on a range of topics related to eighteenth-century literature and culture. Her most recent book, Shakespeare and the Legacy of Loss, was published in July 2018 with the University of Michigan Press.

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