William Empson thought Tennyson’s “Flower in the crannied wall” an example of a poem whose supreme simplicity must nonetheless weld together a profound conflict in the poet’s mind. It would seem to be a test case for his mode of analysis:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
Tennyson’s fine ear for the sounds of words can be appreciated for the harmonies of cadence, rhyme, and measure his poems effect, but it is also possible to imagine Tennyson led to a poem by the sound of a word catching his ear, like a clue working on his unconscious mind. Maybe in some vaguely mystical way he believed that the sound held some significance, but more likely, he was sensible enough to realize that he could set the word in such a place that the sound would similarly catch at the reader, and would set a word off among others. The word “crannied,” which returns as “crannies,” seems such a word here; if we imagine that this is the word that was the germ of the poem, the becomes as much about circumstance of the flower’s catching Tennyson’s eye as it does about the flower’s unity. Phonetically, too, the word “crannied” reaches out to the other key words, “hand” and “understand” and even “man,” again urging us not to think it incidental.
What I’m trying to say is that there is something like a counter-poem, unexpressed, in the first two lines: the “crannies” and “crannied wall” and the word “crannied” itself holds Tennyson’s mind. The phrase “and all in all” feels characteristically Tennyson, perhaps because it appears in the beautiful lyric of jealous possessiveness from Idylls of the King, “In love, if love be love, if love be ours,” where the last line reads: “And trust me not at all or all in all.” That poem turns on images of early signs of decay: the speck in the fruit, a rift in the lute.
I think that anxiety relevant to the conflict Tennyson had in mind when writing “Flower in the crannied wall.” The wall fascinates, and the word “Crannied” catches Tennyson’s ear, because it suggests the erosion of time; the poem is not just about the effort to understand the whole of the universe from the flower’s entirety, but also about the sense that the unity of life as he knows it is undergoing slow decay. “Flower” contains within it an echo of “hour,” the shadow of the counter-poem cast in the first word, and there is also the strange present-tense action of the second line, almost mock-heroic in its defiant pluck: “I pluck.” He wished to see the roots, to see it in its entirety, but he would have known than in so doing he was killing it; he murders to dissect. Stranger is that Tennyson would not have wondered at how those roots were able to gain nutrients from the crannied wall in which they’d settled; it might not be a question of profound botanical knowledge, but it is as ripe for a poet’ philosophical musings as the others that the poem asks, and this too becomes a part of the counter-poem: that out of the decay of man-man objects (the ruined cottage of Wordsworth), a small life appears and sustains itself.
We are encouraged, I think, to remark on the violence he has done to the flower by his decision to address it without remarking on it himself. If he had simply recalled a flower he had plucked, we would not be asked to consider its interests, but since Tennyson seems to suggest that it has enough interests to bear addressing, the it becomes a pathetic (full of pathos, that is) sacrifice to his inquiring, restless mind. He almost could be seem to be lording his power over the flower with the phrase “in my hand.” He is reflecting, at some level of his mind, upon his own strength.
But the poem is very much about his weakness; he can only speak to the flower because he sympathizes with it, and to think of the counter-poem as I’ve drawn it out is to appreciate better what that sympathy involves: Tennyson too has been torn up from a cranny, uprooted into life, an infant crying in the night, wailing his name on the earth near the family tombstone, and the other family myths; he feels himself to have been torn apart from something that is whole, larger than him, and perhaps decaying (his own extended family) or else that is riddled with crannies of imperfection that represent the dwellings of human life. The possibilities are various. He leaves open whether all humankind is like this flower, torn up, or whether he alone is; whether the cranny is unique to his circumstances or is common to all.
In the last two lines he is very open about identifying with the flower of course: if he could know about the unity of the flower, he might know about the unity of mankind, about the unity even of man and God. The “is” closes the poem with a bold single verb, suggesting an identity between “man and god,” as they are themselves identical with the flower.
But there is no firm unity between “is” and the word with which it does not quite rhyme: “crannies.” Here a crack appears in the poem’s form; the counter-poem reasserts itself. The crannies once again are relevant, and the yearning we can hear in Tennyson’s final plea is not just a yearning to know what the flower is, and what man and God is, and how they all are the same one thing, but what they grow within, what stand upon; the “crannied wall” that is the ground for the poem is recalled as a nagging doubt in the neatness of the poem’s final equation of man, god, and flower. There is something beyond the poem’s own formulation of its lack of understanding (“if I could understand…I should”); his sense for the crannied wall, his awareness that he has left it out, is felt in the off-rhyme only.
“All in all” ought to return to the fore of our minds: the meaning “as a single unified entity” is not disrupted by, but too easily occludes the prepositional force of “in,” where “all” resides “in” “all,” a completeness of identity, but also a dwelling. “In” returns to the first line: “Flower in the crannied wall” and also “in my hand”; those two occasions of “in” differ as much from one another as either from the “in” of “all in all.” And it becomes possible to feel that the conflict beneath the poem is between what each entails: “all in all” is the desired unity, a set that contains all sets including itself; “in my hand” is locus and extent of the poet’s limited understanding; what he can hold within his mind as he contemplates what the flower, in its entirety, is; “flower in the crannied wall” is the living flower that cannot be isolated from the crannied wall, that is alive only in so far as it in inseparable from a larger whole that is not complete (not “all in all”—the cranny in fact an absence of its wholeness) and undergoing slow decay. The first line apprehends and takes hold of more than the poet’s hand can or does; the poem’s active present tense first-person “pluck” is placed against what the receptivity of language and description, which seizes without destroying; but it is not only the poet’s hand that seizes to destroy, it is also the metaphysical fascination, even jealous obsession, with knowing and possessing something “all in all,” as a means of satisfying a desire for completeness that is not possible. And this, I think, is what the poem ultimately rebukes, as does the lyric, “In love, if love be love,” from “Merlin and Vivien.”