Alfred Tennyson: In Memoriam

(2043 words)
  • Marion Shaw (University of Loughborough)

The full title of Tennyson's famous elegy is In Memoriam A.H.H. Obit MDCCCXXXIII (In Memory of A.H.H., who died 1833) and it commemorates Tennyson's friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in September 1833 whilst on holiday with his father in Vienna. He was twenty-three at the time of his death. The news was brought to Tennyson at his home in Lincolnshire on 1 October, the letter saying that Hallam's body would be brought home by sea from Trieste. This journey of the body is described in a group of sections (9-18) towards the beginning of the poem, with Tennyson writing section 9 within six days of learning of Hallam's death. This section established the stanza form and rhyme scheme (a quatrain of iambic tetrameters with enclosed rhyme) which Tennyson would use throughout the rest of the poem:

Fair Ship, that from the Italian shore
Sailest the placid ocean-plains
With my lost Arthur's loved remains,
Spread thy full wings and waft him o'er. (9: 1-4)

During the next seventeen years Tennyson added sections of differing lengths to the poem, writing them out in long thin notebooks which have come to be known as butchers' book because they were the kind of ledgers which a butcher or other tradesman might use to keep accounts. Two butchers' books survive, one at Trinity College Cambridge and the other in the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln. They represent important stages in the composition of the poem, when Tennyson seems to have made a fair copy in the Lincoln manuscript of the sections he had written during the 1830s in the Trinity manuscript. The manuscripts illustrate the slow, accretive process of the composition of the whole poem which, when it was published on 1 June 1850, totalled 129 sections, a prologue and an epilogue. Another section (59) was added in 1851 and a further one (39) in 1870.

The poem was immediately popular, appealing to a wide range of readers, from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to working people like the weaver Samuel Bamford. Its general success, and in particular its appeal to Prince Albert, were important reasons why Tennyson was offered the Poet Laureateship in November 1850. Its expressions of religious doubt as well as its tentative faith endeared it to agnostics as well as Christians. In an age of great religious controversy (Darwin's On the Origin of Species would be published nine years later in 1859), it lent itself, and still does, to many points of view. It also successfully solved the problem of the long poem in being a collection of short poems, which could be dipped into and read in fragments. Tennyson at one time thought of calling it “Fragments of an Elegy” and it has the piecemeal quality, as T. S. Eliot pointed out, of a diary.

Although each section of the poem can be read independently, the whole poem has an internal chronology and a thematic progression, and can be roughly divided into four parts (although Tennyson himself made no such divisions). The poem tracks a period of two and a half years, from the time of Hallam's death to the marriage of Tennyson's sister Cecilia, from autumn to spring. As Tennyson himself said, “It begins with a funeral and ends with a marriage […] a sort of Divine Comedy, cheerful at the close.” The purpose of the poem is announced in section 1 where the poet-mourner holds it as a “truth” that the experience of loss may be an improving one and that love is stronger than death. But from this brave beginning, the poem then sinks into a long spell of almost unrelieved grief until sections 28 to 30, which describe the first of the three Christmases which occur in the poem. Although infused with a sense of loss, these Christmas sections introduce the idea of the continued life of the dead: “They do not die / Nor lose their mortal sympathy, / Nor change to us, although they change.” (30. 22-24).

The second part of the poem, leading up to the second Christmas, described in section 78, is occupied with arguments and with memories; arguments trying to justify the death of so promising a young man, and memories of what he was like on earth when he was the poet's friend. The third part of the poem, leading to the third Christmas, described in section 104 to 106, covers the same ground but does so more calmly and with a greater sense of acceptance. The final part, from 107 to the Epilogue, although with some backward glances, moves towards a sense of renewed life and hope for those who mourn. The poem, however uncertainly, has fulfilled its promise and completed its task of mourning:

Regret is dead, but love is more
Than in the summers that are flown,
For I myself with these have grown
To something greater than before. (Epilogue, 17 –20)

Throughout the poem there is the movement of the seasons, and some of Tennyson's finest writing uses the time of year to express the changing moods of sorrow. For example, section 11, which describes a calm autumn day soon after the death of Hallam, suggests the breathless self-control required of the mourner who contemplates the home-coming of the corpse. The section ends with an image of the calm seas, and the “dead calm” of the body whose only movement is that of the motion of the ship. Calmness, a desirable state, becomes horrific, as if the breast of both the dead man and the mourner are struggling to break free:

Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
And waves that sway themselves in rest,
And dead calm in that noble breast
Which heaves but with the heaving deep. (11. 17 – 20)

A much later section, 107, commemorates Hallam's birthday in February. Although this is a “bitter day [when] ice / Makes daggers at the sharpen'd eaves,” the mourner and his family keep the day in the way Hallam would have enjoyed, with wine, and “cheerful-minded talk [and] books and music.” The mourner is recovering, and the spring which follows this anniversary can be welcomed as an image of the poet's renewal:

And in my breast
Spring wakens too; and my regret
Becomes an April violet,
And buds and blossoms like the rest. (115. 17 – 20)

Tennyson also introduced deliberately “paired” sections that chart a changing mood. In section 2, for example, which addresses the churchyard yew-tree, the mourner envies the “sullen tree” its insensibility and “stubborn hardihood” which seem to make it exempt from mortal cares and joys. But in the answering section 39, the mourner sees that the yew-tree does have a “golden hour / When flower is feeling after flower”, and that it was his sorrow which blinded him to the yew-tree's cycle of renewal. Sections 3 and 59 are a pair which address Sorrow, in the first as “crue; fellowship”, in the second as “bosom friend”. Similarly, section 7, which describes the poet's desolation as he stands before the “dark house” of his friend, is answered towards the end of the poem in section 119, when the poet can stand before the house “with scarce a sigh” because in his thoughts “I take the pressure of thine hand.” Hands are important in In Memoriam; they represent the physical friendship now lost, and also an idea of spiritual strength: “out of darkness came the hands / That reach thro' nature, moulding men.” (124. 23 –24)

One of the major reasons for In Memoriam's continuing popularity is the fact that it addresses the question of an apparently purposeless death. Arthur Hallam was an exceptionally gifted young man whose future would have been distinguished and socially valuable. His untimely death raises doubts about God's existence, or, if He does exist, about His purpose in letting such an event occur. There are also grave questions about the immortality of the soul, whether, in fact, Hallam, in some sense, still exists. In Memoriam offers a number of answers to these questions, none of them held consistently or for very long. The recurrent anxiety about Hallam's state after death is dwelt on in sections 61 to 63, 75 and 93, for example, which imagine Hallam in a kind of heaven, “With gods in unconjectured bliss.” These sections, and others too, are not, however, content simply to imagine Hallam in heaven but yearn for there to be communication between the dead man and the mourner:

Descend, and touch, and enter; hear
The wish too strong for words to name;
That in this blindness of the frame
My Ghost may feel that thine is near. (93, 13 – 16)

Sometimes communication seems to occur, as in the magnificent section 95 where the mourner in a trance-like state reads Hallam's letters, and “the dead man touched me from the past.” But this is short-lived and the trance is “cancelled, stricken through with doubt.” For consolation the mourner turns to nature but it is an equivocal comforter, assuring him only of life and death, the “boundless day” of the impersonal cycles of time. The conclusion of the whole poem, if it may be called a conclusion, opts for a rather vague pantheistic belief:

Thy voice is on the rolling air;
I hear thee where the waters run;
Thou standest in the rising sun,
And in the setting thou art fair. (CXXX 1 – 4)

Like all elegies, In Memoriam is, of course, concerned with remembering and praising the dead man. In Memoriam is amongst the most personal of English elegies in that the companionship of the mourner and his friend when they were students is vividly recalled, along with Hallam's personal and intellectual qualities. In section 87 the mourner visits their Cambridge college (Trinity) and hears a crudely riotous noise from the rooms that Hallam once occupied, “where once we held debate, a band / Of youthful friends, on mind and art, / And labour, and the changing mart, / And all the framework of the land.” Of these “youthful friends”, members of an idealistic group popularly known as the Cambridge Apostles, Hallam had been the most brilliant and distinguished, one who seemed to offer “some novel power […] And Hope could never hope too much, / In watching thee from hour to hour.” (92. 9 – 12)

Most of all, it seems, Hallam could have helped the poet withstand the doubts caused by science in the mid-nineteenth century. Although Darwin had not yet published his findings, ideas of evolution were in the air, and evidence was rife that the earth was much older than had been believed and that whole species had perished. Nature, which to earlier generations of poets like Wordsworth had been benign, was now “red in tooth and claw.” In a group of frightened and violent sections, 54 – 56, the question is asked, “Are God and Nature then at strife?” (55. 5). There is no sure reply that brings comfort and certainty, with the result that life cannot be seen as other than futile and frail. It is then that the poet yearns for Hallam's reassuring presence, “O for thy voice to soothe and bless!” (56.28). For modern readers, and for many Victorians too, the poem's strength lies not so much in its attempts at assurance as in this struggle and failure to find conclusive answers.

It is worth noting, too, how accessible the poem is; it has the air of a man confessing himself simply and sometimes hesitantly. The poet even has doubts about his own ability to write poetry. It is a democratic poem in that it gives the impression that almost anyone could have written it. “Loss is common,” as section 6 points out, but that does not make it any the less heart-breaking. Tennyson frequently compares his grief to that of others, as in section 6 where a mother, a father and a girl all suffer loss. These anecdotal and domestic analogies help to make the poem familiar and personal to its readers, unlike its great elegiac predecessors, Shelley's Adonais or Milton's Lycidas, which are remote and difficult poems. In this respect, the form of In Memoriam is important; its arrangement as a collection of short poems, its simple stanza form, and, most remarkably, its use of monosyllables. It seems as if Latin diction has been eschewed; of course it hasn't but the impression is one of a kind of basic, native, English utterance. The range of emotion that Tennyson can achieve within the apparent constraints of this “simple” form is extraordinary: from the pathos of section 6, to the lyricism of 91, the ecstasy of 129, the argumentativeness of 114 and the ceremony of the Epilogue.

Shaw, Marion. "In Memoriam". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 June 2002
[, accessed 28 August 2016.]