Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The fourth child of an Anglican clergyman, Alfred Tennyson knew from an early age that he would be a poet. By the time he left his home in Lincolnshire County for Trinity College at Cambridge University, he had already composed a large body of work, much of it influenced by both neoclassic and Romantic writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley. At Cambridge, Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam, acknowledged by many as one of the most promising men of his generation. The two became fast friends, and Hallam helped Tennyson publish volumes of his poetry in 1830 and 1832. Their friendship was further solidified when Hallam became engaged to the poet’s sister Emily. Tennyson’s world was shattered, however, when the twenty-two-year-old Hallam died of a cerebral hemorrhage while traveling in Austria in 1833.
Almost immediately after Hallam’s death, Tennyson began writing poems to capture his sense of loss. Some were published in his 1842 volume of poetry, the most notable being “Ulysses” and “Morte d’Arthur.” For more than a dozen years, however, he composed many disparate short lyrics on the same theme; only in the late 1840’s did he determine to organize them to form a long elegiac meditation on the ideas of friendship, love, death, and immortality. By 1850, he had written a prologue to introduce the themes of his collection and included an epilogue to carry the process of his meditation from sorrow at the death of his friend to joy at the celebration of the wedding of his sister. At the suggestion of his fiancé, Emily Sellwood, Tennyson titled his newly made long poem In Memoriam.
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In Memoriam is Tennyson’s elegiac tribute to his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly in September, 1833. Hallam’s death dealt a particularly harsh blow to the poet. Almost immediately, Tennyson began attempting to capture his sense of loss and feelings of grief in brief lyrical sketches. He worked on these lyrics for seventeen years, revising and arranging them in a pattern that would give the disparate poems a central unity of purpose.
Tennyson’s work follows the traditional pattern of the elegy, first established by the Greeks and appropriated by English poets such as John Milton in “Lycidas” (1638) and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821). There is a central figure who speaks in the first person to mourn the loss of a friend; feeling that he has been left behind in a world that also is touched with this loss, the speaker examines his emotions and looks outside himself for solace. His examination of the world around him leads him to realize that, though gone, his friend is still with him in spirit; that realization gives the one who remains in the world some hope, usually for reunion in the afterlife.
Unusual among the great elegies in English, In Memoriam tells its story of loss and recovery through a series of interconnected lyrics, over 130 in all; each remains a self-contained unit, but the collection traces the feelings of a central character who experiences, in turn, grief, confusion, despair, personal resolution, and, finally, hope. Several critics have pointed out the similarities between Tennyson’s elegy and William Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, which also carries forward a single story beneath the individual lyrics.
Though the poet employs a first-person voice in almost all the lyrics, the central speaker, or “I,” of the poem should not...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Beetz, Kirk H. Tennyson: A Bibliography, 1827-1982. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1984. An introduction explains the organization of the work. Multiple references to In Memoriam and Arthur Henry Hallam are provided in the lengthy subject index.
Bradley, A. C. A Commentary on Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.” 3d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966. Provides a close study of the poem, showing the relation of each section to others. Confronts difficulties in interpretation. Traces origin, composition, and structure of the eulogy, with other discussion, prior to commentary. Includes a chart of changes in the text.
Brett, R. L. Faith and Doubt: Religion and Secularization in Literature from Wordsworth to Larkin. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997. Discusses the conflict of faith and doubt that Tennyson examines throughout the poem; indicates how G. F. W. Hegel’s philosophical writings and the theological works of F. D. Maurice may have influenced the poet.
Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Contains a chapter on In Memoriam explaining how Tennyson achieves artistic unity for his collection of lyrics.
Chesterton, G. K., and Dr. Richard...
(The entire section is 436 words.)