Critical Essay on “Proem”
The difficulty one finds in approaching a work like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Proem” is one that troubles anyone practicing literary criticism and, in fact, anyone trying to understand life: how much should be examined at any one time? Even with an average poem, possibilities abound, since there exists any extent of background information that could be useful for helping readers comprehend the lines on the page in front of them. Biographical information is often referred to, and so are similar poems from the poet’s canon, or poems written around the same time, or poems that clearly influence the subject matter.
“Proem” has all of these elements. It is the introduction to a longer piece, In Memoriam A. H. H. . The most obvious direction that a line of inquiry might be inclined to take is toward the larger poem, to see how this segment compares to the whole. Furthermore, this entire work deals with the most moving, significant event in Tennyson’s otherwise stuffy literary life, the death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The magnitude of this one event was so compelling to Tennyson that the bulk of his work in his important formative years, from twenty-four to forty, was spent trying to capture the experience in this one work. Most of Tennyson’s poetry deals with subjects drawn from classical literature. The temptation to explore him through In Memoriam is strong, and could easily be justified as a rare opportunity that...
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More than any other Victorian writer, Tennyson has seemed the embodiment of his age, both to his contemporaries and to modern readers. In his own day he was said to be—with Queen Victoria and Gladstone—one of the three most famous living persons, a reputation no other poet writing in English has ever had. As official poetic spokesman for the reign of Victoria, he felt called upon to celebrate a quickly changing industrial and mercantile world with which he felt little in common, for his deepest sympathies were called forth by an unaltered rural England; the conflict between what he thought of as his duty to society and his allegiance to the eternal beauty of nature seems peculiarly Victorian. Even his most severe critics have always recognized his lyric gift for sound and cadence, a gift probably unequaled in the history of English poetry, but one so absolute that it has sometimes been mistaken for mere facility.
The lurid history of Tennyson’s family is interesting in itself, but some knowledge of it is also essential for understanding the recurrence in his poetry of themes of madness, murder, avarice, miserliness, social climbing, marriages arranged for profit instead of love, and estrangements between families and friends.
Alfred Tennyson was born in the depths of Lincolnshire, the fourth son of the twelve children of the rector of Somersby, George Clayton Tennyson, a cultivated but embittered clergyman who took out his disappointment...
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Tennyson’s In Memoriam as Love Poetry
Most of the few modern explanations of In Memoriam have, like E. B. Mattes’ In Memoriam: The Way of a Soul and Graham Hough’s “Natural Theology in In Memoriam”, concerned themselves principally with the source and precise meaning of the poem’s intellectual speculations. While inevitably admitting Tennyson’s ultimate subjectivism, critics have concerned themselves little with the nature of the subjective experiences underlying the poem or the literary conventions governing their presentation.
In Memoriam is indeed in one sense a philosophical poem: it must have been amongst the works which prompted Jowett to say to Tennyson, just before the latter’s death: “Your poetry has an element of philosophy more to be considered than any regular philosophy in England.” But its philosophy is based not on the premise Cogito, ergo sum, but on the premise Amo, ergo sumus, and its relationship to a tradition of speculative or philosophical love poetry is clear. It is, in fact, one of the greatest series of love poems in the English language, and it seems to me that it can be most fruitfully approached by considering it as such, and by examining the literary conventions, the diction and the imagery through which the experiences of love and loss are presented and directed in the poem. This article is intended as the beginning of such an approach.
In Memoriam is both a traditional love poem and...
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The 'Way of the Soul'
THE ‘WAY OF THE SOUL.’
It is a fashion at present to ascribe the great popularity of In Memoriam entirely to the ‘teaching’ contained in it, and to declare that its peculiar position among English elegies has nothing to do with its poetic qualities. This is equivalent to an assertion that, if the so-called substance of the poem had been presented in common prose, the work would have gained the same hold upon the mass of educated readers that is now possessed by the poem itself. Such an assertion no one would make or consciously imply. The ordinary reader does not indeed attempt to separate the poetic qualities of a work from some other quality that appeals to him; much less does he read the work in terror of being affected by the latter; but imagination and diction and even versification can influence him much as they influence the people who talk about them, and he would never have taken In Memoriam to his heart if its consoling or uplifting thoughts had not also touched his fancy and sung in his ears. It is true, however, that he dwells upon these thoughts, and that the poem is often valued by him for its bearing upon his own life; and true again that this is one reason why he cares for it far more than for elegies certainly not inferior to it as poems. And perhaps here also many devotees of poetry may resemble him more than they suppose.
This peculiar position of In Memoriam seems to be connected with two...
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