Victoria and Albert
Tennyson is the poet most closely associated with the reign of Queen Victoria, and this poem in particular is considered representative of the Victorian age. Victoria was born in 1819, and in 1837, not yet twenty years old, she ascended to the throne of England, beginning a reign that would last nearly sixty-five years. She was politically active and involved in the business of running the country, even from the start.
In 1840 Victoria was married to Albert, her first cousin. It was an arranged marriage, but Victoria and Albert fell deeply in love and consulted with each other on all matters. It was Albert who first read Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. and brought it to Victoria’s attention, directly influencing Tennyson’s 1850 appointment as poet laureate. Under Albert’s influence, while still in her early twenties, Victoria changed from a liberal to a conservative political attitude, which affected the way England was governed in both domestic and international affairs. Victoria and Albert were married for twenty years, until Albert’s death in 1861 from typhoid fever. After his death, Victoria remained devoted to Albert’s memory, and she never remarried. Her popularity as a monarch grew as she aged, as England exerted its dominance over world affairs, becoming the world’s most powerful country because of its strong navy and its colonization of Africa, India, and other territories that raised its...
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“Proem” is written in quatrains, which are four-line stanzas. It follows the rhyme scheme abba: the word at the end of the first line of each stanza rhymes with the word ending the last line, making the “a” rhyme, and the two middle lines end with the “b” rhyme. The lines follow an iambic tetrameter pattern. Iambic is a pattern of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in “forgive” and “embrace.” This pattern is obviously subject to variation, especially at the beginnings of stanzas: outside of the context of the poem, the natural tendency for reading such phrases as “strong son” and “thine are” would be to put the stress on the first syllable, not the second. Tetrameter contains the Greek prefix “tetra,” meaning “four”: there are four iambs in each line. This metrical form is so strongly associated with Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A. H. H., for which “Proem” is a preface, that it has been referred to as the In Memoriam stanza.
In this poem, the speaker talks directly to God, asking for God’s understanding and forgiveness and taking every possible opportunity to praise God. It follows a logical rhetorical structure, establishing God’s greatness in the first three stanzas, then explaining the problem of free will, then explaining how faith can be used to help humans deal with things they cannot know, and finally referring...
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Compare and Contrast
1850s: Great Britain is the world’s political and economic leader.
Today: Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, America is the single remaining superpower in the world.
1850: Most of the world is agricultural. The following year, Britain becomes the first nation in the world to have the majority of its population living in cities.
Today: Most of the world’s population is clustered into cities and their surrounding suburbs.
1850s: Life expectancy in Great Britain is between 43 and 47 years. Tennyson lived almost twice this, though his friend Arthur Hallam, memorialized in this poem, lived less than half the average.
Today: The average life expectancy for men in Great Britain is 75 years old; for women, it is 80.
1850s: Tea outsells coffee for the first time in Great Britain, due in large part to the introduction of a new custom, afternoon tea, ten years earlier.
Today: Though an afternoon break is often considered impractical in the international business climate, many British citizens still manage to find time for the traditional tea break.
1850s: In a world with no mass media, the person holding the post of poet laureate is famous across Great Britain.
Today: Poets are not as important to most citizens as musicians and movie stars; students interested in finding out about the...
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Topics for Further Study
• In 1850, the year that “Proem” was published, Tennyson became the poet laureate of England, replacing William Wordsworth. Research and report on how the differences in the two men’s styles affected British literature.
• Research the seven stages of grief that have been outlined by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and other psychiatrists. See which parts of the poem can be traced to each stage.
• The poem refers to the night and day as “orbs of light and shade.” Look up the ancient theory that held that the sun and planets were held in spheres that surrounded the Earth and create a three-dimensional model to present this idea to your class.
• Near the end of the poem, Tennyson, one of Britain’s most famous poets, asks God to forgive his “wild and wandering cries.” Many of today’s most popular musicians, by contrast, tend to brag about their achievements. Write a poem or essay that outlines your position on the importance of humility.
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The British actor Sir John Gielgud recorded “Proem” and other sections from In Memoriam on an audiocassette titled Stanzas from “In Memoriam” (1972). It was produced by the Tennyson Society and published by the Tennyson Research Centre.
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What Do I Read Next?
• The Norton Critical Edition of Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam contains background and sources, along with critical essays. It was edited by Robert H. Ross and published in 1974 by W. W. Norton.
• Readers interested in this poem might want to compare Tennyson’s style to the works of the man who inspired him. Poems of Arthur Henry Hallam, published in 1988 by AMS Press, reproduces Hallam’s work.
• William Wordsworth, who preceded Tennyson as poet laureate of England and was one of the founders of the romantic movement, wrote a long poem titled The Prelude, which is similar in theme to In Memoriam. The first edition of Wordsworth’s poem was published posthumously in 1850, the same year as Tennyson’s poem.
• The poet’s grandson, Charles Tennyson, wrote Alfred Tennyson, a biography that reflects its author’s access to family-owned sources. It was published in 1968 by Archon Books.
• Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet, by Jerome Hamilton Buckley, combines biographical and critical analysis of Tennyson’s life. It was published in 1960 and remains a standard source in Tennyson studies.
• At the same time Tennyson was laboring over In Memoriam in England, Emily Dickinson was writing poetry in the United States that was not published until years after her death. Many of Dickinson’s poems deal with mortality. Fans of Tennyson’s poem may be...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Eliot, T. S., “In Memoriam,” in Tennyson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Elizabeth Francis, Prentice-Hall, 1980, p. 133, originally published in Selected Essays, Faber and Faber, 1932.
Marshall, George O., Jr., “Tennyson the Teacher,” in A Tennyson Handbook, Twayne Publishers, 1963, p. 122.
Young, G. M., “The Age of Tennyson,” in Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, edited by John Killham, Barnes & Noble, 1960, p. 25.
Campbell, Matthew, Rhythm and Will in Victorian Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Campbell devotes an entire chapter to In Memoriam, putting its structure into context with the works of Tennyson’s contemporaries.
Kingsley, C., “On In Memoriam (1850) and Earlier Works,” in Tennyson: The Critical Heritage, edited by John D. Jump, Barnes & Noble, 1967, pp. 172–85.
Reading a review of Tennyson’s long poem from the time period when it was published gives a sense of what a departure the poem was from Tennyson’s usual style and how uncertain Tennyson’s reputation was before In Memoriam sealed his fame.
Tennyson, Charles, and Christine Falls, Alfred Tennyson: An Annotated Bibliography, University of Georgia Press, 1967.
This book-length bibliography is several decades old, but it is useful as a reference...
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Bibliography (Magill Book Reviews)
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.: Arachon 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. Chart of changes in the text, appendix.
Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Chapter 6 is devoted to In Memoriam and provides biographical background to—and explication of—the work. Relates critical response to it. Sees Tennyson as a major poet, whose work must be understood by familiarity with the imagination that produced it.
Chesterton, G. K., and Dr. Richard Garnett. Tennyson. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903. This reprint of a classic is important for researchers. Numerous illustrations; long biographical note on Tennyson.
Lang, Cecil Y., and Edgar F. Shannon, Jr. The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981. Volume 1 contains 32 separate...
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