What are the themes in In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson?

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Understanding of the Limits of Rationality in Light of the Inexpressability of Grief

In MemoriamA. H. H. is, first and foremost, a poem in which Tennyson wrestles with the sudden and early death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Tennyson frequently returns to the idea of the inexpressability...

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Understanding of the Limits of Rationality in Light of the Inexpressability of Grief

In Memoriam A. H. H. is, first and foremost, a poem in which Tennyson wrestles with the sudden and early death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Tennyson frequently returns to the idea of the inexpressability of grief. Tennyson is an expert poet, and it is clear that the inability to truly convey his sense of loss is not due to a capacity that Tennyson is specifically lacking; rather, it is a reflection on the limitations of language itself to deal with the magnitude of death.

This can also be read as a statement on the limits of rationality. Tennyson comes back to the limitations of language repeatedly but is able to use language and art to talk about his friend's death, even if it is often in round-about ways. Thus, one way to interpret the elegy is to consider that Tennyson lacks the ability to talk in direct and rational ways about these events—at least in a way that satisfies him—and that art is part of how he deals with the limitations of direct, rational language.

Articulating the Growing Tension Between Religion and Science in the Nineteenth Century

Tennyson further deals with the consequences of grief, reflecting on questions of how to relate to God which was indicative of the growing tensions between religion and science that were present in Tennyson's time. We can compare this to the commonly posed questions: how can a good God exist given the pain and suffering of the world? Tennyson maintains a position of faith; rather than positioning his religiosity in conflict with science, he suggests that faith in scientific progress can also be an avenue for dealing with grief (section 21).

Grief as the Price We Must Ultimately Pay for Loving Someone

Finally, Tennyson reflects on the consequences of grief for loving someone. These reflections give us the famous phrase "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all." This line—rather than being a reflection on the end of romantic love, as it is often assumed—is a reflection on the death of the love he felt for his friend. Tennyson wrestles with the enormity of the pain of grieving his friend but concludes that, however great the pain, the joys of friendship had been greater, and the pain of grief is only so deep because of the deep love he had for Hallam.

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