What are the key similarities and differences in Tennyson's "In Memoriam," Browning's "My Last Duchess," and Arnold's "Dover Beach?"

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Each of these Victorian poets has a distinct "voice" or tone, though if we were to find a common element among them, it would probably be that of an underlying sort of acceptance of the external world and nature. It's the way each one expresses this that is unique.

Tennyson, of the three, is the one whose thought is most dependent on religious belief. The opening of "In Memoriam" is a direct statement of the Christian credo:

Strong son of God, immortal love,

Whom we, that have not seen thy face,

By faith, and faith alone, embrace

Believing where we cannot prove....

And yet, the dominant mood is not just sadness, as we would expect for an elegy, but resignation.Tennyson seems to question the positive attitude that the devout of previous ages would have espoused:

If all was good and fair we met,

This earth had been the Paradise

It never looked to human eyes,

Since our first sun arose and set.

It is neither the defiance of a freethinker--as in the Romantic poetry of Byron and Shelley--nor the simple acceptance and optimism of the pious that is seen in Tennyson, but a new feeling we sense bordering on modernism, yet still trying to retain its link to the past and to tradition.

The same is true of Browning, but with the difference that his poetry is filled with a sometimes boisterous vitality and optimism. The speaker in "My last Duchess" moves on, awaiting his next bride and seeming to have no great regret over the last one, and mentioning the bronze of Neptune in the same category as the last duchess's image. The other dramatic monolgues have the same frank, forward-looking quality, one of acceptance, like that of Tennyson, but in a hearty, positive expression:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what's a heaven for ? [from "Andrea del Sarto"]


Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be. [from "Rabbi ben Ezra]

Of the three we're dealing with, Matthew Arnold is the least traditional in terms of religion, and the most pessmistic. He regrets the passing of an age when humanity was secure in its religious beliefs:

The Sea of Faith,

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.

Arnold's verse enters a kind of self-made dream land. Like Tennyson, he anticipates some of the themes of modernism, but in an even closer way, rejecting the real world and its harshness, but alluding to the ancient, classical world more frequently than either Tennyson or Browning. You might want to look at the following additional poems and how they relate to this view of the three poets, or are exceptons that might contradict it:

Tennsyon: "Locksley Hall," and "Tears, idle Tears."

Browning, "Fra Lippo Lippi"

Arnold, "Philomela"

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To begin with, these poets are all writing in the Victorian era.  A definite similarity between the three is that all might be considered monologues, in that they are spoken by a speaker to another persona within the poem (though Browning is the most famous for using the monologue form).

Arnold and Tennyson are extremely concerned with the thematic issue of faith, which plays a prominent role in both "Dover Beach" and the opening of "In Memoriam."  In these poems, faith figures as a way to connect with others (the speakers connect with the addressee of the poem in "In Memoriam," and with others across time and space, such as Sophocles, in "Dover Beach").  By contrast, Browning's poem specifically rails against ideas of faith and human connection, in that the Duke has had the Duchess killed and he sees no harm in it, even boasting about it to the poem's addressee.

Another difference between these poets is in their use of form.  Browning and Tennyson are writing in defined poetic forms: Browning uses the classic form of the heroic couplet (two lines of iambic pentamenter that rhyme together), and Tennyson uses the "In Memoriam" stanza, a stanza structure that he has created specifically for this poem and that consists of four lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming ABBA.  Both do not break their rhyme and meter.  Arnold, on the other hand, while he is certainly conscious of the effects of the variable rhymes and rhythms present in his poem, adheres less strictly to form.  He includes stanzas and lines of varying length and stress; he is essentially writing in an early form of free verse.  The freedom of Arnold's form mimics the poem's boundless message of, "Ah, love, let us be true / to one another!"  The restraint depicted in the other two poems, however, perhaps suggests Tennyson's speaker's attempt to reign in and control his grief through the structure of poetry, and, on a darker note, hints at the dark self-control of Browning's murderous speaker.

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