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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

While In Memoriam is clearly autobiographical, it was intended to be much more than the meditations of a single individual on the loss of a close friend. In fact, Tennyson pointed readers toward a decidedly Christian interpretation. Shortly after the poem was written, he insisted that the “I” of the poem was not written to be simply himself but was meant to represent the entire human race. The poet also said he intended his elegy to be a kind of “Divine Comedy”: the speaker, modeled on the author Dante Alighieri, passes from misery into ecstasy by traveling through hell and purgatory to end eventually in heaven. In these ways, Tennyson invited readers to interpret his personal experiences as representative of those which all humans might feel in passing through trials that test not only their personal fortitude but also their belief in the Almighty and the purpose of human existence.

The central religious issue of the poem is the conflict of faith and doubt. Although the poem was written eight years before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, Tennyson and his contemporaries were familiar with the discoveries of science that had, for nearly a century, begun to challenge biblical accounts of the creation of the world. Geologists and biologists had been hinting that humankind enjoyed no special place in the world but was simply a highly developed species that might one day become extinct, the way other species had. Tennyson makes use of this controversy to highlight the crisis of faith that is brought on by the death of his close friend—one that causes him to question God’s purpose not only for his own life but also for human life in general.

Tennyson offers a view of evolution that made it acceptable to Victorian people of faith. For him, all things are evolving—humankind included—toward higher forms of...

(The entire section is 478 words.)