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In Memoriam Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The fourth child of an Anglican clergyman, Alfred Tennyson knew from an early age that he would be a poet. By the time he left his home in Lincolnshire County for Trinity College at Cambridge University, he had already composed a large body of work, much of it influenced by both neoclassic and Romantic writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley. At Cambridge, Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam, acknowledged by many as one of the most promising men of his generation. The two became fast friends, and Hallam helped Tennyson publish volumes of his poetry in 1830 and 1832. Their friendship was further solidified when Hallam became engaged to the poet’s sister Emily. Tennyson’s world was shattered, however, when the twenty-two-year-old Hallam died of a cerebral hemorrhage while traveling in Austria in 1833.

Almost immediately after Hallam’s death, Tennyson began writing poems to capture his sense of loss. Some were published in his 1842 volume of poetry, the most notable being “Ulysses” and “Morte d’Arthur.” For more than a dozen years, however, he composed many disparate short lyrics on the same theme; only in the late 1840’s did he determine to organize them to form a long elegiac meditation on the ideas of friendship, love, death, and immortality. By 1850, he had written a prologue to introduce the themes of his collection and included an epilogue to carry the process of his meditation from sorrow at the death of his friend to joy at the celebration of the wedding of his sister. At the suggestion of his fiancé, Emily Sellwood, Tennyson titled his newly made long poem In Memoriam.

Clearly, Tennyson intended to organize his lyrics into a single, long poem modeled on the pastoral elegy. Like its great predecessors in English, John Milton’s Lycidas (1638) and Percy Shelley’s Adonais (1821), the poem loosely follows the conventions of that type of poem, beginning with an invocation to the deity, then moving to an examination of the speaker’s grief at the death of his friend, a commentary on the funeral, a digression on a larger theme, and finally a statement expressing a belief that all is well—actually an affirmation of the doctrine of immortality. What makes his elegy distinct, however, is his superimposition of a decidedly Christian framework on the classical form. This framework can be seen in his organization of the lyrics and in his inclusion of specifically Christian references.

The poem consists of nine large segments made up of a varying number of lyrics. For example, the first segment consists of eight lyrics that reveal the speaker’s grief at the loss of his friend. The second group of twelve lyrics describes the return of his friend’s body to England for burial. The third segment, seven lyrics, depicts his recollections of the dead friend. The remaining segments continue this irregular pattern, but the shift from topic to topic is clearly noticeable.

The fourth segment marks the first important contrast with traditional elegies; included is a poem on the first Christmas after the friend’s death, contrasting the happy celebration of the birth of the Savior with the sorrow the speaker feels at his personal loss. Twice more in the poem (in the seventh and eighth segments) the celebration of Christmas marks a point for special reflection. Before these occur, however, Tennyson inserts a major segment in which the speaker experiences grave doubts about the relationship of God and man, as he contemplates new scientific discoveries about the nature of the world. The speaker wonders how a benevolent God could have created a world in which “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” seems to have no regard for individuals or even species. Following this fifth segment, however, the speaker is buoyed by reflections of his friend, whom he sees as a harbinger of a greater race of humans, toward which humankind is steadily evolving. In the final segment the speaker celebrates the return of hope to his life, a hope symbolized by the...

(The entire section is 1,876 words.)