Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
In Memoriam is Tennyson’s elegiac tribute to his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly in September, 1833. Hallam’s death dealt a particularly harsh blow to the poet. Almost immediately, Tennyson began attempting to capture his sense of loss and feelings of grief in brief lyrical sketches. He worked on these lyrics for seventeen years, revising and arranging them in a pattern that would give the disparate poems a central unity of purpose.
Tennyson’s work follows the traditional pattern of the elegy, first established by the Greeks and appropriated by English poets such as John Milton in “Lycidas” (1638) and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821). There is a central figure who speaks in the first person to mourn the loss of a friend; feeling that he has been left behind in a world that also is touched with this loss, the speaker examines his emotions and looks outside himself for solace. His examination of the world around him leads him to realize that, though gone, his friend is still with him in spirit; that realization gives the one who remains in the world some hope, usually for reunion in the afterlife.
Unusual among the great elegies in English, In Memoriam tells its story of loss and recovery through a series of interconnected lyrics, over 130 in all; each remains a self-contained unit, but the collection traces the feelings of a central character who experiences, in turn, grief, confusion, despair, personal resolution, and, finally, hope. Several critics have pointed out the similarities between Tennyson’s elegy and William Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, which also carries forward a single story beneath the individual lyrics.
Though the poet employs a first-person voice in almost all the lyrics, the central speaker, or “I,” of the poem should not automatically be identified with Tennyson himself. In various notes to his work, the poet cautions that he is sometimes using the speaker to represent all of humankind struggling to understand the sense of loss that has come upon it as a result of scientific discoveries that have shattered its faith in the afterlife. The speaker passes through several emotional stages: from grief and despair resulting from the immediacy and the immensity of his loss, through a period of doubt, to a state of hope based on his faith that there is a divine entity guiding humanity’s destiny. The progress of the poet’s feelings is marked by the three Christmas seasons celebrated in the work. During the first and second Christmases, the poet’s feelings are scarred by his loss; during the third, however, he is able to rejoice in the realization that his friend, though vanished from the earth, awaits their reunion in heaven, where he has gone after fulfilling his role on earth. Hallam becomes for Tennyson a symbol of an idea that the poet and his contemporaries were slowly coming to accept and investigate: the idea of progress. By the end of his elegy, Tennyson is celebrating Hallam as the precursor of a new age that will be greater and more blessed for the world; Hallam, like Christ, is a harbinger of better times, and the poet is able to take solace in having been able to share his acquaintance and love.
The note of optimism in the final stanzas of the epilogue is reached only after the poet has agonized long over doubts about both his personal future and the future of the human race. A particularly poignant series of lyrics (ones often anthologized out of the context of the entire series) deals directly with the implications of new discoveries about evolution, and in them the speaker, comparing himself to “an infant, crying in the night,” agonizes over the possibility that “nature, red in tooth and claw” is governed not by a beneficent deity but by senseless forces that serve no higher purpose.
The critic T. S. Eliot once observed that the greatness of In Memoriam lies not in its final message of hope, but in the quality of doubt that permeates the central lyrics. Nevertheless, the marriage that Tennyson describes in the epilogue is clearly intended to suggest the resiliency of humankind and the promise that life will continue, if not for individuals, then at least for the human race as a whole. Not only will life go on, Tennyson implies, but it will improve, and Hallam has been an early messenger of these better times. For this the poet is thankful, for he has been able to associate with one who symbolizes the great future that the world is to enjoy.
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