In Memoriam, unquestionably one of the four greatest elegies of English literature, records the intellectual, emotional, religious, and aesthetic changes Alfred, Lord Tennyson underwent in the sixteen-year period following the early and tragic death of his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in Vienna, on September 15, 1833. The year In Memoriam was first published, 1850, was also the year Tennyson married Emily Sellwood and succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate.
In Memoriam, the poem for which Tennyson is most remembered, is organized structurally around the three Christmas lyrics strategically placed within the sequence. It bears resemblances not only to the classical elegies and their English counterparts, most notably John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1638) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais (1821), but also to the common thematic pattern used to describe the Victorian crisis of faith so aptly characterized in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-1834): the movement from despair (Carlyle’s “Everlasting No”) through a period of questioning and doubt (“The Center of Indifference”) to a final affirmation of the sense of human existence (“The Everlasting Yea”) reached when one is convinced that there is an ultimate purpose to life, even if that purpose is veiled from humankind.
The similarities of Tennyson’s poem to Sartor Resartus occur not only in structure but in imagery: the poet repeatedly uses “the veil” to suggest a separation between his own world and his dead friend’s and between himself and God. Another common image appearing throughout the poem is the hand of his dead friend, metaphorically reaching out toward the despairing narrator to touch him and reassure him that his suffering is not in vain.
The poem is not, however, simply an expression of personal grief. Although the “I” of In Memoriam is sometimes clearly associated with the poet, Tennyson himself said that it is frequently intended to represent “the voice of the human race speaking thro’ him.” The poet’s personal grief and doubt become a microcosm for the suffering being endured by nineteenth century men and women who were losing faith in received religion, because the advances in science were leading to the conclusion that there was no divine hand guiding existence. The speaker suffers from his loss, but he eventually accepts the notion that, despite the outward signs of chaos, the world is really evolving into something better; his friend Hallam comes to be seen as a harbinger of a “higher race” that will lead humankind to God.
Thus, In Memoriam represents the chief Victorian conflict of science and faith as truly as any work of its era; Tennyson’s attempt to reconcile the religious doubts arising from his personal sorrow and the effects of pre-Darwinian theories of evolution was hailed by thinkers of his time as an intellectual landmark. The cyclic change—the turn from private grief and despair to the larger public vision and concern for wider, social issues—that can be found in this poem reflects Tennyson’s growing acceptance of and reconciliation with the problems of his age.
It appears that Tennyson did not think of publishing the 131 lyrics of In Memoriam until late in the 1840’s, when he brought them together as one poem, arranged so the three-year time scheme of the poem would reflect the sixteen-year period of his life that they represent. These lyrics were written over a long time span, and they vary considerably in the tone and mood of reaction to Hallam’s death, thus dramatizing lyrically Tennyson’s psychological condition. Although many organizational schemes have been offered, the most generally accepted views the poem as illustrating a movement from initial grief (1-27), to philosophic doubt and despair (28-77), to rising hope (78-103), and to affirmation of faith (104-131). The actual growth is more subtle than this and requires close attention to repeated images, such as the two yew-tree poems or...
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