Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1672
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 the two visits to Hallam’s house.
The “Prologue,” dated 1849, and addressed to “Strong Son of God, immortal Love,” expresses the poet’s conviction that faith, not knowledge, leads to a harmonious union of the intellectual and the spiritual. The first section relates the poet’s nearly complete self-absorption in grief, but even here a change is evident, for example, in the difference between “I held it truth” (1) to “I hold it true” (27). Although Love provides a “higher life” for man hereafter, few can find immediate comfort for present loss in this promise of future tranquillity. Nevertheless, the poet affirms his belief that “’Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” This acceptance of his experience, despite its accompanying sorrow, comes only after intervening poems reveal the true depth of his despair; his identification, for instance, with the yew tree, a symbol of death, shows the poet’s marked conviction that he, like the yew tree that is not subject to seasonal changes, is imprisoned in grief and can merely endure in “stubborn hardihood.”
This fellowship with “Sorrow” (3) induces an intellectual despair and alienates him from comforting Love.
“The stars,” she whispers, “blindly run;A web is woven across the sky;From out waste places comes a cry,And murmurs from the dying sun.”
In one sense, this conception of the universe as a blindly run mechanism is the central intellectual conflict of the poem. In his deep melancholy, Tennyson questions not only the justice of Hallam’s tragic death, but also the justice of the entire creation.
Tennyson moves alternately from numbed despair to self-awareness (4) and finds composing poetry an anodyne for pain (5). Poems 9 through 17 constitute a group unified by the poet’s meditation upon the return of Hallam’s body from Italy by ship. A calmer grief now pervades his heart (11). The pain of grief “slowly forms the firmer mind” (18), but the deeper sorrows that words cannot relieve remain locked in his heart (20). He writes not to parade his emotions publicly but because he must (21).
The second section commences with the first Christmas celebration some three months after Hallam’s death. The poet hears the bells’ message of peace and goodwill but almost wishes never to hear them again. Even in his despondency, however, the bells recall his happy youth, and, touching pain with joy, ease his misery. In the renewal of “old pastimes in the hall” they make a vain pretense (30), but one can find consolation in the thought of an afterlife for the dead, although what that afterlife may be remains unrevealed (31).
The second yew tree poem illustrates a lightening of his burden, for he now sees the tree with “fruitful cloud,” subject to change, as is his grief. The group of poems from 11 to 58 represents Tennyson’s attempt to resolve the question of an afterlife and also the possibility of a reunion with Hallam. These speculations are not meant to solve the problems, he tells us (48), but were “Short swallow-flights of song” that soothed his mind.
In 54, Tennyson expresses the vague “trust that somehow good/ Will be the final goal of ill.” The two following poems call in doubt this qualified optimism, so that all he can permit himself is to “faintly trust the larger hope” (55). In his agitated state of mind, the poet sees nature as “red in tooth and claw” (56). The rest of this section deals with the poet’s former relationship with Hallam.
The third section opens with the second Christmas and finds the poet with the sense of the abiding presence of his friend. His subdued grief allows him to treasure their friendship, “Which masters Time indeed, and is Eternal, separate from fears.”
Tennyson contemplates the possibility of a visitation by Hallam and experiences a mystic trance in 95, when “The dead man touch’d” him “from the past.” The third section concludes with a four-poem series relating to the Tennyson family’s removal from Somersby, with its pleasant and sorrowful associations.
With the fourth and final section, the poet turns from the past and his personal grief to the future of humankind; this change is signaled by the famous lyric “Ring out, wild bells” (106). Tennyson resolves not to allow sorrow to alienate him from society (108). Hallam’s qualities emerge clearly for the first time; in a series of poems, Tennyson praises his friend, particularly for his attributes of leadership and dedication to social good.
Tennyson draws an important distinction in poem 114 of the difference between knowledge and wisdom; with wisdom, man does not fear death since wisdom is of the soul, but knowledge must learn to submit to wisdom and know its place. Acknowledging Love as his lord and king, Tennyson proclaims that all is well (127). His optimism is buttressed by his knowledge that Hallam “O’erlook’st the tumult from afar,/ And smilest, knowing all is well.”
As the elegy draws to a close, the poet more strongly feels the certainty of cosmic design: “That all, as in some piece of art,/ Is toil cooperant to an end” (128). He feels more confident of Hallam’s omnipresence: “Thy voice is on the rolling air;/ I hear thee where the waters run” (130). His love, although founded on their previous earthly relationship, is “vaster passion” now that Hallam’s presence is spiritual and diffused through God and nature. The elegy concludes with the poet’s self-confident assertion of the permanence of the living will that purifies humanity’s deeds and of the faith in truths that will not be proved until after death.
In the epilogue, Tennyson celebrates the marriage of his friend, Edward Lushington, to the poet’s sister. The wedding ceremony is an appropriate subject for the epilogue: It symbolizes the continuation of life and an affirmation of human nature.
Although the work ends on an affirmative note, many critics have found the strengths of In Memoriam to lie principally in its portrayal of doubt. In that sense, it shares affinities with many modern poems. In addition, its fragmented structure suggests something of the modern condition. In these respects, In Memoriam is a precursor to other examinations of contemporary life, such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), among others.