Critical Essay on “Proem”
The difficulty one finds in approaching a work like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Proem” is one that troubles anyone practicing literary criticism and, in fact, anyone trying to understand life: how much should be examined at any one time? Even with an average poem, possibilities abound, since there exists any extent of background information that could be useful for helping readers comprehend the lines on the page in front of them. Biographical information is often referred to, and so are similar poems from the poet’s canon, or poems written around the same time, or poems that clearly influence the subject matter.
“Proem” has all of these elements. It is the introduction to a longer piece, In Memoriam A. H. H. . The most obvious direction that a line of inquiry might be inclined to take is toward the larger poem, to see how this segment compares to the whole. Furthermore, this entire work deals with the most moving, significant event in Tennyson’s otherwise stuffy literary life, the death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The magnitude of this one event was so compelling to Tennyson that the bulk of his work in his important formative years, from twenty-four to forty, was spent trying to capture the experience in this one work. Most of Tennyson’s poetry deals with subjects drawn from classical literature. The temptation to explore him through In Memoriam is strong, and could easily be justified as a rare opportunity that must not be ignored.
Finally, there is the fact that “Proem” is a part of the larger work, and should only be separated from it when absolutely necessary. One of the most influential poets in modern literature, T. S. Eliot, explicitly warned readers that it would be a mistake to break down In Memoriam, to examine any individual part, realizing the damage that such an act could do to the entire piece. In his discussion of In Memoriam, Eliot asserted that “the poem has to be comprehended as a whole. We may not memorize a few passages, we cannot find a ‘fair sample’; we have to comprehend the whole of a poem which is essentially the length that it is.” Given Eliot’s stature, it might be a good idea to do just as he commands, assuming he knows best on poetic matters.
Those are the reasons for examining “Proem” in a larger context. There are also very good reasons, though, for letting this piece stand as an individual unit and examining it as such. For one thing, it was written separately, after the rest of the poem was already done. This introductory section ends with the date 1849, which shows it to have been one of the last pieces written. As much as Tennyson wanted it to be a part of In Memoriam, he also gave it some degree of autonomy by drawing attention to the fact that it was written out of sequence with the other sections that have been pieced together for this poem.
And, regardless of the poet’s intentions, the fact remains that “Proem” actually stands independently. It has a definite beginning and end, assigned to it by the author: looking at this one segment without the context of the rest of the poem would not be anything like, as Eliot implies, taking a random section from the middle and pretending that it is supposed to have meaning. In a case like that, the reader defines what the piece is saying by defining its length, separating it from other information that it is tied to; in this case, though, it already has its own independent identity. As much as the case exists for looking around any one artistic piece in order to draw intellectual connections to the facts of the author’s life or to other things that he wrote, still there is at least a reasonable case to be made for considering a poem like this as its own freestanding entity, in order to see what it, alone, says.
And that, ultimately, is the deciding factor. The piece does have a context, as every work of art will, but focusing too much on the context can actually drive readers away from its unique significance,...
(The entire section is 20,820 words.)