Tennyson's Poems Summary and Analysis
"In Memoriam A.H.H."
The poet addresses the Son of God, He in whom men must put their faith. God made man in his image even though humans do not know why. The poet asks God to help make his will, and he hopes his own knowledge and faith will grow. Men often mock God when they do not fear anything, and they are “fools and slight.” He asks for forgiveness for his tremendous grief for his departed friend who, he now trusts, lives in God. He asks that these youthful and wandering cries be forgiven, and he asks to be given wisdom.
The poet once thought that men could rise on stepping stones “Of their dead selves to higher things,” but now it is hard to contemplate the reality of loss and find any gain within it.
An old Yew tree has deep bones in the earth. The seasons change, and the clock ticks away the hours of men. The tree never changes, though, and when the poet gazes on the “sullen” tree, he admires its “stubborn hardihood” and seems to meld his own self with the tree.
Sorrow whispers terrible things in the poet’s ears, and he wonders if he should not embrace her as natural or crush her as she enters the threshold of his mind.
During sleep the poet gives his powers away. His heart muses on the memory of his loss, and these thoughts flit before his closed eyes at night. When he wakes, his will warns him not to be “the fool of loss.”
The poet believes that sometimes it is pointless to use mere words to express grief, because they can only half reveal the Soul. However, for a tortured heart words are a mechanical exercise that can numb the dull pain. He will wrap himself in words although they can only suggest the outline of his grief.
Even though death is common, it does not lessen his grief over his deceased friend. A father waits for his son to come home, but he is shot and dies. A mother waits for her sailor son, but he drowns. A young woman waits for her lover, but she learns he has drowned or has died falling from his horse. She will have no end, and the poet will have no good.
The poet waits by the house where he used to live, but he is not here anymore. Life begins far off and day begins.
A happy lover rings the doorbell of his beloved’s home, but she is not there. This is what the poet feels when he goes to the places where he and his friend used to meet; now “all is dark where thou art not.”
A fair ship sails from the Italian shore with Arthur’s remains. The poet asks the ship to sail over quickly. He hopes the light will be bright and the heavens sleepy before the prow and the winds calm. This sleep is like the sleep of his dear friend, dearer than his own brothers, and whom he will not see again until “all my widow’d race be run.”
The poet thinks of a ship, hearing its bell and seeing it cabin windows and the sailor at the wheel. This ship brings home sailors to their wives and men from far away. A fancy strikes, and the poet wonders if the ship might bring Arthur home, too.
Nature is calm; the morning is silent, peace reigns, gossamers twinkle, light is still. This mirrors the poet’s “calmer grief” and “calm despair.”
A dove flies up to Heaven to bring a sad story, her wings pulsing energetically. The poet feels that, similarly, he cannot stay on earth. He wants to be a “weight of nerves without a mind” and hasten his spirit away over oceans, across the skies, and linger. He will sit and wonder, “Is this the end?” Then he will return to his body and learn that he has been gone an hour.
Tears drop from the eyes of a widower when he feels the empty space beside him in bed. The widower will be silent, and the poet will be silent too. He remembers the friend he lost, who is now “A Spirit, not a breathing voice.” Time passé,s and there is leisure to weep and to entertain fancies, such as his friend being on the ship whose sails he observes coming in from the horizon.
If someone came to the poet and told him that his friend was newly arrived at the port, that he was embarking with the other passengers, that he would place his hand in the poet’s and ask how things were at home, that the poet would tell him all about his own life, that there would be no intimation of death or change, he would “not feel it to be strange.”
Nature is in tumult –the winds rise, the forests cracks, the waters curl, the sunbeam “strikes the world.” The poet feels the same unrest in his woe.
The poet wonders at the words he utters; he wonders, can “calm despair and wild unrest” be “tenants of a single breast?” He wonders if the shock he felt at Arthur’s death has confused him, as a ship striking a craggy cliff in the middle of the night and blindly sinking. He wonders if the shock has made him a “delirious man” who combines both the past and the future and the false and the true.
The poet notes that the ship carrying Arthur came quickly and was “much wept for.” The ship brings the “precious relics” of his friend, whom he will not see again until he departs the earth as well.
It is some comfort to stand at Arthur’s grave. The poet feels like the little life he has left is enduring with pain but forming a “firmer mind” while he remembers and treasures the looks and words of his departed friend.
The poet compares his grief to the great rivers of the Danube, the Severn, and the Wye. He writes that when the Wye is hushed and still, his grief is hushed and full, not brimming into tears. When the Wye’s tide flows and waves are vocal, then the poet’s anguish is given utterance.
The poet feels many griefs, some light and comforted by words, others deep and profound.
The poet sings at the grave of his friend. One man speaks harshly, saying his song is too weak and melancholy. Another says to let the poet be since he loves to “make parade of pain.” A third wonders if this mournful song is irrelevant given political and social turmoil in the world. All the poet knows is that “I do but sing because I must.”
The poet and his departed friend traversed the familiar path for four sweet years, cheery and full of song. At the fifth year, when the path slanted, the Shadow whom men fear waited. The “fair companionship” was broken, and the friend was taken away; the poet cannot see or follow. He knows that somewhere the Shadow waits for him, too.
The poet in his sorrow sometimes dwells on sorrow and the Shadow of death. He remembers his time with his friend when “Thought leapt out to wed with Thought / Ere Thought could wed itself with Speech” and “all we met was fair and good.”
The poet wonders if the “day of my delight,” or his past with his friend, was as pure and perfect as he thought, especially as day is always tinged with the night. He wondered if it was truly a Paradise, or if the “haze of grief” has made the past seem greater than it was. Perhaps the past is always more glorious because it is far away.
The poet knows about life and its burdens, but he loved the weight he carried because it was assisted by Love. He could never become weary when Love would cut his burden in half and give that half to his friend to carry.
The poet winds along the path and tries to show that no amount of time can “canker Love.”
The poet does not envy captives without rage, or birds born in cages, or beasts without conscience. Even when he feels sorrow, he knows it is “better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
It is Christmas time, and the bells ring out in the hamlets. This year the poet slept and then awoke with pain and almost wished that he would never wake up again. The bells of Yule now bring “sorrow touch’d with joy.”
It seems strange that with so much despair in the household they keep the rituals of Christmas Eve. The welcome guest will not arrive and bring joy and jest.
A rainy cloud takes possession of the earth on Christmas Eve, and while they undertake the old pastimes they feel the weight of the Shadow. They listen to the winds, and their voices fall silent. Last year they sang merrily and impetuously. Now they start to sing again, their words ringing out that even though the dead are gone they do not change in the minds and hearts of the living, and that they hope the morning will rise and “Draw forth the cheerful day from the night.”
Lazarus rises from the dead after four days, and even though his sister asks where he was, there is no reply. Neighbors celebrate that man raised by Christ, but he does not reveal what happened between his death and resurrection.
After Lazarus rises from the dead, Mary anointed and washed Christ’s feet. Her love is emblematic of perfect, “higher love.”
The poet counsels a brother not to scoff at his sister’s simple faith, which is “as pure as thine.”
The poet believes that the soul will continue living after death, that it is immortal. The poet also thinks it best to simply sink into death and darkness and cease being.
A voice from the grave might say that there is no living after death, no hope in the dust. The poet might try to hold off this thought, but then he listens to the moaning of the sea and the streams and thinks about the dust of the land and how the vastness of the ages seems to war against Love.
Wisdom and truth have to be attained through the limited powers of the human mind. They are filtered through the Gospel, which can allow man to be influential.
Urania, known as the muse of astronomy or heavenly poetry, tells Melpomene, the goddess of elegiac poetry, that she is neither welcome nor effective here. Melpomene responds in shame that she is not worthy to speak of such mysteries and is only an earthly muse. She can do little but lull a grieving heart or embody human love.
The poet loiters and lingers on. In song he finds a “doubtful gleam of solace.”
The poet reflects on the yew tree again in its dark grasping of the stones. Sorrow darkens the graves of men and kindles the gloom of the tree.
The poet compares the passing of Hallam to a young maiden leaving her mother and father and entering “other realms of love.” He addresses Hallam, saying he is sure that he has a life that has borne immortal fruit “In those great offices that suit / The full-grown energies of heaven.” The poet thinks about their separation. His life is traversing the paths he knows, while Hallam’s is in “undiscover’d lands.”
The poet wishes he could break the bonds tying him to the sublunary life and “leap the grades of life and light.” He seems to be in a Dantean middle ground between heaven and hell.
The poet knows that Hallam has gone ahead and “outstript me in the race.” He wonders what delight is equal to the deep spiritual delight of desiring and learning a truth from someone who also loves that truth and knows it.
The poet wonders whether Sleep and Death are truly one—whether the spirit’s bloom will slumber in a long trance. This would mean that nothing is ever actually lost to man, and love will continue on “pure and whole” after death just as in life and the time when Hallam loved him.
The poet wonders how the “happy dead” fare, and whether the dead remember their time on earth. Although the days have gone, perhaps “A little flash, a mystic tint” illuminates their consciousness.
When a baby is born he is not aware of his self, but as he grows he understands “I” and “me.” He gains a separate, distinct mind and individual consciousness. Life would be completely pointless if man lost all connection to this earthly life and had to start his quest for identity anew after death. Surely man retains some of his identity and soul after death.
The poet and Hallam venture down the “lower track,” and the poet looks back at the time that is now growing shadowed. However, after death he will be able to comprehend the “eternal landscape of the past” and see his five years with Hallam as the “richest field” of his life.
The poet does not want to believe that all separate souls, when they die, merge with the universal godhead. This idea is “vague” and “unsweet.” He hopes that after death one’s identity and personality are not totally obliterated, and that he can sit with Hallam at “endless feast,” each talking about “the other’s good.”
The poet declaims any attempt to solve these religious difficulties, as his comments come from Sorrow. She does not “part and prove,” and no one should try to “draw / The deepest measure from the chords.”
The influences of art, philosophy, and nature are like flimsy and transparent rays of light breaking on pools of water. A traveler can look and contemplate, but he should continue along his way and not blame mental perturbations like that for his sorrow.
The poet asks Hallam to be near him when his faith droops, his heart is sick, and his blood “creeps.” He is racked with the harshness of time and life, and he feels his faith is dry. He wants Hallam near him when he fades away.
The poet wonders if the living truly want the dead by their side. What if he wants to hide his “baseness” or “inner vileness”?
The poet says he cannot love Hallam as he ought because humans cannot sustain perfect love, as of Christ, without having the physical presence of the loved one. However, the spirit of this love can endure, counseling the poet to be content in the faith that the perfect, ideal love will survive human weakness and time.
Even though a now sober and mature father was once a foolish rake, it is not good to let youth think they can do as they desire and will turn out fine regardless. It is necessary to “Hold thou the good: define it well.”
Men trust that good will win out over ill, that “nothing walks with aimless feet” and everything has a purpose. Men think that the vagaries of nature mean something. However, this trust is hard to maintain, for men know nothing. The poet is like an infant who can only believe in what he sees. His faith is shaken by the realities of the rational evidence against immortality.
The poet wonders if God and Nature are at strife, meaning if the evidence found in Nature denies the immortality of the soul. Nature seems utterly careless of “the single life” and is capable of waste and chaos. The poet stretches his feeble hands out and tries to muster his faith.
The poet does not think Nature is careful at all. He notes that species have gone extinct. She cares for nothing. Man, who is “her last work, who seem’d so fair” and who trusted God, is at odds against Nature, “red in tooth and claw.” She cares nothing for his creed and his battling for the good and the just. He begins to think life is futile and frail, and he hopes for Hallam’s voice to answer him or offer redress.
The poet seems to be talking to his sister, gently telling her to get up and come away from the grave. They sing too wildly, and her cheeks are pale.
The poet says goodbye to the sad words that echo as if in a sepulchral hall. The words fall idly like drops of water. The Muse tells him not to grieve with a “fruitless tear” but to stay a bit longer, compose himself, and depart nobly. A glimmer of hope has arrived.
The poet wants Sorrow to live with him as a wife. This is an unavoidable situation, but sometimes Sorrow will be lovely and sometimes the poet will be able to put his passionate grief aside and “have leave at times to play.”
Hallam has passed on to a sphere where he is far removed from the poet. This is as a young woman who falls in love with a man outside her social class. She is envious of his peers and resentful of her own place. She wonders how he could love a “thing so low.”
The poet thinks about Hallam in the afterlife, surrounded by a circle of saints, looking down at him. It will be dim and the poet will grow darker, but Hallam should remember how deeply the poet loved him.
If Hallam is dismayed by the poet’s “downward cast” eye, then the poet hopes that Hallam will think of his love for him as an old tale, or a “fading legend of the past.” Someday they will be rejoined and will be like two people of equal mind who have wed.
If the poet can look to lesser forms like horses and dogs and feel pity and reverence for them, without incurring the wrath of heaven, then surely Hallam should be able to look down on the poet from his larger and deeper celestial orbit.
The poet wonders if Hallam looks down at his past life on earth. Hallam began his life in a “simple village green” and forcefully made “his merit known.” Even though he ascended to great heights, surely he must pause and look on the past in its sweetness, feeling grateful for his childhood and the friends of his youth.
The poet sings his song and knows that a part of Hallam lives on in his song. He hopes that maybe “a part of mine may live in thee / And move thee on to noble ends.”
Addressing this poem to another friend, the poet concedes that such a friend thinks his heart too gloomy. However, his grief allows him to act kindly towards others—jesting with friends, playing with children. He still feels the “night of loss” in his “inner day” but can find pleasure in others.
At night when immersed in sleep, the poet can picture the moonlight falling across Hallam’s grave. The marble headstone, having the beloved name and showing the years on earth, looms before him.
In the first dream, the poet feels that Death comes upon him and regulates his breathing like Death’s companion, Sleep, is wont to do. He then dreams of walking with Hallam when their friendship was new, When all our path was fresh with dew.” He observes a mote of sadness in Hallam’s eye. When he wakes, he realizes he was projecting his own sadness over Hallam’s death into the dream.
The poet dreams that Spring will never come again and “Nature’s ancient power was lost.” Like Christ, in the dream the poet puts on a crown of thorns and wanders through a town filled with hostile people who jeer and mock him. An angel speaks to him in a voice he cannot understand, but the angel smiles at the crown.
In the gloom of half-sleep the poet tries to remember Hallam’s face but finds it difficult. Only after he sinks fully into that unconscious state does the vision emerge.
Sleep, which is the relative of trance and madness and death, brings memories of an 1830 trip undertaken by the poet and Hallam to the Pyrenees. The poet remembers their walks and conversations of “men and minds, the dust of change.”
It is the first anniversary of Hallam’s death. On this day living flowers falter and die, the daisy shuttering its petals. The day is “as wan, as chill, as wild as snow” and seems “mark’d with some hideous crime.” The poet hopes the hours of the day will progress quickly: “Climb thy thick noon, disastrous day.”
There are many worlds and many things to do within them. The poet thought he needed Hallam here, but perhaps Hallam has a higher purpose elsewhere.
In his mind’s eye the poet looks on Hallam’s face and sees kinship with “the great of old.” He does not want to say exactly what he sees, but Death has made “His darkness beautiful with thee.”
The poet does not use verse to express his grief even though it brings relief, leaving it to be guessed how great Hallam was. There is no need to cry out; now “silence will guard thy fame.” Wherever Hallam is now, though, he is without doubt doing something that is “wrought with tumult of acclaim.”
Using one’s wings of fancy, imagine all of heaven is “sharpen’d to a needle’s end” and all of time can be glimpsed. Then even the songs of the greatest and most venerated poets are useless and will wither. What then does that say about the poems of the last fifty years?
There seems little hope for “modern rhyme” when one looks at the vast expanse of time. These poems can serve small purposes, like binding books or lining boxes, but they are ultimately forgotten. However, the poet says he will not stop composing them because they give vent to his sorrow: “My darken’d ways / Shall ring with music all the same; / To breathe my loss is more than fame.”
It is the second Christmas after Hallam’s death. There is a quiet sense of “something lost,” but loud tears and expressions of pain are not present. There are games and dance and song. The poet wonders if sorrow truly can wane, grief “changed to less?” It seems possible to return to life and hope.
Presumably addressing this poem to his brother Charles, the poet brings up a line from one of the earlier poems in In Memoriam, “More than my brothers are to me.” He tells his brother not to take that too seriously, that “thou and I are one in kind” and “At one dear knee we proffer’d vows.”
The poet says that occasionally he will have a thought that he wishes he had died before Arthur did, and he realizes that Arthur would have been much more pious than he in the midst of grief. He feels a sense of contentment in his contemplation of his friend: “Unused examples from the grave / Reach out dead hands to comfort me.”
The poet wonders whether their friendship had reached its fullest expression, but he doubts this, wondering whether more years would have “made me love thee more.” On reflection, however, when Arthur was snatched by Death, it caused immediate attainment of the fullness of their relationship.
The poet no longer feels like he is warring with Death; Hallam’s spirit has left the “ruin’d chrysalis” of his body and ascended. The poet is confident that “transplanted human worth / Will bloom to profit, otherwhere.” The only thing he is truly sad about is the fact that they are separated and cannot talk to each other.
The poet wants the return of Spring, and feels like it is delaying for too long. The longer it delays, it keeps the sorrow “in my blood”; he wants the “frozen bud” to burst and embrace a fresh song.
The poet thinks about what life would have been like if Hallam had not died. He would have married Emily and had boys who would have called him Uncle. Now he sees their “unborn faces shine.” He would have been a guest at their house, and they would have grown old with silver hair together. Both of their time would run out, and they would go to the other shore together as “a single soul.” Thinking about these lost possibilities makes the poet discontented and bitter again.
The poet knows that his earlier line that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all is, for him, “true in word and tried in deed.” Arthur ascended and was welcomed by the “great Intelligences” above, while the poet remained anchored to the earth. However, even though he was left alone, he feels “His being working in mine own, / The footsteps of his life in mine.” He is now able to have other friends. Even though his heart is “widow’d” he wants to give “the imperfect gift I bring” to new friends. This poem is a turning point.
Nature is joyous and cleansing; a light wind brushes the fever away from the poet’s cheek and fills him with a sense of new life. The spirits whisper “Peace.”
The poet returns to Trinity College, Cambridge, which he and Hallam attended together. He walks past the halls, hears a roar from afar of rowers, hears the noise of the organs. He comes to the room that used to be Hallam’s; a new name is there. He remembers his group of friends (the Apostles) and their conversations on life and art.
The poet wants the nightingale to tell how sorrow and joy are intertwined and where “the passions meet.” He feels that this is difficult because he “cannot all command the strings.”
On the lawn at Somersby with its lovely foliage, Arthur loved to sit in the shadows of the elms. He found joy in this idyllic retreat, and a circle would draw about him. Sometimes he would read the Tuscan poets, and occasionally a guest or a sister sang and played the harp. Everyone discussed books and politics and philosophy.
Some people say that if the dead were to come back to life they would find things awry; they would find “an iron welcome.” Their wives would be with someone else and their sons will have taken over their lands. The poet acknowledges that “confusion worse than death” might exist, but he still wants Hallam to come back, and he cannot abide by any thought that this would not be preferable.
The poet wants Hallam’s spirit to come visit him in the warmth of spring and summer.
The poet thinks that if he ever had a vision wherein he saw the likeness of Hallam, he would believe it “a canker of the brain.” He is hesitant to ever really believe that his deceased friend’s spirit could come to him, and that he would accept it.
The poet knows that no spirit has ever left the land where they now reside, and that his senses are not able to perceive such an occasion if it did occur. However, the spirit may come through a different sense unrelated to sight or touch or hearing, “where all the nerve of sense is numb.”
To commune with the spirit, one must be “pure at heart and sound in head.” If one is in a tumult of the mind, the spirit can only “listen at the gates, / And hear the household jar within.”
The poet communes on the lawn with companions, with “the silvery haze of summer drawn.” Old songs are sung, but eventually the poet is left alone. He feels a sense of hunger and begins reading some of Hallam’s old letters. He then experiences a mystical trance and finds he cannot put his experience into words. His soul has communed with Hallam’s on another plane. This poem is considered the climax of the larger work.
Someone tells the poet that doubt is from the devil, but he disagrees; he believes that a faith that comes from doubt and conflict is stronger “than in half the creeds.”
The poet compares his relationship with Hallam to that of a simple wife with her abstruse and erudite husband. She lives a lonely life, and her husband seems so far away. She does not know quite how great he is, and she only knows about household matters while he “knows a thousand things.” The poet is the wife, earthbound and human, and Hallam is the husband, existing on another plane and possessed of knowledge he has not yet attained.
Addressing his brother Charles, who is traveling to Vienna, the poet ruminates on how he never wants to see that city where Hallam died. For him Evil haunts that city. This contrasts with what Hallam had always told him about the vivid and lively Austrian capital.
It is the anniversary of Hallam’s death again, and the day dawns. Nature is full of growth and movement. There are others, though, who will mourn as kindred spirits with the poet.
The poet wanders the land of Somersby before he relocates to High Beech, Epping Forest. He feels that every aspect of the landscape is filled with memories of Hallam, and it pains him to leave it. It feels like “once more he seems to die.”
The poet reflects on the beloved home in Somersby that he will soon be leaving. He knows that new people will move there and time will pass and the landscape “grow / Familiar to the stranger’s child.” Eventually the land will forget him.
The poet continues to reflect on his departure from his beloved home. He walks about the garden paths, and two spirits debate with each other. One reminds the poet of how he spent his boyhood here in the most pleasant fashion, and the other reminds him that this was where he resided during the most profound hours of grief after his friend died. The spirits eventually merge into one “pure image of regret.”
On the last night before he leaves Somersby, the poet has a vision. He dreams that he and a few maidens, personifying the Muses/the arts, travel down the river to the sea. This voyage symbolizes the journey from life to death. The poet meets Hallam, and he and the maidens are allowed to ascend the plank to the great ship where Hallam waits for them.
It is the third Christmas since Hallam’s death, and the bells of the poet’s new home are unfamiliar to him. They sound like strangers’ voices in this new land “where not a memory strays.”
In this strange land on Christmas Eve the poet desires solemn reverence, not wine or dance or feast.
In this wildly optimistic and hopeful poem, the poet addresses the bells tolling the new year. He calls for them to “ring in the true,” the “nobler modes of life,” the “love of truth and right,” the “thousand years of peace” and “the Christ that is to be” while ringing out the false, strife, coldness, sadness, and wars.
It is Hallam’s birthday; he would have been 27. The poet and others who love him celebrate the day “With books and music, surely we / Will drink to him, whate’er he be.”
The poet is determined not to shut himself off to the world or to “stiffen into stone.” He does not want to be alone, and he wants to remain alive as a human; after all, sorrow may make one wise.
Hallam’s greatness was revealed in his “discursive talk.” He was intelligent and impassioned, logical and hopeful. He had a “High nature amorous of the good,” the perfect fusion of masculinity and “female grace.”
Hallam’s powers of discourse delighted and energized men young and old, and the poet always felt proud to listen to him. From his love for Hallam comes the vague desire to imitate his friend’s prowess.
Hallam is a better man than the rest of the churls with their “coltish nature.”
The poet extols Hallam as one with a higher wisdom and a “novel power.”
The poet muses on what great earthly positions—a “potent voice of Parliament,” a “soul on highest mission sent”—Hallam would have achieved if he had not died.
The poet discusses the differences between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is much beloved and can do good work, but she is also childlike and cannot “fight the fear of death.” She needs a higher hand to guide her, especially as she is “earthly of the mind.” It is wisdom, “heavenly of the soul,” which must direct knowledge to her purpose.
Spring has come again, and the poet feels happiness waken within his breast.
The keenness of the new April spring does not bring regret, for the departed friend’s voice still comes to him. He is no longer ruing the loss of the friendship, but looking forward to “some strong bond which is to be.”
Time, no matter how it is measured, is not something entirely onerous; it is a way to count down the time until the poet and Hallam meet again.
The poet reflects on geologic findings and concludes that the seeming randomness of Nature does not mean that humans are disposable and useless. Man can attain his status as “The herald of a higher race” if he sloughs off the baser inheritance that comes from his race. This is an important refutation of the poet’s earlier despair over Nature’s seeming rendering of Man as irrelevant and God as nonexistent.
The poet stands before the door’s of Hallam’s old house and remembers how quickly his heart used to beat. He remembers the early days.
The poet challenges Science to prove that men are merely “wholly brain, / Magnetic mockeries.” He exults in the return of his faith in a higher faith. It is an attack on materialism, not evolution.
The poet addresses the evening star, Hesper, and the morning star, Phosphor, which are the same thing and the name for the planet Venus. In love the two are united, as are the poet’s past and present.
The poet remembers a previous occasion, perhaps the trance from No. 95, when he felt as if he and Hallam were one.
The poet contrasts geological changes in the land with the permanence of his spirit in which he dwells and “[dreams] my dream, and [holds] it true.”
The poet finds God not in the natural world or in the process of rational thought but in feeling, in emotion.
Even though some of the things the poet said in his grief were bitter, Hope “never lost her youth.” Hallam is part of all of the poet’s song. The poet dreams of meeting Hallam again when he leaves to “seek thee on the mystic deeps.”
The poet says Love is his Lord and King and comforts him by bringing him tidings of his friend.
Religious convulsions may occur, but Hallam looks down and smiles, knowing that things will work out for the good.
Love became stronger in the poet after Hallam’s death. Everything “as in some piece of art, / Is toil cooperant to an end.”
The poet remembers his dear friend and says that for him, Hallam can never die. Hallam is a mixture of the human and the divine.
The poet feels that everything in Nature and God is permeated with the memory and spirit of Hallam. He feels his love is fuller and richer now.
Divine will infuses and prevails in all things, and will come to its fruition when “we close with all we loved, / And all we flow from, soul in soul.”
Although written later than advertised, the poem is written as if the poet writes on the day of his sister Cecilia’s wedding to Edmund Lushington. He remembers that Hallam loved one of his sisters, too, and foretold how lovely Cecilia would be. He gives an account of the wedding day and then retires. The moon is bright and silver. The poet reflects on the ability of men to achieve a higher state and for their race to progress. He thinks of Hallam, “a noble type” who now “lives in God.”
“In Memoriam” is often considered Tennyson’s greatest poetic achievement. It is a stunning and profoundly moving long poem consisting of a prologue, 131 cantos/stanzas, and an epilogue. It was published in 1850, but Tennyson began writing the individual poems in 1833 after learning that his closest friend, the young Cambridge poet Arthur Henry Hallam, had suddenly died at age 22 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Over the course of seventeen years Tennyson worked on and revised the poems, but he did not initially intend to publish them as one long work.
When he prepared “In Memoriam” (initially planning on calling it “The Way of the Soul”) for publication, Tennyson placed the poems in an order to suit the major thematic progressions of the work; thus, the poems as published are not in the order in which they were written. Even with the reordering of the poems, there is no single unified theme. Grief, loss and renewal of faith, survival, and other themes compete with one another.
The work is notoriously difficult, and it is unclear how much other poets have appreciated it. T.S. Eliot stated that it is “the most unapproachable of all [Tennyson’s] poems.” Charlotte Bronte commented that she closed it halfway through, and that “it is beautiful; it is mournful; it is monotonous.” The poem has also brought tremendous comfort to those who seek within its lines a way to assuage and eventually come out of their grief. Queen Victoria famously told Tennyson that it was much comfort to her after her husband, Prince Albert, passed away.
The poem partly belongs to the genre of elegy, which is a poem occasioned by the death of a person. The standard elegy includes ceremonial mourning for the deceased, extolling his virtues, and seeking consolation for his death. Other famous elegies, to which In Memoriam is often compared, include John Milton’s Lycidas, Shelley’s Adonais, and Wordsworth’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The epilogue is also an epithalamion, or a classical wedding celebration poem. The stanzas of the poems have uneven lengths but have a very regular poetic meter. The style, which Tennyson used to such great effect that it is now called the “In Memoriam stanza,” consists of tetrameter quatrains rhymed abba. The lines are short, and the rhythm is strict, which imparts a sense of stasis as well as labor to move from one line to the next.
In terms of structure, Tennyson once remarked that the poem was organized around the three celebrations of Christmas that occur. Other scholars point to different forms of structure. According to scholars A.C. Bradley and E.D.H. Johnson, cantos 1-27 are poems of despair/ungoverned sense/subjective; cantos 28-77 are poems of mind governing sense/despair/objective; cantos 78-102 are poems of spirit governing mind/doubt/subjective; and cantos 103-31 are spirit harmonizing sense and spirit/objective. In terms of the structure of Tennyson’s thoughts on the meaning of poetry, the scholars find a four-part division: poetry as release from emotion, poetry as release from thought, poetry as self-realization, and poetry as mission/prophecy. Canto 95 is seen, from this view, as the climax of the poem.
The most conspicuous theme in the poem is, of course, grief. The poet’s emotional progression from utter despair to hopefulness fits into the structure observed by the scholars. The early poems are incredibly personal and bleak. Tennyson feels abandoned and lost. He cannot sleep and personifies the cruelty of Sorrow, “Priestess in the vaults of Death.” He wonders if poetry is capable of expressing his loss. He wanders by his friend’s old house, sick with sadness. Memory is oppressive. Nature herself seems hostile, chaotic. His grief has a concomitant in a lack of religious faith.
However, as the poems proceed, the poet begins to grapple with his grief and find ways to move beyond it. He learns, as scholar Joseph Becker writes, to “experience deeper layers of grief so that he may transcend the limitations of time and space that Hallam’s death represents.” He has learned to love better and embrace his sorrow, which he now personifies as a wife, not a mistress. He learns that Hallam, while once his flesh-and-blood friend whom he misses dearly, is now a transcendent spiritual being, something the human race can aspire to become. Although Tennyson will never fully recover from the loss of Hallam, he can move forward; the wedding of his other sister establishes this result for him.
One of the reasons why the poem is so lauded by critics is its engagement with some contemporary Victorian religious and scientific debates and discourses. Tennyson is dealing not only with his sorrow over Hallam’s death, but also with the lack of religious faith that came with it. He wonders what the point of life is if man’s individual soul is not immortal after death. His emotions vacillate between doubt and faith. He eventually comes to terms with the fact that Hallam may be gone in bodily form, but that he is a perfect spiritual being whose consciousness endures past his death. Becker writes that Tennyson experiences “renewed faith ... that both individual and human survival are predicated on spiritual rather than physical terms.”
Also, significantly, he ruminates over the new scientific findings of the age, which are forerunners of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In particular, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1846) undermined the biblical story of creation. Several of the cantos deal with the ideas of the randomness and brutality of Nature towards man. Canto LVI has the poet anguishing, “So careful of the type? But no. / From scarped cliff and quarried stone / She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go.’” One of the most famous lines in the English language, “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” is also in this canto.
Tennyson grapples with what all of this means in terms of his religious faith as well as in the context of his loss; death is very, very long. The critic William Flesch observes, “Tennyson feels the utter oppressiveness of the emptiness and vacuity of time that Lyell has so devastatingly demonstrated. Within that, he feels the pain of his mourning for Hallam, a pain that may be sometimes intermittent but is always at the core of his being.” Ultimately, though, the fact that love prevails and persists in the vastness of Nature gives Tennyson the hope he needs to place his faith in transcendence and salvation once more. The poet never rejected the actual findings of Lyell and others, but he certainly saw them as only partial answers to the mysteries of the universe and believed God still cared very much for human beings and that there was hope for such humans to attain a higher state.
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