Alfred Lord Tennyson’s adaptation of the elegy in In Memoriam

Updated: Feb 27

By Serena Kerrigan-Noble - English Language and Literature Student @ Lincoln College, Oxford

 

In Memoriam A. H. H. is an extended elegy written by the Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in 1850, a year before he was appointed Poet Laureate. Tennyson’s In Memoriam is both a personal elegy for the death of his friend Arthur Hallam in 1833, as well as an expression of cosmic and universal grief. Hallam’s death became a catalyst in the poem for wider reflection on the destabilising scientific and industrial changes of the Victorian era. Personal loss becomes endemic of a general collapse of certainty, both in terms of personal identity and religious faith. The deeply personal and contemplative tone of the poem refocuses the poem on the speaker’s despair and spiritual growth. In Memoriam seeks to extend the elegy from a lament for the dead, into an exploration of the “growth of the poet’s mind”.


The poem attempts to reconcile an increasingly uncertain religious faith with geological developments, which challenged the idea of a divine presence and harmoniously designed universe. The speaker’s apocalyptic vision of a primordial world, “red in tooth and claw”, (LVI, 15) in which men degenerate into monstrous “Dragons of the prime articulates the fears of moral degeneration which scientific developments in the nineteenth century engendered (LVI, 21-2).


Science destabilised the confidence of the age in the supremacy of humanity, as humanity in the poem is “half-akin to the brute” (Epilogue, 133). The fear that his own words are “matter-moulded” forms (XCV,45) which will fade on “the breeze of song” into “dust” haunts the poem (LXXV, 11-12). The poem culminates with a sense of selfhood being partially restored, as the speaker reconciles himself to “Believing where we cannot prove” (Prologue, 4). This is reflected in the metaphor of his “mind and soul, according well” making “one music as before, / But vaster” (Prologue, 27-29). Not only has his voice been restored, but it has expanded in his acceptance of doubt and death as integral to spiritual progress, rather than inhibiting it. As T.S. Eliot observed, In Memoriam’s religiosity is not “because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt”. Reading Hallam’s letters marks a turning point, in which the speaker finds a way to communicate with the dead through oxymoronic “silent-speaking” words (XCV, 6). As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the speaker must pass “from a hell of total despair, through a purgatory of doubt and death” in order to consolidate his faith.


Tennyson’s religious and existential doubts come to a partial resolution at the end of the poem, in accordance with the conventional trajectory of elegies from “sorrow” to “resolution”. The speaker acknowledges love to be the stable ground on which faith is built, and on which the painful idea of humanity being reduced to dust, like “hills” which “melt like mist” is assuaged (CXXIII, 5-7). As Seamus Perry noted, the “purpose” of an elegy is ultimately towards “recuperation”. The metaphor of men rising “on stepping-stones/ Of their dead selves to higher things” suggests that mortal suffering is a preparation, necessary for spiritual growth (I, 3-4). The rising iambic rhythm of the line enacts the speaker’s desire to transcend himself and reach a higher sphere.


That Tennyson considered “The Way of the Soul” as a possible title for the poem indicates that it is an elegy concerned, not only with paying homage to the dead, but also with reconstituting the self. In Memoriam repurposes the conventional function of the elegiac form as a lament for the dead, into an exploration of psychological and spiritual reconstitution.


The poem is as much concerned with the smaller evolutions in the self, as with those that occur in the afterlife or through science. The poem ends with a renewed faith, not only in religion but also in the self, made stronger by the very nature of its doubt, as the speaker acknowledges himself to “have grown” through grief and doubt “To something greater than before”


Glossary:

Elegy (noun)- A song or poem of lamentation, esp. for the dead; a memorial poem

Catalyst (noun)- A substance which increases the rate of a process

Endemic (adj and noun)- Habitually found among, prevalent in something

Primordial (adj and noun)- Of, relating to, or existing from the very beginning of time; primeval, primitive

Culminate (verb)- To reach its highest point or summit

Inhibit (verb)- To forbid, prohibit, prevent something

Trajectory (adj and noun)- The path or movement of something


Further reading:

1. Buckley, Jerome. H, Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1967.

2. Armstrong, Isobel. Tennyson in the 1850s: From Geology to Pathology. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd. Ed. Collins, Philip. 1992.

3. Gilmour, Robin, The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890. London: Longman Group Ltd UK. 1993.

4. Green and Cushman. The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Oxford: Princeton University Press 4th ed. 2012.

5. Hair, Donald, Tennyson’s Language. Canada: University of Toronto Press. 1991.

6. Jordan, Elaine, Alfred Tennyson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988.

7. John. Elliot. T.S, In Memoriam. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Ed. Killham, John. 1960.

8. Perry, Seamus, Alfred Tennyson. Tavistock: Northcote House. 2005.

9. Ricks, Christopher, Tennyson. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1972.

10. Tennyson, Alfred Lord, Selected Poems. In Memoriam. Penguin Classics. 1991. P. 130-225.

11. Turner, Paul, Tennyson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1976.