In Memoriam Tennyson mourns the death of In Memoriam, in full In Memoriam A.H.H., poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, written between the years 1833 and 1850 and published anonymously in 1850. Consisting of 131 sections, a prologue, and an epilogue, this chiefly elegiac work examines the different stages of Tennyson’s period of mourning over the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. In Memoriam reflects the Victorian struggle to reconcile traditional religious faith with the emerging theories of evolution and modern geology. In Memoriam Tennyson mourns the death of The verses show the development over three years of the poet’s acceptance and understanding of his friend’s death and conclude with an epilogue, a happy marriage song on the occasion of the wedding of the poet’s sister Cecilia.
Tennyson described In Memoriam as “the way of the soul”. It is the progress from bitter grief and doubt to a sense of certainty and hopefulness that the universe is dominated by love. Stages in the gradual rise of spirit are marked by Christmas seasons, but the rise is interrupted even in the middle sections by torments of heart. Chiefly responsible for the gloom is the scientific depiction of man as a misbegotten animal in an indifferent universe. Tennyson accepts evolution as divinely ordained and believes that universe is moving to a divine purpose. Mankind will evolve on earth towards the higher man. In Memoriam is thus more than a pastoral elegy like Milton’s Lycidas or Shelley’s Adonais. It gained the ears of the Victorian public for its philosophical preachment. Tennyson was known as the Victorian oracle and he secured the Poet-laureateship. Queen Victoria told Tennyson, “Next to the Bible In Memoriam is my comfort.” Many humanists of the age saw in it the definitive answer to the quarrel of science versus faith.
The Effect of Arthur Hallam’s Death on Tennyson
His friendship with and love for Arthur Hallam seems to have been the central experience of Tennyson’s life, or more accurately, his bereaved love after Hallam’s death.
Arthur Hallam’s friendship had been a source of comfort against a series of acute problems and anxieties which intensified in Tennyson’s late adolescence and early twenties, and Hallam’s death in 1833 externalized his deepest fears and helped determine the character of virtually all his significant poetry written after that date.
The Tennyson family life was unstable. A neurasthenic, violent man of disappointed intellectual ambitions, Tennyson’s father had resented losing the rights of primogeniture to his father’s landed estate. Forced to become a cleric, he had found this occupation uncongenial and resented the expenses of raising his ten children. Family violence made the home unliveable, and Tennyson tried to absent himself from Somersby whenever possible. Neighbors found the family behavior frightening, and by 1829, the year in which Tennyson met Hallam, his father’s threatening rages had caused his mother to flee the parsonage with her remaining children.
The problem of the father was compounded by the emotional problems of the children; at least two of the Tennyson children were mentally ill for their entire lives, and several others shared signs of instability (Charles, for example, became permanently deranged in 1832). Hereditarian theories of “insanity” weighed heavily in the nineteenth century, and Tennyson, early prone to depression, feared for his own mental health while suffering the effects of his family’s melancholia (Ricks, 65). In Memoriam Tennyson mourns the death of , In 1834 he commented on the need of his brother Septimus, then heavily depressed, for cheerful diversion, a prescription of what he himself in fact needed (64).
Tennyson entered Cambridge University in 1827 at the age of 18. He disliked life at the university and although he joined the eminent “Cambridge Apostles,” was never centrally interested in their debates. He was conscious of economic pressures to earn his living, although he wished to be a poet instead. On the one hand he feared to fail in his aspiration to become a poet; but since even this wouldn’t support him, he felt pressed to become a clergyman, a distasteful thought compounded by his own uncertainty as to whether he could accept the Thirty-Nine Articles without reservations.
In 1829, two years after beginning at Cambridge he met Arthur Hallam, of an aristocratic and intellectual family (his father was a prominent European historian), who by the testimony of all his contemporaries was a gifted and winning young man (855). Hallam was also lonely, for most of his friends had gone to Oxford. Also interested in poetry and in intellectual debates, he was more assertive and politically inclined than Tennyson. And although his family was much wealthier, he shared Tennyson’s sense of aggrieved pride in the face of a tyrannical father, his religious doubts, and his depressions, so that the two friends shared a concern for each other’s mental health (37, 38). One of the last poems Hallam wrote before his death questions whether life has a purpose.
Arthur visited Somersby at Christmas, 1829 and fell in love with Emily Tennyson, then unhappy about the family’s prospective move from their parsonage. In Memoriam Tennyson mourns the death of , In reaction Hallam senior proscribed further visits, opposed the engagement on the grounds of the Tennysons’ relative lesser wealth and social status, and refused to finance the marriage even upon his son’s majority (Hallam was destined for the bar, a long slow road to economic independence). As an added insult, he opposed his son’s joint publication of a volume of poems with Tennyson. The defensive Tennysons were grateful for Arthur Hallam’s willingness to ally with their family.
Moreover Hallam believed that Tennyson was destined to become the greatest poet of his generation, and even of the century (32). He acted on his beliefs; he encouraged Tennyson to submit his poem on “Timbuctoo” to a university-wide contest; wrote a laudatory and perceptive review of Tennyson’s 1830 Poems; pressed for the publication of the 1832 Poems and tended to the practical details of their publication; defended Tennyson in a praiseful review when the latter volume evoked the severity of critics on account of their allegedly lush, Keatsian and escapist style; and in general promoted Tennyson’s work to friends and publishers.
The two men took a trip to the continent together in the summer of 1830, where they engaged in mild political activity. Then Tennyson’s father died in 1831, prompting a period of poetic activity. Though his death might not of itself have been a cause for unmixed grief, it left his family in dire economic straits at the hand of Sir Charles Tennyson, who among other intrusions urged that Alfred become a clergyman. Constant family fighting continued, and to add to his anxieties, Tennyson experienced increased difficulties with his eyesight and feared he might become blind.
His father’s death prompted a period of poetic activity for Tennyson, and this poetry, written before Hallam’s death, is notably concerned with themes of suicide and depression. For example, “The Two Voices” expresses the contrary impulses of a speaker contemplating and resisting suicide; and although the suicidal voice is not declared triumphant, the poem’s best passages are those evoking death and languor. Uncannily, some early drafts anticipate a speaker’s grief at the death of a best beloved friend.
Tennyson was gratified that the wealthy, talented, well-connected and empathetic Hallam had chosen to become engaged to Tennyson’s sister against his father’s opposition; and that Hallam had wholeheartedly supported Alfred’s controversial desire to become a poet. The tension of a forbidden engagement wore on Hallam, however, and he was ordered abroad, where in Vienna he died suddenly and unexpectedly in September, 1833 of “apoplexy”.
Alfred was 24 at the time, and the death of the human being perhaps most able to sympathize with his anxieties about his future career, his uncertainties about religious faith, and his family’s many difficulties and griefs (including his financial and family problems) left him with a sense of isolation in the face of scathing reviews and an apparently limited future.
The period directly after Hallam’s death, late 1833 and 1834, was the single most creative of Tennyson’s life. During this period he wrote “Tithon,” “Ulysses,” “Morte d’Arthur,” and the initial segments of “In Memoriam,” of which, oddly, the early stanzas are among the most resolute, affirming the overcoming of grief, as does “Ulysses.” Many of these poems are written in the voice of an old man–“Ulysses,” “Tithonus,” “Tiresias,” perhaps reflecting his sense that the loss of Hallam had prematurely blighted his hopes.
The genesis of “Ulysses” explains some of this poem’s unusual features, for although it proclaims itself a poem of struggle and ambition, yet the tone seems peculiarly sad and elegiac, one of grief, wastedness, and a sense of isolation.
He also began a series of poems evoking an idealized male figure, variously identified with the legendary Arthur or seen as belonging to a spiritual realm. The first of these was “Hark, the dogs howl,” his first known draft for a poem after Arthur Hallam’s death (555), the most physical of the series in its expression of love; and others included “Idylls of the King,” “Merlin and the Gleam,” and “In the Valley of the Cauteretz” (1123). In the latter poem, for example, Tennyson’s visit to the Valley evokes the voice of “one I loved” thirty two years ago; and Tennyson’s biographer Robert Martin has noted that in the original manuscript the line read, “Arthur Hallam.”
In Memoriam Tennyson mourns the death of Tennyson also claimed that the experience of section XCV of “In Memoriam,” in which the spirit of Hallam returns to and is inwound with that of Tennyson, had occurred to him several times throughout his life, not just once, but repeatedly. But even his final poem, which he wrote in 1889 and left behind to be published at the conclusion of his works, “Crossing the Bar,” contains the now familiar pattern of boat/dying man/sea/sunset/evening star, and the final vision of a male face hovering above the persona and through the elements, though this time the author mourns, not the loss of another human life, but of his own identity (1458).