My thoughts on this poem
The poem was summed up well by a friend:
It was a bugger.
The poem is of course about more than just death but it can be a depressing read - Tennyson was a depressed sort of person. He had two brothers: one was an opium addict and the other went nuts. His father also went crazy I think. Tennyson was susceptible to wild mood swings, and he was generally extremely emotioanal. This emotion really comes across in his poems.
In Memoriam's full title is 'In Memoriam A.H.H.' with the initials standing for Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam was Tennyson's close friend at Cambridge (Trinity College), and they were both members of the Apostles. Many have speculated on the nature of their friendship, yet it was unlikely they were homosexual - the alleged sexual imagery in the poem simply reveals a very close friendship. In fact in one section Tennyson uses the analogy of a father losing his son, a mother losing her son or a woman losing her boyfriend.
The poem some great lines, one of which is the phrase "'Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all." The phrase comes from section 27. Also, Queen Victoria found great solace in the poem after the death of her husband and made Tennyson the Poet Laureate.
It is difficult to consider In Memoriam as a single poem, in that its different sections are linked only in their structure: their themes vary, and can be said to converge only at specific points. Yet despite this, the fragmented structure itself reflects Tennyson’s incoherent mental state, consisting of antithetical ideas.
It would be unfeasible to hope for a perfectly cohesive poem when the poem itself is about doubt and uncertainty. T.S. Eliot (who taught at my school, if anyone cares) called In Memoriam, “a long poem made by putting together lyrics, which have only the unity and continuity of a diary of a man confessing himself.” The petrarchan quatrains are indeed simple, but Tennyson manages to vary the language and style in such a way that his entire range of emotions is expressed easily.
I feel that the uniform nature of the stanzas (quatrains are used throughout the poem) reveals two things: Tennyson’s difficulty in expressing his grief, and society’s scorn at his sense of loss. These ideas manifest themselves in Section 21, when he describes the writing of the poem as taking “the grasses of the grave,” and making “them pipes whereon to blow.” Society responds by ridiculing him, saying, “this fellow would make weakness weak,/ And melt the waxen hearts of men.”
Victorian society at the time was a restrictive and image-conscious: going through a period of cultural upheaval
, it had little time for seemingly pointless eulogies. By forcing his emotions into a rigidly structured four-line pattern, Tennyson is commenting on the difficulty of revealing oneself to a hostile and indifferent public
who require decorum and protocol.
The structural rigidity also expresses Tennyson’s effort to express an intense emotion with mere words. This concern is voiced outright in section 5, where he writes, “I sometimes hold it half a sin/ To put in words the grief I feel;/ For words, like Nature, half reveal/ And half conceal the Soul within.” So Tennyson must grapple not only with his themes but also with language itself, which he has begun to doubt following Hallam’s death. This distrust in his own words is a symptom of his insecurities.
Tennyson’s crisis of faith cannot be solely attributed to Hallam’s death: Victorian society was entering a period where Darwinism challenged conventional beliefs, and the death of his friend was, in one sense, simply verification for Tennyson that his beliefs were not necessarily watertight. In section 54 Tennyson says cynically, “Oh yet we trust that somehow good/ Will be the final goal of ill.” This sense of desperation, shown in the onomatopoeic exclamation that opens the stanza, slowly fades by section 55 when the underlying doubt emerges and Tennyson seems to accept that death is inevitable.
Yet despite this acceptance of death, he still hopes for a higher being of some sort. He writes, “I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,/ Ands gather dust and chaff, and call/ To what I feel is Lord of all,/ And faintly trust the larger hope.” The use of the word “grope” suggests that Tennyson feels unable to see God’s pattern, but acknowledges its presence – that is, he convinces himself that good does indeed come out of ill, and the poem’s focus changes.
What does it all mean?
Tennyson, instead of faltering where he “firmly trod,” and questioning God’s existence
, tries to understand the manner in which this “larger hope” operates. Is the hope nature? Is it an omnipotent God? The juxtaposition
of two stanzas – one discussing God
, the other Nature
– reveals Tennyson’s despair: the only way in which he can understand the force
that took away his friend is to personify it, and in the process, bring it down to his level. “Are God and Nature then at strife?
” he asks in section 55, and this desire to attribute death
to a force seems to represent a desire for order and structure in his life: Tennyson cannot bear the thought that in this world people die for no reason, alone, left as “desert dust
Section 64 is composed of a single question, and this tone simply reflects his continuing uncertainty, but the most interesting aspect of this section is his portrayal of Hallam as a successful man who throwing off social barriers (he “grapples with his evil star” – the astrological image suggesting a rejection of divine providence), becomes the “pillar of a people’s hope.”
This characterization is revealing because, like section 55, it again shows Tennyson’s underlying desire for a higher power: his description of Hallam’s ascent to success seems to reveal his desperate hope for Heaven, and his conditional optimism.
Taking Victorian social mobility as an image, Tennyson uses this section as a reassurance to himself, although the contradictory nature of images shows the confusion within his mind – at points, Tennyson seems to seek solace in the hope that man controls himself, and is no slave to destiny. At other times, however, he is frightened by this loneliness, and tries to comfort himself by weaving images that suggest man’s ultimate insignificance. This ambiguity is clearest in section 64, where these ideas mingle to form a passage, which like Tennyson’s world, is disjointed and inconsistent.