Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” wrestles with the death of the poet’s closest friend, a death that pushed Tennyson into a bout of depression and an immense wallowing sorrow. But the poem is also an attempt to draw near the transformative power of love—a love that turns the cold and bleak midwinter into the high noon of summer.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1850 poetic masterpiece, “In Memoriam,” is rightly considered one of the greatest poems of the nineteenth century and one of the great poems of the English language. Written as a eulogy to his friend Arthur Hallam, the poem captures the torrent and pilgrimage of a soul in flux as the poem moves from imprisoned grief to joyful memory to incarnate memorialism. The poem’s three-part construction, well-known among critics, reveals the place and role of memory in the movement of salvation and the triumph of Love in, and over, death.
The first 27 cantos of the poem, including the most famous line: “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,” constitute the “hell” of the poem. “In Memoriam” begins, depending on whether you start with the prologue or the first canto proper (and here I take it beginning with the first canto), with grief and sorrow and the desire to ascend to a plane of divinization. “I held it truth, with him who sings,” Tennyson begins, “To one clear harp in divers tones / That men may rise on stepping-stones / Of their dead selves to higher things . . . O sorrow cruel fellowship, / O Priestess in the vaults of Death, / O sweet and bitter in a breath, / What whispers from thy lying lips?”
It goes without saying that the death of Arthur pushed Tennyson into a bout of depression and an immense wallowing sorrow. The friendship, and possible love, they shared now seen as an extensive burden for having had such a close and intimate relationship. “Cruel fellowship,” Tennyson reflects, as he curses the “lying lip” of the priestess of death and her false sweetness which had, earlier, soothed Tennyson into believing friendship was such an important thing.
Early in the poem we move from the cries of sorrow to images of death and descending. Darkness covers the mind and heart of the grieving Tennyson as he is locked in an imprisoned torrent of his former fellowship. The “her” that he speaks of in the third canto is the spirit of sorrow. Thanatos, in a certain unseen way, is the divinity that dominates Tennyson’s plunge into the Abyss.
For now her father’s chimney glows
In expectation of a guest;
And thinking ‘this will please him best,’
She takes a riband or a rose;
For he will see them on to-night;
And with the thought her colour burns;
And, having left the glass, she turns
Once more to set a ringlet right;
And, even when she turn’d, the curse
Had fallen, and her future Lord
Was drown’d in passing throu’ the ford,
Or kill’d in falling from his horse (VI.29-40).
Tennyson, here, inverts the imagery of a bridal marriage to be. Love, seen in a fiery glow, the expectation of a guest, ribands and roses, and a burning color (that is the burning heart of love), is soon quenched by the curse of death. The imagery of fallenness, as mentioned, comes to the fore. Rather than ascend in love, love has caused a descent into the dark pit of grief.
The climax of Tennyson’s hell comes when he “sing[s] to him that rests below, / And, since the grasses round me wave, / I take the grasses of the grave, / And make them pipes whereon to blow.” Tennyson is singing to death, not even to Arthur, but to Thanatos. In singing to death rather than the Author of Love and Life—a stark contrast with how the poem will conclude—Tennyson sinks into the pit of loneliness deprived of the “murmur of happy Pan.” The poet lover and pilgrim, Tennyson, is so overcome with the news of Arthur’s death that he is incapable of good memories and only wallows in despair.
By the 25th canto, however, after having reached the pit of loneliness, Love starts to become more prominent as Tennyson is, in a symbolic way, resurrected by the memory of love. It is the revelation of love that leads Tennyson to recognize the unity between loving and losing—much like how Plato understood love—leading to his famous declaration at the close of the twenty-seventh canto, “I hold it true, whate’er befall; / I feel it, when I sorrow most; / ‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” In sorrow Tennyson realizes his love for Arthur was real. Love is only possible if one has lived. And if one has lived one needs to love to have lived a meaningful life. Thus, “’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
Immediately after the 27th canto, time and Christ appear in the poem. In this revelation we can surmise, I think, that the first 27 cantos were timeless; just as hell is without time—causing one to abandon all hope once in it. As such, there was no way out except for the divine intervention of Love, the Love that appeared in the 25th canto to make Tennyson move and lift him up “As light as carrier-birds in air.” Love has taken Tennyson up into the realm of time and space, the realm governed by Christ, in which an ongoing and remarkable transformation in the poem (through the poet-pilgrim Tennyson) begins.
After evoking Christ, time, and Christmas—that season of sumptuous and joyful feasts and memories—a remarkable metamorphosis begins even with the language used by Tennyson. From wallowing in the misery and sorrow of the self, where he constantly used I to grieve over Arthur (which is ironic because while grieving for Arthur, Tennyson is more concerned with his own sorrow and misery than with Arthur Hallam’s), he now speaks in the plural we. Self has been united with another. Moreover, Tennyson begins to speak of his joyful memories with Arthur in the 30th canto which began with a memory of time spent together during Christmas, “With trembling fingers did we weave / The holly round the Christmas hearth.” From dark clouds and tears of sadness to a new day, a new dawn, and a new life has occurred, “Rise, happy morn, rise, holy morn, / Draw forth the cheerful day from night: / O Father, touch the east, and the light / The light that shone when Hope was born.”
Not only does Tennyson shift the focus from the incurvatus in se to a relationality of togetherness, he also changes the imagery and the perspective of the reader from the perspectival imagery of fallenness to raising. From being “fallen,” “drown’d,” and “falling from [a] horse” to “Rise, happy morn, rise.” Light and Hope appear as well, as it should, given that time is now present in this new purgatorial reality that Tennyson as pilgrim poet is now in. To further reveal his hand of this new lot on life Tennyson begins the 31st canto by referencing the raising of Lazarus from the dead and consummates the canto by celebrating the resurrection of a man from the dead, “Behold a man raised up by Christ! / The rest remaineth unreveal’d; / He told it not; or something seal’d / The lips of that Evengelist.”
Faith, Hope, and Love, the three great theological virtues which provide, for the person, the most fulfilling of lives on earth, are now everywhere present and accompany the relational and memorial tone of the poetic shift. This resurrection of Tennyson, and, in some respects, Arthur, is due to the newfound appreciation of the memories they shared together. Though Arthur has physically perished the memories that Tennyson has of Arthur ensure his immortality in the very seat of the imago Dei in man: the mind.
Additionally, Tennyson continues to progress in this new life by making biblical allusions. He speaks of “A life that bears immortal fruit” and “The baby new to earth and sky.” There can be no mistaking the newfound reality and life that Tennyson is trying to communicate. Opening, or re-opening, that wellspring of memory has lifted Tennyson out of the grave and, in doing so, has brought Arthur up from the earth too.
At the 50th canto, through to the end of this second section identified by scholars, there seems, to me, a split in this “purgatory” for Tennyson. From cantos 28-49 the living memories of Tennyson and Arthur bring newness of life into a dark and dreary world formerly dedicated to Thanatos. Now, however, the poem shifts again from happy memories to serious questions about life and love. It is as if Tennyson must now begin to unlock the secrets of life and love to proceed his climb up the mountain.
Tennyson begins to struggle and wrestle with the concept of love. “I cannot,” he says, “love thee as I ought; / For love reflects the thing beloved; / My words are only words, and moved / Upon the topmost froth of thought.” Love is indeed more than just words. Love requires an incarnate relationship between incarnate persons. As that immortal saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
From memory to reflection, Tennyson is advancing through wrestling with the questions of life and love. This culminates in the 59th canto when Tennyson reconciles sorrow and love together, thereby linking love with sorrow instead of mere sorrow and misery. To have loved, and then to have lost the beloved, is to be sorrowful for what one has lost. But rather than melt away in one’s miseries Tennyson reaches the conclusion that love transcends spaces and time and that the sorrow one has is a true reflection of one’s love. As he says, as if an invocation, “O Sorrow, wilt thou live with me . . . / O Sorrow, wilt thou rule my blood.”
Following this revelation, if you will, Tennyson returns to happy memories and how such joyful memories can never die. The memories we hold are in our mind, and our minds exist forever in the mind of God (as per George Berkeley). As Tennyson begins to “move up from to higher” (LXIV.13), again reflective of this progression through wrestling with Love, the return to memory is beautiful, peaceful, and quaint. “He plays with threads, he beats his chair / For pastime, dreaming of the sky; / His inner day can never die, / His night of loss is always there.” In the 71st canto we also see, through Tennyson’s image-based language, the idyllic image of friendship:
While now we talk as once we talk’d
Of men and minds, the dust of change,
The days that grow to something strange,
In walking as of old we walk’d
Beside the river’s wooded reach,
The fortress and the mountain ridge,
The cataract flashing from the bridge,
The breaker breaking on the beach (LXXI.9-16).
In the “purgatory” of In Memoriam, the resurrection of Tennyson and Arthur is through the restoration of blissful memories that foreshadow the joy of heaven. Following the return of happy memories in daylight and under the Christmas season, Tennyson begins to wrestle with the nature of life and love in his climb upward. This wrestling with Love brings forth the reconciliation of sorrow and love, leading to that new reality that permits Tennyson to understand that sorrow and love are not mutually exclusive but often accompany each other. Following this breakthrough, Tennyson moves ever higher up the mountain and we have the return of joyful memories.
It is also fitting that this grand reunion of Arthur and Tennyson, walking intimately in a green pasture and coming to a bridge, signals the third shift of the poem as we prepare to enter the “paradise” of the poem. They made the journey together, as Tennyson’s language indicates. The pathway into paradise begins with the joyful memory of friendship in green pastures and land of life. How very fitting, then, that the bridge to paradise is opened by the reality of friendship.
The paradise of In Memoriam is the longest section of the poem. Perhaps it is Tennyson’s way of entailing the eternity that is paradise by making it longer than the previous two sub-divisions of the poem. The 72nd canto begins, fittingly, with “Risest thou thus.” For to enter paradise entails ascending, rising, on the ladder of ascents.
Paradise, in the poem, is associated with songs of praise and relief. Drawing on the Bible, especially Genesis and the Psalms, as well as from the poetry of Dante, Tennyson says, “I care not in these fading days / To raise a cry that lasts not long, / And round thee with the breeze of song / To stir a little dust to praise.” Much like Dante’s paradise, Tennyson’s paradise is dominated by singing and is permeated with loving praise instead of disordered outbursts of grief, rage, and sorrow—the very things that had dominated the prose at the beginning of the poem. “My darken’d ways,” Tennyson sings, “Shall ring with music all the same; / To breathe my loss is more than fame, / To utter love more sweet than praise.”
The first memory that Tennyson has while in paradise returns us to Christmas, that season of caroling and joyous warmth, “Again at Christmas did we weave / The holly round the Christmas hearth; / The silent snow possess’d the earth, / And calmly fell our Christmas-eve.” It is fitting that the first memory Tennyson has in the poem’s equivalent of heaven evokes Christ, salvation, and song.
Beneath the songs of praise one realizes that Love swims across the lines of paradise. Love also attempts to burst out of the frozen cold and warm the world to life, “That long to burst a frozen bud / And flood a fresher throat with song.” Beauty also makes her triumphant entrance into the poem in paradise when the poet-pilgrim announces, “For us the same cold streamlet curl’d / Thro’ all his eddying coves; the same / All winds that roam the twilight came / In whispers of the beauteous world.” Tennyson’s heaven is a place of images and memories that evoke warmth, friendship, and beauty.
Furthermore, the I-You dynamic of human relations also reaches its fruition in paradise. “My spirit is at peace with all,” Tennyson says. He just as quickly returns to relationality and speaks in the relational “we” as serene memories with Arthur come to the fore. “By night we linger’d on the lawn . . . / While now we sang old songs that peal’d / From knoll to knoll, where, couch’d at ease.”
In a spectacular moment of resurrection, Tennyson turns winter into summer; symbolic of transformation from death to life. “These two—they dwelt with eye on eye / Their hearts of old have beat in tune / Their meetings made December June, / Their every parting was to die. / Their love has never past away; / The days she never can forget / Are earnest that he loves her yet, / Whate’er the faithless people say.” Love is life and love can never die.
It is interesting to highlight that while love is life and love can never die, it is “faithless people” who are blind to this reality and therefore never see the light. Those who are of faith know of the transformative power of love, how love turns the cold and bleak midwinter into the high noon of summer with the sun at its peak and the green pastures teeming with life. Love brings life. Love transcends death. As Tennyson says, “ ‘I cannot understand: I love.’ ” Love really does flow across the ethereal air of paradise.
Additionally, Tennyson evokes the pilgrim’s climbing progress in the 100th canto, “I climb the hill: from end to end / Of all the landscape underneath, / I find no place that does not breathe / Some gracious memory of my friend.” Again Tennyson recourses to spectacular imagery in paradise. The hill he climbs belongs to a wondrous landscape. There is not a flower, a tree, or blade of grass that does not “breathe” with the memory of life that makes Tennyson’s heart flutter. Moreover, joyful memory is all that dwells in Tennyson’s mind.
We rapidly enter the magical realm of the Christian and Anglo-Saxon synthesis, common to romantic poetry, in which Christian themes and symbols are infused with Anglo-Saxon mythology. Tennyson describes paradise further, as a type of New Eden, a lush garden flowing with rivers of life with a mead-hall reminiscent of England’s Anglo-Saxon heritage:
On that last night before we went
From out the doors where I was bred,
I dream’d a vision of the dead,
Which left my after-morn content.
Methought I dwelt within a hall,
And maidens with me: distant hills
From hidden summits fed with rills
A river sliding by the wall.
The hall with harp and carol rang.
They sang of what is wise and good
And graceful. In the centre stood
A Statue veil’d, to which they sang;
And which, tho’ veil’d, was known to me,
The shape of him I loved, and love
For ever: then flew in a dove
And brought a summons from the sea (CIII.1-16).
There is, in Tennyson’s construction, a Divine Hill and river of life. The maidens, like muses, arise to sing of love and poetry. The dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit (who embodies the flame of divine love) is brought forth from the sea of eternity in this most picturesque image. After this remarkable vision in paradise Tennyson again recourses to Christ and his salvific incarnation, “The time draws near the birth of Christ.” How fitting, all things considered. By the poem’s end we have the soulful (re)union of Tennyson and Arthur, “With faith that comes of self-control, / The truths that never can be proved / Until we close with all we loved, / And all we flow from, soul in soul.”
The epilogue is the consummation of Tennyson’s journey to blessedness and blissfulness. Instead of weeping forever because of the loss of Arthur, Tennyson ends in hope and thanksgiving to God for the time and friendship that they had—however brief—on earth. And so the poem concludes with those famous lines that rival Dante, “That friend of mine who lives in God, / That God, which ever lives and loves, / One God, one law, one element, / And one far-off divine event, / To which the whole creation moves.”
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The featured image is “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.