by Alfred Tennyson
THE LITERARY WORK
An elegiac poem set in nineteenth-century England, spanning the years 1833 to 1350;. published anonymously in 1850.
While mourning the death of a close friend, the poet struggles to resolve his questions on such issues as personal immortality, religious faith, and new science.
Born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, in 1809, Alfred Tennyson was the fourth of 12 children, the son of a country parson and a vicar’s daughter. Except for a brief unhappy stint at Louth Grammar School in York, Tennyson was educated at home by his father until he left for Trinity College at Cambridge University in 1827. That same year, Tennyson—who showed signs of poetic promise from an early age—and his brother Charles published Poems by Two Brothers, a feat that attracted the attention of a group of gifted Cambridge undergraduates. These students, called “The Apostles,” befriended Tennyson, encouraging him to devote his life to poetry and building his confidence by involving him in their intellectual and political discussions. Arthur Henry Hallam, one of the leaders of The Apostles, became an especially close friend and later was even engaged to Tennyson’s younger sister, Emily. Financial pressures led to Tennyson’s ultimately leaving Cambridge without a degree, but he returned home to study and write poetry, publishing two volumes in 1830 and 1832. In 1833, however, the Tennysons were shocked to learn that Arthur Henry Hallam had unexpectedly fallen ill and died while traveling in Europe. In 1850, after 17 years of composition and revision, Tennyson published In Memoriam, his elegy for Hallam, which comes to grips with some pressing issues of Tennyson’s day, particularly with religious faith in view of the powerful and troubling questions raised by new scientific discoveries and theories.
The death of Arthur Henry Hallam
Like all elegies, In Memoriam is, first and foremost, a poem of lamentation for the dead, in this case Tennyson’s close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. The Hallam-Tennyson friendship began in 1829 while both young men were attending Cambridge University and competing for the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English Verse, a prize that Tennyson won. Two years younger than Tennyson, Hallam was the eldest surviving son of Henry Hallam, a noted historian. The ambitious elder Hallam encouraged his son’s education and intellectual development; as a child, Arthur became proficient in both French and Latin. At Cambridge, he took a passionate interest in politics and metaphysics, as well as poetry, and gained a reputation as an outstanding debater. A brilliant future awaited him, predicted his family and a wide circle of friends, which included Tennyson and William Ewart Gladstone, the future prime minister.
Hallam was popular among his friends at Cambridge. One contemporary, Henry Alford, described Hallam as “full of blessings, full of happiness, drawing active enjoyment from every thing, wondering, loving, and being loved” (Alford in Martin, p. 74). Tributes to him in his lifetime mentioned his kindness to others, especially his tenderness towards distressed or afflicted friends. Apparently Hallam was prone to hiding this capacity for tenderness behind a mask of flippancy. Another friend, James Spedding, wrote to his younger brother Edward, who did not care for Hallam: “I do not agree with you as to A. H. H.’s flippancy. It seems to me to be all very graceful & courteous—and the medium nicely hit” (Spedding in Martin, p. 75). One of Tennyson’s biographers, Robert Bernard Martin, sums up Hallam’s character:
The truth is that Hallam was neither perfect nor despicable, but that the separate aspects of his character were often kept discrete, rather than being mingled as in most men. He was at his best with those who elicited his sympathy, for to them he could show his own weaknesses without fear.
(Martin, p. 75)
The Hallam-Tennyson friendship ripened after Tennyson was elected to the Cambridge Conversazione Society—informally known as “The Apostles”—in October 1829. Although Tennyson’s shyness and dread of public speaking eventually led to his resigning from The Apostles, he remained on friendly terms with them, especially Hallam, who had been a member since the previous spring. As the intimacy between the two young men grew, they visited each other’s respective homes and traveled through France, Spain, and the Pyrenees during their summer holidays in 1830.
Although Tennyson’s Cambridge career ended after the death of his father in 1831, he and Hallam remained in close correspondence, especially since Hallam had fallen in love with Tennyson’s sister, Emily. Hallam’s father disapproved of the attachment and forbade his son to visit the Tennysons’ home at Somersby or even to write Emily until he was of age. The Tennysons had little money, and their father had been emotionally disturbed, given to violent outbursts and excessive drinking. Arthur Hallam weathered his father’s ban, and soon after he attained his majority the couple became engaged. Meanwhile, Hallam faithfully supported Tennyson’s writing, encouraging him to publish his most recent work. Tennyson acceded to his friend’s urging, and Poems was published in early 1833.
By this time, Hallam had completed his education at Cambridge—after winning both the college English essay prize and the declamation prize—and was studying for a career in law. He had begun to experience severe headaches, however, and that spring he caught influenza, taking more than a month to recover. In the summer of 1833, Hallam accompanied his father on an extended trip to Europe, visiting, among other countries, Austria and Hungary. While staying in Vienna, Hallam fell ill with what he believed to be an ague, but a few days later he seemed to have made a partial recovery. After taking a short walk with his father, he lay down to rest on the sofa in their hotel. When the elder Hallam returned from a further stroll, he found his son apparently sleeping. Only after some time had passed did he realize that Arthur had not moved. A surgeon confirmed that the 22-year-old Hallam had died in his sleep; a post-mortem examination revealed a brain hemorrhage as the cause of death.
Hallam’s family and friends were devastated by his sudden demise. Emily Tennyson collapsed and spent most of the following year as a bedridden invalid. Meanwhile, Tennyson and Hallam’s other friends drew closer together in their shared loss and reverence for Hallam’s memory, which took on an even greater luster as a result of his early death. It was a luster developed and nurtured in the epistles they sent to one another: “The letters of the circle at the time are full of affectionate condolences to each other, sympathy for the Tennysons and reassurances of Hallam’s greatness, as if their own being were dependent upon his having been a man of transcendent promise. The Hallam mythology had begun” (Martin, p. 183). Tennyson’s In Memoriam, labored over for 17 years before publication, set the seal on that myth, transforming Hallam from a young man of considerable talent to one who possessed a “[s]eraphic intellect and force/To seize and throw the doubts of man” (Tennyson, In Memoriam, 109.5-6). In death, Hallam became, to Tennyson and his contemporaries, a symbol of the best human nature can offer.
During the early decades of the nineteenth century, practicing Christians in England tended to regard the Bible as a sacred, infallible text, whose meaning was to be taken literally. As the century progressed, however, linguistic criticism, which originated among German intellectuals, and new geological discoveries challenged the accuracy of the Scriptures, shaking the faith of many Victorians.
Sectarian conflicts, some of which originated in the early 1800s, also weakened religious certainties. Among other movements, Materialism, the doctrine that esteems physical or worldly well-being and material progress above all, gained currency. Materialist thinker Jeremy Bentham (1772-1832) established a philosophy known as Utilitarianism which favored the abolishment of all social institutions that were not determined to be “useful,” that is, to be a contribution to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of individuals. Benthamite Utilitarians generally agreed that religion failed to meet that criteria and was no more than an outmoded superstition. At the other end of the spectrum, philosophical conservatives, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, argued that people needed faith as surely as they needed material sustenance, while religious conservatives, like John Henry Newman, argued for the establishment of a powerful, traditional religious institution to deflect the narrow tenets of Benthamitism.
Ongoing religious debates and the emergence of scientific theories regarding the nature of man and his world contributed to many Victorians’ suffering crises of faith. Was there a God? Was there an afterlife, with the possibility of heaven and hell to follow? Was the human soul indeed immortal, or was it no better than that of a beast? Was the human race intended for a greater destiny, or was it doomed to vanish without a trace like countless species before it? These questions troubled many Victorian thinkers and writers, including Tennyson. The pathos of In Memoriam is derived not only from the poet’s loss of his beloved friend but also from his doubts and fears regarding the worth of any human soul—Hallam’s, his, anyone’s—in the universal scheme of things. In the poem, Nature discourages the speaker; he is disheartened by what he considers her utter indifference to humanity—“She cries: ‘A thousand types are gone:/I care for nothing, all shall go’” (In Memoriam, 56.3-4). Fearful, the speaker wonders about “Man, her last work, who seemed so fair” (In Memoriam, 56.9). “Who lov’d, who suffer’d countless ills,/Who battled for the True, the Just”; is he destined to “Be blown about the desert dust,/Or seal’d within the iron hills?” (In Memoriam, 56.17-20).
Tennyson later realizes that even these agonized questions can lead to a renewal, rather than a decline, of faith, in a stanza that may refer as much to his own spiritual journey as to Hallam’s: “Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,/At length he beat his music out./There lives more faith in honest doubt,/Believe me, than in half the creeds” (In Memoriam, 96.9-12).
Geology and evolution
In Memoriam was published in 1850, nine years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), which would make the most compelling argument yet that organisms evolve over generations, using Darwin’s theory of natural selection to explain how this occurred. Other works, however, preceded Darwin’s, and these earlier works, by scientists such as Sir Charles Lyell and J. F. W. Her-schel, left their mark on Tennyson and on many of his contemporaries. Indeed, Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830—33), which would prove revolutionary, had an impact not only on the geological theories of the time but on religious thought as well.
Basing his arguments on studies conducted by his predecessors and his own observations over a period of several years, Lyell proposed that the present state of the earth was the result of natural forces—wind and water erosion, rock faulting, sedimentation—operating over time, rather than the result of catastrophic occurrences, as had been argued by French naturalist Georges Cuvier. Lyell also contended that geology revealed continual physical changes, which, in turn, seemed to indicate the extinction of many different species throughout the earth’s history. These extinct species died out, Lyell maintained, because they were unable to cope with new conditions in their ever-changing environment.
While Lyell was not the first scientist to arrive at these conclusions (James Hutton and Georges-Louis de Buffon advanced similar arguments in the preceding century), his works achieved unprecedented popular success and enjoyed a wide readership. Tennyson was deeply immersed in Principles oF Geology in 1837, and its tenets regarding extinction influenced the sections of in Memoriam dealing with the speaker’s sudden crisis of faith. In particular, Tennyson, along with many others, felt troubled by the conclusion Lyell reached from his study of fossils that people, like all other parts of the globe, “are subject to change. It is not only the individual that perishes, but the whole species” (Lyell in Wilson, p. 160). Such teachings inspired Tennyson’s images of nature’s indifference to humanity in his poem, and of the crisis of faith this engenders in man: “Who trusted God was love indeed/And love Creation’s final law—/Though Nature, red in tooth and claw/With ravine, shrieked against his creed” (in Memoriam, 56.13-16).
If Lyell’s arguments regarding extinction represented one pessimistic extreme of scientific thought, Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830) and Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) provided a partial corrective, although the latter advanced its own disturbing hypotheses. Herschel vigorously refuted the idea that the study of science cast doubt on the belief in the immortality of the soul; rather, he argued, the study of science left the mind “open and free to every impression of a higher nature which it is capable of reaching … encouraging rather than suppressing, every thing that can offer a prospect of a hope beyond the present obscure and unsatisfactory state” (Herschel in Tennyson, p. 130).
Chambers’s work, however, was somewhat less reassuring, especially to those who sought to reconcile scientific discoveries with religious faith. While asserting the existence of “a primitive almighty will, of which these [physical] laws are merely the mandates,” Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation nonetheless argued that natural laws, not acts of God, were responsible for the process of organic creation (Chambers in Tennyson, p. 130). Chambers’s work, furthermore, upset the widespread belief that humans were superior to animals, maintaining that humanity was part of the animal kingdom and subject to the same process of organic development that affected every living species on the planet. Moreover, the fate of the individual was a matter of complete indifference to the forces of nature; it was up to the individual, said Chambers, “to take his chance amidst the melee of the various laws affecting him” (Chambers in Tennyson, p. 131).
Chambers’s revelations, like those of Lyell, proved highly disturbing to many Victorians. Historian Walter E. Houghton explains the reason behind their disconcertion:
Nature had been thought of [by the Victorians] as the manifestation of a good and beneficent God … the nurse and guide of life. But once Lyell’s Principles of Geology had appeared (1830-1833), followed by Chambers’ Vesages of Creation (1844) and Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), nature became a battleground in which individuals and species fought for their lives and every acre of land was the scene of untold violence and suffering.
(Houghton, p. 68)
But while Chambers’s work refuted the idea of a loving and concerned Providence, it offered some counter-reassurances to the effect that nature’s very ruthlessness might be part of a larger, perfect plan. The extinction of one species, Chambers argued, could lead to the development of another, superior species that would take its place and fulfill the aspirations of its predecessors: “Is our race but the initial of the grand crowning type? Are there yet to be species superior to us in organization, purer in feeling, more powerful in device and act, and who shall take a rule over us!…. There may then be occasion for a nobler type of humanity, which shall complete the zoological circle on this planet, and realize some of the dreams of the purest spirits of the present race” (Chambers in Tennyson, p. 132).
Chambers’s speculations on the evolution of man into a superior being were instrumental in resolving the speaker’s crisis of faith in in Memoriam. Initially cast into despair by the evidence of extinction and death, the poet is later able to conceive of man as a “herald of a higher race,” to be purified, like iron in a furnace, and reshaped into a being who will “[m]ove upward, working out the beast,/And let the ape and tiger die” (ín Memoriam, 118.14, 27-28).
In Memoriam (“In memory of”) possesses an unusual structure of individual lyric units that can stand on their own but are also integrated into the body of the entire poem. The narrative of Tennyson’s elegy is likewise unusual: it does not follow a purely linear progression from the poet’s despair over the death of his friend to his acceptance of the loss and renewal of hope. While some sections of In Memoriam occur in a specific temporal context—like the three Christmases following the death of Arthur Henry Hallam (sections 28, 78, 104)—other sections reflect only the trend of Tennyson’s thought processes as he contemplates such issues as faith, doubt, and immortality. Paradoxically, In Memoriam seems to encompass two time periods: the three years following Hallam’s death and the 17 years Tennyson spent composing, revising, and organizing his elegy.
Numerous critics have suggested different ways in which to read and interpret In Memoriam. Tennyson himself suggested that the main body of the poem fell into nine natural groups that marked the stages of his grief and thought:
- Sections 1 to 8 describe the first onset of grief;
- Sections 9 to 19 recount the return of Hallam’s remains to England;
- Sections 20 to 27 recall the four years of the Hallam-Tennyson friendship;
- Sections 50 to 59 give full rein to the speaker’s philosophical doubts and terrors;
- In Sections 59 to 71, the speaker expresses his dependence on Hallam’s spirit;
- Sections 72 to 98 reiterate that dependence, yet introduce a fragile element of hope or optimism;
- Sections 99 to 103 depict a spiritual reunion of sorts between the severed friends, which represents the turning point of the entire poem;
- Finally, sections 104 to 131 affirm the speaker’s faith in a loving God and his belief that his lost friend lives again in that God
In Memoriam begins with a prologue that addresses the “Strong Son of God” and affirms the speaker’s belief that faith is superior to knowledge and more enduring: “Our little systems have their day;/They have their day and cease to be:/They are but broken lights of thee,/And thou, O Lord, art more than they” (In Memoriam, Prologue. 17-20). Acknowledging God’s love and wisdom, Tennyson asks Him to forgive his “wild and wandering cries” for the lost Hallam and “in thy wisdom make me wise” (In Memoriam, Pro-logue.41, 44).
In the opening segments of the poem, the speaker muses upon the nature of sorrow and how it comes unexpectedly upon those who love the departed—his parents, friends, and sweetheart—just as they anticipate his return to them. In sections 9 through 20, his reflections take on a more personal significance with the revelation that Arthur Hallam’s remains are being borne back to England for burial: “Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,/And waves that sway themselves in rest,/And dead calm in that noble breast/Which heaves but with the heaving deep” (In Memoriam, 11.17-20). Even after Hallam’s body is placed “in English earth” and the initial pangs of grief begin to fade, the speaker remains devastated by his loss (In Memoriam, 18.2). The pealing of the bells on the first Christmas after Hallam’s death “bring [him] sorrow touch’d with joy” and make him wonder “With such compelling cause to grieve/As daily vexes household peace/And chains regret to his decease/How dare we keep our Christmas-eve” (In Memoriam, 28.19, 29.1-4).
After that first sad Christmas, the speaker finds himself contemplating the nature of personal immortality and wondering whether the individual soul somehow survives or is absorbed back into some universal Godhead. His readings on natural history—particularly, the phenomena of evolution and extinction—further color his thoughts, which take a pessimistic turn: “Are God and Nature then at strife,/That Nature lends such evil dreams?/So careful of the type she seems,/So careless of the single life” (In Memoriam, 55.5-8). His most pressing questions, however, remain unresolved at this juncture; what persists is his love for Hallam’s spirit and his need to praise him.
The second Christmas brings calm and a lessening of sorrow to the speaker, who acknowledges regretfully that this is but the inevitable progression of grief: “Her deep relations are the same,/But with long use her tears are dry” (In Memoriam, 78.19-20). Calmer, but still melancholy, he ponders the life his dead friend might have had and the marriage between their families that would have drawn them closer together. Yet he realizes that he has come to terms with his loss and is still able to feel Arthur’s continuing influence on him even in death: “Whatever way my days decline,/I felt and feel, tho’ left alone,/His being working in mine own,/The footsteps of his life in mine” (In Memoriam, 85.41-44). Moreover, he can even extend friendship to other men, although the level of intimacy will never quite match what he shared with Hal-lam.
Revisiting “the reverend walls” of Trinity College, where he and Hallam first met, the speaker recalls their happy times together—their past conversations, walks, picnics—at Cambridge and at his family home. Knowing that he will never again behold Hallam in the flesh, the speaker nonetheless wonders whether his friend’s spirit may be hovering near. Back at the country parish of Somersby, he experiences an epiphany when he rereads Hallam’s letters to him: “So word by word, and line by line,/The dead man touch’d me from the past,/And all at once it seem’d at last/The living soul was flash’d on mine” (In Memoriam, 95.33-36). The speaker realizes anew the power of the connection, a connection that persists even in death. He feels Arthur’s presence; his living soul manifests itself in the letters. On the eve of the family’s departure from their home at Somersby, the poet experiences a dream—“a vision of the dead,/Which left my after-morn content” (In Memoriam, 103.3-4). In this vision, he and Hallam, accompanied by the Muses, are reunited aboard a ship bound for the next world.
The third Christmas section sees the family ensconced in their new home, which is not haunted by memories of the dead. Turning his thoughts wholly to the future, the speaker exhorts the tolling Yule bells to “ring out the old, ring in the new…/Ring out the want, the care, the sin,/The faithless coldness of the times;/Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,/But ring the fuller minstrel in” (In Memoriam, 106.5, 17-20).
In the sections that follow, the speaker pays tribute to his lost friend’s many virtues, accepts his own fate of remaining on earth for the time being, and resumes once more his meditation on faith and science. This time, however, he concludes that modern scientific discoveries do not presage the end of the human race, but rather, hold out hope for its further evolution, seeing modern man as “[t]he herald of a higher race” (In Memoriam, 118.14). Ultimately, he rejects scientific materialism and reaffirms his faith, believing that the human and divine elements of his beloved friend are to be found again in the God who created him: “My love involves the love before;/My love is vaster passion now;/Tho’ mix’d with God and Nature thou,/1 seem to love thee more and more” (In Memoriam, 130.9-12). The main body of the poem ends with the speaker’s exhortation that humanity place its faith in God and accept “[t]he truths that never can be proved/Until we close with all we loved,/And all we flow from, soul in soul” (In Memoriam, 131.10-12).
The epilogue to In Memoriam leaps ahead to the 1842 nuptials of the speaker’s friend (Edmund Lushington), to his youngest sister (Cecilia Tennyson), a wedding that symbolically replaces the wedding that never took place between Hallam and the speaker’s other sister (Emily Tennyson). Reflecting on the passage of time since Hallam’s death, the speaker reveals that “Regret is dead but love is more/Than in the summers that are flown,/For I myself with these have grown/To something greater than before” (In Memoriam, Epilogue. 17-20). Rejoicing in the union of his friend and sister, he watches them depart after the ceremony and imagines how, on their wedding night, “[a] soul shall draw from out the vast,/And strike his being into bounds,/And, moved thro’ life of lower phase,/Result in man” (In Memoriam, Epilogue. 123-126). That unborn child he envisions will become a living link between the present generation and the higher human race which the process of evolution seems to presage, as well as part of that “one far-off divine event,/To which the whole creation moves” (In Memoriam, Epilogue: 143-144).
One aspect of In Memoriam that has often surprised readers is the intensity of the Hallam-Tennyson friendship as revealed in the poem. Tennyson continually addresses his lost friend in language that seems, to some modern audiences, more suited to a lost beloved: “My Arthur, whom I shall not see/Till all my wid-ow’d race be run;/Dear as the mother to the son,/More than my brothers are to me” (In Memoriam, 9.17-20). Repeated references are made throughout In Memoriam to the poet shedding “tears of the widower” as he mourns “the comrade of [his] choice,” reinforcing the impression
IN MEMORIAM PAYS TRIBUTE TO HALLAM’S VIRTUES
High nature amorous of the good.
But touched with no ascetic gloom;
And passion pure in snowy bloom
Through all the years of April blood ...
And manhood fused with female grace
In such a sort, the child would twine
A trustful hand, unasked, in thine,
And find his comfort in thy face.
In Memoriam, 109.9-12, 17-20)
of an affection that appears to be more than platonic (In Memoriam, 13.1, 9). Even in Tennyson’s own time, one reviewer complained of the note of “amatory tenderness” in In Memoriam, and, after quoting two especially tender stanzas, remarked, “Very sweet and plaintive these verses are; but who would not give them a feminine application?” (Hunt, p. 104).
Some twentieth-century critics, such as Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom, have gone even further in their speculations, suggesting that In Memoriam is a poem of repressed passion from one man to another. Other critics and scholars, however, firmly refute these claims. Tennyson biographer Robert Bernard Martin writes:
It has been the tendency in post-Freudian times to look at such [friendships] in an increasingly unsubtle fashion and to fashion categorical labels that are inexact at best…. Sexual feelings may be the most common stimulus to love, but even in relationships that are deeply sexual there are many other factors that have little to do with sex. Sympathy, companionship, likeness of interests, and even habitual proximity often form a great part of love…. It was surely these feelings that were at the heart of Tennyson’s friendship with Hallam.
(Martin, p. 94)
Ironicaliy, Alfred Tennyson’s intense emotional reaction to his I friend’s death overshadowed and obscured that of his own sister, Hallam’s betrothed. Devastated by HaNam’s 1833 death, Emily Tennyson, always in uncertain health, suffered a complete breakdown and was ill in bed for over a year afterwards. In 1834, Emily met the other Hallams for the very first time and was taken into the family. During Emily’s visit, the Hal-lams gave a dinner party in honor of her twenty-third birthday. Among the guests was a Mr. Jesse, who attended another party at the Hallarns’ a month later. in 1841, Emily became engaged to Richard Jesse—in all probability the same man—who was a lieutenant in the navy. Hallam’s family was shocked by this development—afterwards, they claimed always to have detested Richard Jesse. Tennyson too was startled, although he accepted the couple’s 1842 marriage. But he never cared much for Richard, who was a compulsive talker, and frequently made excuses to be absent from home when Emily and her husband came to visit. Old Mr. Hallam also accepted the situation and generously continued to pay Emily an annuity of 300 pounds even after her marriage. Others were less understanding; the poet, Elizabeth Barrett, on hearing the news, declared that Emily was “a disgrace to womanhood!…. to marry at all—bad!—to keep the annuity, having married—worse!” (Barrett in Martin, p. 258). In the end, the Jesses’ marriage appears to have been neither better nor worse than most marriages; Emily had two children and named the eldest son Arthur Henry Hallam Jesse, but she appears to have made her peace with the past. Many years later, she and her husband attended a séance, at which she was told by the medium that she would spend her afterlife with Arthur Hallam. Emily indignantly declared to Richard, “I consider that an extremely unfair arrangement and shall have nothing to do with it. We have been through bad times together in this world and I consider it only decent to share our good times, presuming we have them, in the next”
(Jesse in Martin, p. 259).
Moreover, Martin continues, “[t]he pairing of friends such as Hallam and Tennyson was both common in the Apostles and perfectly open…. As Maurice and Sterling had been each other’s closest friends at an earlier date, so Kemble and Donne, Robert Monteith and Francis Garden, G. S. Venables and Henry Lushington, all found a special friendship within the larger group, one to give a centre to their affections” (Martin, p. 95).
The closeness between Hallam and Tennyson and their fellow Apostles was not unprecedented, but rather, part of a larger phenomenon. Historian Mark Girouard writes, “Romantic friendships had always been an inevitable feature of the male life at public schools and universities. They tended to be more in fashion, however, at some periods than others. In the 1820s and 1830s they were very much the vogue at Cambridge; they were called ‘arm-in-arms’” (Girouard, p. 216). However, Girouard, adds, “Such romantic friendships need not necessarily, or even usually, lead to sexual relationships” (Girouard, p. 217). Indeed, Hallam himself made it abundantly clear to another member of his circle—Richard Monck-ton Milnes, who was apparently homosexual—that he desired no special intimacy in their relationship and that his own sexual preferences lay in another direction. In a letter dated July 1831, Hallam wrote to Milnes: “I am not aware . that, in the lofty sense which you are accustomed to attach to the name of Friendship, we ever were or ever could be friends…. That exalted sentiment I do not ridicule—God forbid—nor consider it as merely ideal: I have experienced it, and it thrills within me now—but not—pardon me, my dear Milnes, for speaking frankly—not for you” (Hallam in Martin, p. 96). Significantly, the timing of Hallam’s letter coincides with his attachment to Emily Tennyson, to whom he was engaged at the time of his death in 1833.
Sources and literary context
The main source of inspiration for In Memoriam was, of course, the early death of Tennyson’s closest friend and future brother-in-law, Arthur Henry Hallam. Tennyson drew upon other people and incidents from his life as well, most notably in the epilogue to In Memoriam, which, as mentioned, celebrates the wedding of his sister Cecilia to his friend Edmund Lushington. However, Tennyson remained wary of placing too close or narrow an autobiographical framework about his work, asserting that
[In Memoriam] is a poem, not an actual biography. It is founded on our friendship, on the engagement of Arthur Hallam to my sister, on his sudden death at Vienna, just before the time fixed for their marriage, and on his burial at Clevedon Church. The poem concludes with the marriage of my youngest sister Cecilia. It was meant to be a kind of Divina Commedia, ending with happiness… ‘I’ is not always the author speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking thro’ him.
(Tennyson in Palmer, p. 93)
Moreover, In Memoriam is a meditative as well as a semibiographical or elegiac poem: Tennyson’s musings on works of natural history—including the previously mentioned Principles of Geology by Sir Charles Lyell and Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers—comprise the basis of other sections.
In Memoriam is most often categorized as an elegy, a poem of lamentation for the dead. Comparisons invariably arise with two great English elegies, John Milton’s Lyddas and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais, with which Tennyson was almost certainly familiar. However, unlike Milton and Shelley, Tennyson does not make extensive use of the conventions associated with the pastoral elegy, such as depicting the speaker and the deceased as shepherds, invoking the muse, showing a procession of mourners, and strewing flowers upon the hearse of the deceased. Rather, Tennyson’s expression of sorrow for Hallam remains firmly rooted in the contemporary world, and it is to the Christian God that he directs his thoughts, prayers, and questions, not to the classical deities of Greek or Roman mythology.
Tennyson had planned to have In Memoriam published anonymously. But word leaked out even before publication, and on the day of its release the Publishers’ Circular described In Memoriam as the work of Tennyson. The poet was apparently not upset by the revelation of his identity as the author, yet he never permitted an edition to be published with his name on the title page during his lifetime. Perhaps he felt the subject was too personal for such public display, or he wanted to maintain some portion of his original intent to publish the poem anonymously.
All questions of anonymity aside, In Memoriam was, for the most part, warmly and enthusiastically received. One of the few unfavorable critiques appeared in The Times, where an anonymous reviewer admitted to finding “the enormous exaggeration of the grief” for Hallam rather off-putting, complaining, “Instead of a memorial we have a myth. Hence the subject suffers loss even from its magnitude. The hero is beyond our sympathy” (Hunt, p. 103). The Times reviewer was also unsettled by the note of “amatory tenderness” expressed towards Hallam, which, he felt, would be more appropriate if directed towards a female subject; the reviewer recommended that In Memoriam be shortened considerably in subsequent editions (Hunt, p. 104).
The general consensus among contemporary critics, however, was that Tennyson had composed a great and beautiful poem that would endure. J. Westland Marston, writing for the Athenaeum, praised the poem’s honesty and straightforwardness in expressing grief:
[The verses] come upon us with all the truthfulness of a diary:—but it is a diary of a love so profound, that though using the largest symbols of imagination, they appear to us as the homeliest language. The beauty and melody of illustration are so absorbed in the pervading feeling, that we become fully conscious of the former attributes only by a recurrence to the poems.
(Marston in Hunt, pp. 63-64)
The noted critic G. H. Lewes, writing for The Leader, was similarly enthusiastic. Although Lewes considered In Memoriam not quite on a par with such elegies as Milton’s Lycidas and Shelley’s Adonais, he nonetheless found much to commend in Tennyson’s work: “But how beautiful, how simple, and how touching are the poems when you read them uncritically, giving full sway to the feelings which that music rouses in you! … We shall be surprised if [In Memoriam] does not become the solace and delight of every house where poetry is loved. A true and hopeful spirit breathes from its pages” (Lewes in Hunt, p. 68). Finally, Franklin Lushington, critic for Taít’s Edinburgh Magazine, called In Memoriam “one of the most touching and exquisite monuments ever raised to a departed friend—the pure and unaffected expression of the truest and most perfect love; and as such, it ought to be, and … will be, a memorial more lasting than bronze” (Lushington in Hunt, p. 72).
—Pamela S. Loy
Hunt, John Dixon, ed. Tennyson: In London: Macmillan, 1970.
Levi, Peter. Tennyson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993.
Mattes, Eleanor Bustin. In Memoriam: The Way of a Soul. New York: Exposition Press, 1951.
Palmer, D. J. Writers and Their Backgrounds: Tennyson. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1973.
Peltason, Timothy. Reading “In Memoriam.” Princedon: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Steane, J. B. Tennyson. New York: Arco, 1969.
Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. ed. Robert H. Ross. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.
Wilson, A. N. God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization. New York: Ballantine, 1999.