15 September, 1833 was the day when Alfred Tennyson was widowed by the death of Arthur Henry Hallam. This friend's death was an appalling emotional blow that soon becomes the subject of one of the most popular elegies of English literature. Congenitally prone to melancholia, Tennyson was so overwhelmed by the death of his friend that it became a driving force to compose In Memoriam. Written under the sense of loss, it combines the expression of a deeply personal experience of intense male friendship and mourning with discussions of public concerns, including major debates of the day about science and religion. In just 133 sections, close to 700 stanzas, and about 3,000 lines, Tennyson attempts through his personal grief to discover the meaning of life.
The poem begins with expressions of sorrow and grief, followed by the poet’s recollection of a happy past spent with the individual he is now mourning. Eventually, the poet’s attitude shifts from grief to resignation that widely harboured corrupt ambitions in the age of materialism—well reflected by Wordsworth in “The World is too Much With Us.” Finally, in the climax, he realized that his friend is not lost forever, but survives in another higher form, and this consolation closes the poem with a celebration of transcendent survival.
The elegy applies individual bereavement to grapple with broader questions of faith, meaning and nature. Generally, an elegy is a poem of mourning, lamenting and death that roughly dates back to Ovid. From the seventeenth century, the term began to be limited to its most common present usage: a formal and sustained lament in verse for the death of a particular person, usually ending in a consolation. Tennyson provides a complex persona in this elegy, as he represents not only personal but universal pain.
Extraordinarily encyclopaedic, the poem reflects political and philosophical question of the day in natural way, instead of satirical, biblical, physical or even metaphysical. These questions were the most fundamental in the era of Queen Victorian, an era often loosely termed as the Victorian Compromise. Lawrence Friedman, who coined the term, referred it a time of great contrasts in moralism and vice, philanthropy and greediness, wealth and poverty, sex and purity and alike. If there was compromise in democracy and aristocracy in political arena, then in the field of religion and science too, a satisfying compromise was affected. In voicing these doubts and in phrasing the inevitable compromise, Tennyson found and endeavored passionately to fulfil his appointed mission.
The reality of things, as he contemplates the life of prehistoric monsters, is of unthinking violence, and the struggle for the “survival of the fittest” long before the term was coined. He recounts dreams, idle thoughts on his walks, glimpses of nature, as well as the common experiences of bereavement – the sudden, awful remembrance that the beloved is no longer there.
Since Einstein developed his theory of relativity, and Rutherford and Bohr revolutionised physics, the picture of world has radically changed. Yet no poet, in any European language, has really explored the implications of all this for the way in which one view the world. Tennyson, by contrast, was immediately alive to the imaginative implications of the revolution in the study of geology at the beginning of the 19th century.
In the central lyrics of 55 and 56, Tennyson considers the theory of natural selection long before Darwin made it famous in On the Origin of Species (1859). According to this theory, certain species, be they plant or animal, prove to be better adapted to their environment, and so survive at the expense of other species, here described as types. Tennyson considers Nature to be “so careful of the type ... So careless of the single life” (55, stanza 2), reflecting on the impersonal, amoral processes of the natural world. It was perhaps the theory of natural selection that began the process of unbelief, as GK Chesterton observed, “atheism was the religion of the suburbs.”
While he was writing this poem, Charles Lyell had published Principles of Geology (1830-1833), which undermined the biblical creation story—some time later, Robert Chambers came with his early evolutionary tract, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Lyell used fossil evidence to show that the present state of the earth is the result of natural forces – wind, water erosion, sedimentation over long periods of time. Tennyson’s lyrics (55 and 56) offer a response to Lyell, the founding father of modern Geology. He made a case for the extinction of species after species, throughout the earth’s history, as species found themselves unable to cope with changing physical conditions. In section 56, even that faint hope is crushed as Nature is personified as, famously, “red in tooth and claw.” The savage voice of Nature avers that thousands of species have been wiped out; the Holy Spirit is reduced to mere “breath,” and man to ‘desert dust’. Tennyson’s poem masterfully brings these concerns together in a poem that was an apt favourite of a grief-stricken queen, and continues to speak to our senses of loss, doubt and hope today. It is arrested nicely in the lines
Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
This wanton waste of potential life offers an allegorical expression of the waste of potential in the early death of Hallam.
The poem is also a deeply philosophical reflection on religion, science, and the promise of immortality. Tennyson was deeply troubled by the proliferation of scientific knowledge about the origins of life and human progress. The author insisted that we hold fast to our faith in a higher power in spite of our inability to prove God’s existence: “Believing where we cannot prove.”
In Memoriam is sometimes thought of, by those who have not read it, as a cosy, or sentimental work. It is the reverse. Although it is so firmly located in the time and place in which it was written, it is absolutely of relevance today. Tennyson replaces the doctrine of the immortality of soul with the immortality of mankind through evolution—thereby achieving a synthesis between his profound religious faith and the new scientific ideas. It can be read as a kind of mourning monument in verse, a species of poetic therapy.
In a series of lyrics, written piecemeal over a number of years, Tennyson confronted not merely his personal bereavement, in the loss of his friend, but the collective bereavement felt by all thinking people of that generation as they said farewell to the religious certainties of the past. Originally, the poet was moving forward, but, in reality, the obsession of friendship with Hallam forced him to look backward.
Hallam is remembered not as the poet of eleven poems, but only as the subject of Tennyson’s poem—this is how he was immortalized in the graveyard of poetic history for forever. It seems and perhaps rightly too that in search of Hallam, the poet is wandering like Ulysses “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
What the robust, sharp lyrics of In Memoriam teach readers is that the false certainties of evangelical Christianity are as arid as the shrill negativism of the materialist outlook. Truth comes to us mediated by human love. That message Tennyson found from experience, as well as from his frequent rereading of Dante. Simply, it is like Dante’s The Divine Comedy that starts at Hell and takes its readers to the Heaven.