The public and private face of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

From a drawing in ‘Pictures from English Literature’, John Francis, 1870

Let’s call the first part “Author’s notes”

I finished my first year as an English and Creative Writing student in Goldsmiths, University of London. University essays differed drastically from the ones I had written (had been assigned) in high school. Therefore, I thought that it could be beneficial to share one of the essays I wrote this year. For all the future English students and for literature lovers in general. From the module: Introduction to literature of the Victorian period, this essay considers In Memoriam in relation to a quote by John Rosenberg:

Victorian elegy wears both a public and a private face, the one expressive of the loss of a sustaining culture, the other of personal loss

This statement by John Rosenberg can be found in his book Elegy for an Age: The Presence of the Past in Victorian Literature, where he later, when discussing the topic of Victorian elegy claims that: ‘in the most powerful Victorian elegies, the private and the public coalesce’[1]. Tennyson’s In Memoriam(1850) deals with the death of his friend Arthur Hallam and this characterises it as an extremely private work. However, the presence of socially significant themes cannot be denied. On multiple occasions the focus shifts from the personal loss to the Victorian conflict between science and religion. This essay aims to examine the personal face of In Memoriam, surveying the relationship between Arthur Hallam and Alfred Tennyson, using John Rosenberg’s work, in reference to cantos III, V and XCIII, which focus on the individual grief of the poet. Considering the context of the Victorian era and Tennyson’s interest in science, the portrayal of the public face of In Memoriam, characterised by the conflict between science and religion, will be examined through cantos LIV, LV and LVI. The essay will also analyse cantos VII and CXIX side by side, exploring how the poem moves from the private to the public as it progresses and how the two ‘coalesce’ to illustrate Tennyson’s hopeful look into the future.

In Memoriam is an elegiac poem, which Tennyson dedicated to his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly at the age of twenty-two. The unexpected loss undoubtedly had a very big impact on Tennyson and this reflected in the length of In Memoriam and the long time-span over which it was written. The fact that it was published in 1850, seventeen years after Hallam’s death, along with some seemingly erotic content fuels debates surrounding the relationship between the two men. In Elegy for an Age: The Presence of the Past in Victorian Literature, John Rosenberg argues that the nature of Tennyson’s sexuality is ‘a sexuality so primal and all-encompassing that it lacks gender specificity or constancy’. He goes on to suggest that while it may be ‘sexual’ In Memoriam is not ‘erotic’ and this differentiation is central to the understanding of Tennyson’s intentions[1]. It is a well-known fact that Tennyson revised his lyric on multiple occasions in order to make it less personal and directly related to him and Hallam. Furthermore, Tennyson was notoriously concerned about being misunderstood. This clearly reflects in the fact that he changed, perhaps the most discussed of all cantos in the context of sexuality, canto XCIII, where Tennyson pleads to Hallam’s ghost: ‘Descend, and touch, and enter, hear’[2]. Originally the line read: ‘Stoop soul and touch me: wed me; hear’[3]. It is the words ‘wed me’ that seem to have worried Tennyson at the time. However, in the contemporary, as Rosenberg calls in Post-Freudian society, where there is an inherent strive towards unravelling one’s subconscious desires, there is an apparent sexual context in the words ‘and touch, and enter’, especially when the word ‘soul’ is removed. Rosenberg comments on these changes made by Tennyson, writing: ‘I cling to something more substantial, to the weight and humanity of Tennyson’s loss, and I feel betrayed by the obliteration of Hallam’s person and gender’[4]. Rosenberg is convinced that the fear of being misunderstood is what led Tennyson to make In Memoriam more abstract and divine and less personal. While certain changes in expression have been made, the lyric does remain personal, reflecting Tennyson’s private grief. This is especially evident in the beginning, where Tennyson personifies ‘Sorrow’ and characterises it as the ‘Priestess in the vaults of Death’[5]. The poet seems to be having an existential crisis, owning to his fruitless search for meaning in the randomness of life, which bears only stars moving ‘blindly’[6]and with no purpose. Further on, in canto V, the poet shares his reluctance to ‘put in words’ his grief, thus making it public, claiming it ‘half a sin’, but still attempting to justify his need to articulate his feelings of loss in writing:

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.[7]

The writing provides the author with a relief of the pain that is comparable to that of a narcotic. Writing in such a strict form and ‘measured language’ puts the incomprehensible into a convenient mould and brings order to chaos. The regular metre and rhyme scheme can be compared to a heartbeat — the biological function that moves life forward even after grief’s destruction. While Tennyson clearly expresses a deeply personal and overwhelming feeling of grief in In Memoriam, the connection he has to Hallam is spiritual, not erotic. A modern reading may suggest otherwise, however, Tennyson and his contemporaries look ‘up rather than down’ and would have a more sacred understanding.[8]One thing resonates in both readings and that is the private face of Tennyson as he attempts to deal with the grief of losing his friend Arthur Henry Hallam.

Alongside his personal grief, Tennyson also gives voice to the consciousness of Victorian society, searching for the meaning of life, and more particularly, the role of science, nature and religion in the human existence. He often falls back on facts as a method to keep his writing going. In the essay ‘Astronomy and Geology, Terrible Muses! Tennyson and 19th-Century Science’, A.J. Meadows explores Tennyson’s intense interest in studying science, noting that it ‘existed from early in his life’.[9]Meadows explains that Tennyson ‘struggling to cope with his personal problems’, set himself a ‘rigorous programme of study’ mostly devoted to science.[10]This reflects in the writing of In Memoriam as Tennyson addresses the relationship between science and religion in cantos LIV, LV and LVI, reflecting the existential hesitations of his contemporaries. The personal struggle is still apparent, however, the external prevails over the internal in these sections as the focus falls on more universal contemplations and public debates. Tennyson is very aware of the scientific discoveries of his time and there are many examples of this throughout the poem, such as: ‘And finding that of fifty seeds/ She often brings but one to bear’ and ‘She cries, ‘a thousand types are gone:/ I care for nothing, all shall go’. Tennyson’s interest in human progress is not limited to scientific discoveries. There is a profound interest in ‘spiritual’ progress[11], with many references to God and the Biblical creation of the human, who has ‘The likest God within the soul’[12]. Religion and science are at first contradictory. Nature is vilified in canto LV where Tennyson writes:

Are God and Nature than at strife
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life ;

The opposition between science and religion is introduced as a ‘strife’, between God and ‘Nature’, where the latter is portrayed as ‘careless of the single life’. It is clear that Tennyson’s personal feelings influence his judgement. Since Hallam died unexpectedly, it is no surprise that Tennyson does not accept the randomness and carelessness of Nature. He continues to contemplate the meaning of life, expressing his hopes for a higher order, for a power bigger than himself. Desperation strikes at the end of canto LIV, where Tennyson compares himself to an infant with ‘no language but a cry’.[13]Unable to express his thought coherently, he cannot be answered, therefore meaning escapes him. While the focus at the end of canto LIV is on the self, canto LV emphasises on the collective. Tennyson realises how his own personal feelings reflect those of other Victorians as he expresses the universal longing for immortality: ‘The wish, that of the living whole/ No life may fail beyond the grave’.[14]The private face and the public face of the poem are both expressing their loss. The first, expressing Tennyson’s personal despair and the hope that Hallam’s soul lives on, the second simultaneously demonstrating the collective religious uncertainty and the hope for an afterlife. Bernard Lightman suggests in Victorian Sciences and Religions: Discordant Harmonies: ’It was common for thoughtful individuals during this time to experience a devastating loss of faith in traditional religious institutions and ideas’[15]. Lightman later adds that: ’If there is any period in the post-Newtonian age that deserves to be seen as an arena of warfare between science and religion, surely the Victorian period is a strong candidate’[16]. This statement, undoubtedly holds true, with the growing numbers of intellectuals who claimed themselves non-believers and ‘agnostics’, as well as those turning away from the church as an institution, it is obvious that people struggled to keep their faith.[17]In Memoriam reflects the uncertainty in creation caused by some scientific discoveries in the Victorian era, attempting to dissociate the two opposites and create harmony between them. In a similar way, the poem keeps the balance between individual and society.

The public and private are inextricable and it is often unclear where the philosophical contemplations end and the private emotions begin. Tennyson also becomes aware of this intermingling. In canto CXXX, he writes:

My love involves the love before;
My love is vaster passion now;
Tho’ mix’d with God and Nature thou,
I seem to love thee more and more.[18]

There is a change of tone in this part of the poem. The strong feelings of grief, despair and doubt have been replaced by acceptance and hope. Just as there is a harmony between ‘God and Nature’, as they are represented as a whole, there is harmony within the self. This part of the poem represents the calm after the storm, where the individual, after going through a surge of emotions and existential contemplations, has embraced their faith and believes that their ‘Dear heavenly friend’ lives inside them, through their thoughts and in their words.[19]The change of tone could be further examined through a comparison of cantos VII and CXIX, where the external environment reflects the emotional state of the speaker and how his emotions alter. The same place is depicted in these cantos, but with a different tone of voice and a very different outcome. In canto VII, the focus is on the fruitless search for comfort and the despair surrounding the loss. The speaker is by a ‘dark house’ in a ‘long unlovely street’ thinking of a ‘hand that ca be clasp’d no more’.[20]By contrast in canto CXIX, the surroundings and the scenery are calm and peaceful, reflecting the poet’s emotional state as he comes ‘once more’ to the same place, except this time he can ‘smell the meadow in the street’ and ‘hear a chirp of birds’ as he remembers his friend.[21]The major difference is that the poet’s search is, finally, fruitful, for the poem ends with the words: ‘I take the pressure of thine hand’.[22] After much thought, Tennyson has finally managed to accept his grief, by substituting it for love. Tennyson’s private resolutions and the achieved content are merged in the end with exterior happiness. The poem ends with the ‘happy hour’ of a wedding.[23]As Tennyson said himself: ‘In the poem altogether private grief swells out into thought of and hope for, the whole world… It is a very impersonal poem as well as personal’[24]. The beginning of In Memoriam contains the most private thoughts of a grief-stricken Tennyson, but as it progresses it also represents the issues facing Victorian contemporaries, overall creating a place where the private and the public find common ground.

In Memoriam captures Tennyson’s personal grief over the loss of his friend Arthur Hallam, as well as the public loss of certainty in organised religion, due to a rise in scientific discovery in the Victorian era. It presents these two losses side by side as it moves from the private to the public, portraying the individual desperation alongside the conflict between science and religion, showing how the personal acceptance and content transforms into public happiness and belief in the divine. Whatever the underlying intentions for this extremely personal collection of poems may be, we can be sure that Arthur’s memory lives on forever and that we can all find a piece of ourselves in In Memoriam.


First published on Medium July 10, 2018

Footnotes are all in relation to the MHRA style guide:

[1]John Rosenberg, Elegy for an Age: The Presence of the Past in Victorian Literature (London: Anthem Press, 2005), p. 9.

[2]Rosenberg, p. 44.

[3]Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam, Maud and other poems (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1974), p. 127.

[4]John Rosenberg, p. 48.

[5]Rosenberg, p. 47.

[6]Tennyson, p. 77.

[7]Tennyson, p. 77.

[8]Tennyson, p. 78.

[9]Rosenberg, p. 48.

[10]A. J. Meadows, ‘Astronomy and Geology, Terrible Muses! Tennyson and 19th-Century Science’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 46, 1 (1992), 111–118 (p.111).

[11]Meadows, p. 112.

[12]Eugene R. August, ‘Tennyson and Teilhard: The Faith of In Memoriam’,PMLA, 84, 2, 217–226 (p.222).

[13]Tennyson, p. 104.

[14]Tennyson, p. 104.

[15]Tennyson, p. 104.

[16]BernardLightman, ‘VictorianSciencesandReligions: DiscordantHarmonies’, Osiris, 16, ScienceinTheisticContexts: CognitiveDimensions(2001), 343–366 (p. 344).

[17]BernardLightman, p. 344.

[18]Lightman, p. 348.

[19]Tennyson, p. 148

[20]Tennyson, p.149.

[21]Tennyson, p. 79.

[22]Tennyson, p. 144.

[23]Tennyson, p. 144.

[24]Tennyson, p. 152.

[25]Christopher Ricks, Tennyson: A selection edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2007)

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© Gery Galabova.