This convergence of paradigm, poetic organization, and theme also appears, as one might expect, in In Memoriam. When Tennyson's close friend Arthur Henry Hallam died in 1833, the poet felt himself stripped of an sustaining belief and plunged into crisis. Stunned, without direction, he found himself, as he explained in the fourth section of In Memoriam, drifting hopelessly 'within a helmless bark'. Hallam's death placed everything in his life — his conception of himself, his poetry, his relation to other people — in crisis as he began to doubt an his most basic beliefs. When friends tried to console him by pointing out that such tragic, wasteful deaths were a common occurrence, such attempts at consolation only made him doubt religion even more. Pointing to the fact that loss is common " would not make/ My own less bitter, rather more:/ Too common!" [204/205] Tennyson then sketches a series of such deaths, one of which takes place at sea:

O mother, praying God win save
Thy sailor, — while thy head is bow'd
His heavy-shotted hammock-shroud
Drops in his vast and wandering grave. [sec. 6]

Waiting for the ship to return Hallam's body so it can be buried in English soil, Tennyson becomes drawn to the vision of his friend as a castaway, for as he thinks that an who loved Hallam wish him buried at home, he compares that final resting place, not to a possible one in Vienna, where his friend died, but to the ocean floor:

O to us,
The fools of habit, sweeter seems
To rest beneath the clover sod. . .

Than if with thee [the ship] the roaring wells
Should gulf him fathom-deep in brine;
And hands so often clasped in mine,
Should toss and tangle with shells. [sec. 10]

After thus placing both himself and Hallam within an imaginative landscape of shipwreck and disaster, the poet then tries unsuccessfully at this early stage in In Memoriam to find some means of transforming his helmless bark' into an ark of salvation. In the twelfth section, for example, he describes himself in terms borrowed from the dove sent forth from the ark:

Like her I go; I cannot stay;
I leave this mortal ark behind,
A weight of nerves without a mind,
And leave the cliffs, and haste away

O'er ocean-mirrors rounded large,
And reach the glow of southern skies,
And see the sails at distance rise,
And linger weeping on the marge, [205/206]

And saying; "Comes he thus, my friend?
Is this the end of an my care?"
And circle moaning in the air: "Is this the end? Is this the end?"

And forward dart again, and play
About the prow, and back return To where the body sits, and learn
That I have been an hour away.

Having encountered in his daydream the ship bearing Hallam's body, the poet then returns to "where the body sits," but this second body is his own and now appears a corpse. Having imaginatively travelled in spirit, he returns with no inspiriting hope but only more recognitions of death. This dove found nothing that could support life. This metaphoric element in the poem does not find resolution until section 103, which relates that Tennyson "dreamed a vision of the dead,/ Which left my after-morn content." He dreams that he lives in a han surrounded by maidens who represent the Muses.

They sang of what is wise and good
And graceful. In the centre stood
A statue veiled, to which they sang;

And which, though veiled, 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.

Boarding his vessel, he finds Hallam there waiting to greet him, and just before they leave, he discovers that his poetic faculties are to come, too. Tennyson, who now believes once again, not only feels sure that he win be reunited with Hallam and that he win reach his own heavenly destination but also knows his poetry has a role in his life worthy of that destination. Unlike his own "The Two Voices" and Hopkins's "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire," In Memoriam does not find its central resolution in this transformation of the shipwreck paradigm. In Memoriam, which is an extraordinarily complex poem, is composed of many such [206/207] metaphors and their transformations, and although this one contributes to the main effect, it is not its entire source as in the briefer lyrics. One such crucial motif in the poem is that of the hand. In the opening section Tennyson inquires,

. . . who shall so forecast the years
And find a loss a gain to match?
Or reach a hand through time to catch The far-off interest of tears?

In the sections that constitute the rest of the poem, Tennyson returns again and again to this notion of a vitalizing, sustaining hand, which in essence represents the presence of both God and Hallam. In his grief he thinks of his friend's hand tossing "with tangle and with shells" (sec. 10); and when he thinks of loss, he thinks of the absence of that beloved hand. Hands, touching, and similar paradigms occur repeatedly throughout the poem, but the most important instance of them appears in the climactic section 95, which records Tennyson's mystical experience. After reading Hallam's letters once again, the poet felt

The dead man touched me from the past,
And an at once it seemed at last
The living soul was flashed on mine.

The hand that could reach through time and for which he had longed in the poem's opening section can only be that of either Hallam or God. Under their sponsorship, Tennyson not only feels himself reunited with his friend but also writes a poem that sets forth the presence of good in the midst of evil, life in the midst of death, and God in the midst of this world in which entire species become extinct. Tennyson's mystical experience, which transforms the paradigm of the hand, turns out to have a surprising amount in common with the situation of shipwreck. Both are situations in which Tennyson found himself impinged upon by external forces that threatened to end his life as he knew it, but the mystical experience, of course, took a benign form. The length of In Memoriam, which permits Tennyson to develop several such main paradigms, also permits him to transform one into another. [207/208]

Tennyson's resolution of the problems posed for a believer by the shipwreck paradigm by means of a mystical experience anticipates Hopkins's strategies in The Wreck of the Deutschland in which such intrusion of the divine upon the human occurs twice, first to the poet himself at his conversion (secs 2-4) and then to the nun (secs 17-9, 24). The poet's comprehension of the nun's cry to Christ as a new creation of the word of God comes to him as a 'beacon of light' — the same figure used in "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire."

In Memoriam has been discussed recently so well and at such length — see references immediately following — that I do not wish to go into the matter of its paradigms, motifs, and systems of transformations again. What I do wish to point out, however, is that this great poem, which has had an extraordinary influence on British and American poetry, has much to reveal to the student of literary iconology.


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Last modified 15 July 2007