hat Tennyson imagines achieving in his dream of "spring no more" in In Memoriam, Helen Burns of Jane Eyre achieves in reality. For all intents and purposes she assumes the identity of Christ. She metes out spiritual and moral advice of the kind found in the New Testament. She propagates love in the face of enemies; she teaches patient endurance; she frowns upon vengeance and hate. When Miss Scatcherd tries to humiliate her in the middle of class, Helen takes her disgrace with serenity: 'she neither wept nor blushed: composed, though grave, she stood, the central mark of all eyes" (Jane Eyre, p. 44).
This passage strangely resembles the scene that Tennyson describes in his dream: "I met with scoffs, I met with scorns/From youth and babe and hoary hairs." By donning the crown of thorns, the poet figuratively joins with Christ. His declaration of faith, though, meets with the disdain of his fellow man. Here, in morbid tone, Tennyson asks again for communion with the spiritual world and seeks a way for his own faith to overcome the obstacles of material reality. Helen Burns, encountering the same kind of scorn from the teachers and students of Lowood, clings to her faith in God as tightly as Tennyson will soon learn to do. While Tennyson still doubts, Helen knows that life has purpose. At one point she even says that in the afterworld our spirits will be "communicated to some being higher than man — perhaps to pass through gradations of glory" — an idea remarkably similar to Tennyson's eventual belief of man as a spiritually evolving creature (p. 51).
The reader's reaction to these two Christ-like figures, however, differs radically. After all, Tennyson and Brontë attempt two very different effects. Tennyson, for one, wants to convey a sense of doubt, and he accomplishes this through his imagery. The first line of the poem, for instance, echoes section 54, in which Tennyson says that he must trust that good follows ill just as every winter changes into spring. With 'spring no more," the reader infers that suffering has ceased to have meaning and that poet now plummets to the extremes of his despair. Nature — the source of this doubt — assumes the cold, indifferent face of winter, confronting the poet with streets "black with smoke and frost." The "angel of the night" penetrates the darkness, saving Tennyson from the painful crown of thorns; however, this divine figure does not fully confirm Tennyson's faith. The poem ends in doubt. The ambivalent sound of the angel's voice — "not the voice of grief" — and the angel's unintelligible words give Tennyson poor solace. His imaginary contact with the afterworld — even the symbolic implication that suffering will receive its just reward — does not offer him a complete understanding.
In contrast, the Christ-like Helen Burns works to affirm faith in God. Helen herself resolutely believes in the afterlife. She informs Jane before dying: "'I believe: I have faith: I am going to God" (p. 71). Her unwavering devotion gives a typically grim scene a glowing optimism of the sort that does not enter In Memoriam until near the end.
Helen Burns's life and death provide Jane with concrete evidence of the importance of faith. Tennyson, on the other hand, spends this poem and all the rest of In Memoriam looking for such data. His doubt seems firmly grounded in a philosophical doctrine well known in nineteenth-century England — empiricism. John Locke and other philosophers of this school emphasized that all knowledge comes from personal experience. They rejected the concept of innate ideas, demanding instead "close observation and experiment" in developing thought. The empiricists' stress on inductive rather than deductive reasoning profoundly influenced the scientific and technological advancements of the time, eventually leading to some of the great inventions of the Victorian period. The empiricists' ideas seem to have leaked into Tennyson's life as well. In Memoriam poses Tennyson as an empirical thinker trying to confirm his innate notions of God and immortality through experiential evidence. Jane Eyre, though not searching for the human soul, stumbles upon its proof when she meets Helen Burns.
Content last modified May 1994