Decorative Initial At the climax of In Memoriam, just after Tennyson has had his mystic vision, a wind arises. We are near the close of section 95, when "suck'd from out the distant gloom / A breeze began" (53-54). Often associated with change, the wind here appropriately symbolizes Tennyson's transformation. Characteristically, Tennyson has used an element of nature to represent his emotions. The example in 95 is far from an isolated appearance of wind: the motif plays a vital role throughout the work. Tennyson does not always use wind in this way, however: each time he uses it, he slightly alters its meaning and mood. By repeating the image, he gives various sections a common element, thus unifying the poem — yet by varying the image, he saves the work from monotony.

Ironically, we first encounter the wind in its absence. In section 11, Tennyson uses the "calm" of a landscape without wind to convey his own "calm despair" (16). By section 15, however, the landscape changes: "Tonight the wind began to rise" (1). We know that Tennyson wants us to notice the lack of wind in 11, and the subsequent change here, because in section 16, he deliberately draws the two together — and compares them. "Can calm despair / And wild unrest / Be tenants of a single breat?" he asks (2-3). In section 15, Tennyson seems buffeted by the wind; it "onward drags" his "laboring breast" (18). Despite his great poetic control, paradoxically, Tennyson seems to express his lack of control over his emotions. The wind stands for a grief he cannot restrain. He overcome by "wild unrest", as though it is, like a gale, a force outside of himself.

Tennyson so pointedly uses wind to convey his own anxiety that we almost forget he refers to the wind that moves a ship — the ship that carries Hallam's body. When we next hear the wind, Tennyson still refers to the ship, but has this time shifted the focus to emphasize its journey. In section 17, significantly, Tennsyon produces the wind, rather than being its victim. This turnaround points to a central issue of the poem: Tennyson's fight for control. As he struggles to overcome his own grief, moments of helplessness, such as the one in 15, alternate with moments of control. The wind is a neutral enough image that Tennyson can use it to express both states. In 17, his own prayer creates the "whisper of air" to move the ship (3). In this case, where the wind originates in him, it is interesting that Tennyson refers to it as a "breeze" and a "whisper."

In section 75, the wind is still a "breeze" — and still originates in Tennyson. Although Tennyson maintains these two elements, he has now varied others: the wind now stands not for prayer but for his poetry. Moreover, his attitude toward it has changed. Rather than seeing the wind as useful, now he doubts its worth. Whereas the "whisper of air" was pleasing, now Tennyson feels his breeze inadequate to praise Hallam "I care not... / To raise a cry that lasts not long / And round thee with a breeze of song" (9-11). Perhaps, if he can give so little, he should remain silent. By 78 this uncertainty has led him back to stasis. In the "calm" of Christmas Eve, he seems to regress to section 11. "No wing of wind," he says, "the region swept" (6). Because of the context within the poem, however, the absence of wind no longer has the same meaning. Now, rather than despair, the stillness conveys only "the quiet sense of something lost"(8). At the close of the section, Tennyson says that although his regret still lives, his tears are dry. This stillness, then, shows that Tennyson is ready to progress to a new stage. Here, at the beginning of the third section of the poem, Tennyson deliberately introduces a lull — so that he may pick up on it at the climax.

It is stasis, then, with which we begin section 95 — with "a calm that let the tapers burn / Unwavering" (5-6). In this section, however, we do not remain static: Tennyson treats the image in a new way. Previously, when Tennyson established the role of the wind in a particular section, he sustained it throughout. Here, however, we move from no wind to high wind. In line 33, Tennyson'd trance overcomes him, and for the first time, he spiritually joins Hallam: “The dead man touch'd me from the past /...The living soul was flashed on mine / And mine in his was wound... /....and caugh/ The deep pulsations of the world" (34-40). Now that he has "caught" these "pulsations", Tennyson moves once more — but no longer with the violent motion of section 15. Neither does he mention his own feeble "breezes." The divine motion which now infuses him neither originates in him, nor is it his enemy. With the wind, Tennyson conveys his own newfound energy. He first reprises a stanza from earlier in the section, to remind us of the quiet with which we began: “The white kine glimmered, and the trees / Laid their dark arms about the field" (51-52) — and to clearly show the contrast to the wind that now begins. The change in the wind mimics Tennyson'd own change, from isolation to reunion, from grief to hope, from doubt to a new kind of faith.

Tennyson's presentation of the scene is suitably dramatic. First, he makes the wind originate from the "distant gloom" (53). At first only a "breeze" begins to "tremble o'er" (54). But wait: now it begins to "fluctuate the "still perfume / And gathering freshlier overhead, / Rock'd the full-foliaged elms." This wind blows as forcefully as that which shook section 15, but there it blew through "barren branches." Tennyson kas kept the intensity of the wind, but he has altered the scene: the trees are in full bloom; the rose is "heavy-folded." (59) Furthermore, the wind here seems even more vehement than that in 15 because of Tennsyon's poetic technique. Unlike 15, 95 is filled with enjambment, which heightens our sense of the rushing of the wind — and of the new force that drives Tennyson. "It swung / The heavy folded rose, and flung / The lilies to and fro" (58-60). The very rhyme of "swung" and "flung" — both fimal verbs hurling themselves into their direct objects at the beginning of the following lines — urges the poem forward. This wind, one of frshness and chnage, ushers in the dawn, for as the sun rises, the wind dies away. It has served its purpose of casting out the old, preparing the way for the new.

In fact, now that the wind has fulfilled this function, we no longer see it in a central role. From now on it appears only briefly in benevolent roles. In 107, however, the unexpected happens: we once again meet a harsh wind. "Fiercely flies the blast from North and East." Tennyson evokes the violence of the wind in 15. The variation is that now, rather than conveying what Tennyson feels, this wind is purely external. Tennyson is separated from it, insulated from it by his newfound faith. Indeed, this is a wind that could again signify doubt, grief, and unrest, but this time Tennyson is unaffected. He resolves to sit by the fire and to be "cheerful-minded" (19).

We see, then, how Tennyson manipulates the wind to make it a multiple symbol, a jack-of-all-trades. He uses it to convey his grief and despair; his uncertainty and doubt; and finally, his renewed hope. As we follow the wind and what it signifies, we move through the different stages of Tennyson's grieving. Tennyson may choose the wind as such a crucial symbol precisely because it is so protean; it lends itself to a variety of roles. And because the wind is an element of a landscape, many times it is not the wind itself that stands for Tennyson's attitude — but the whole scene, composed of both the wind and Tennyson. As the Norton editors point ut, Tennyson has the power of "creating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it, and to summon up the state of the feeling itself."

As we have seen, Tennyson directs the way in which we interpret the wind using various techniques: (1) changing its strength, (2) changing the mood of the context — the surrounding poem or poems, (3) changing the realtionship between the wind and himself, and (4) changing poetic technique. As the poem progresses, each time we encounter the wind, we hear an echo from a previous poem: some feature of the wind calls to mind an earlier scene. Through such repetition, Tennyson reminds us of what has happened, and thus unifies the poem. But each time, the import of the wind cchanges, pushing the poem along, making us see the change in Tennyson's attitudes toward Hallam's death.


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Image & Symbol

Last modified 1989