Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H. is a poem of grieving and doubt. Tennyson composed the poem after the death of a close friend, and in it he questions both his Christian faith and the role of poetry. At points in the poem, contemporary scientific theories serve as a source of doubt for Tennyson. The geologist Charles Lyell was a contemporary of Tennyson’s, and his work suggested that the Earth was significantly older than literal readings of the Bible indicated. Related doubts seem to appear in section 56:

"So careful of the type?" but no.
      From scarped cliff and quarried stone
      She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

Other natural scientists, such as Robert Chambers, had proposed pre-Darwinian theories of evolution that indicated that man and other species changed over time. This idea further challenged literal readings of the Bible, although not the Church of England’s doctrine. Interestingly, Chambers does not see evolution as random, but as causing man to become stronger, faster, smarter and increasingly moral. Echoes of this sentiment are visible in In Memoriam as well. Readers are asked to “Contemplate all this work of Time,” at the beginning of section 118. Tennyson goes on to write,

                        They say,
The solid earth whereon we tread

In tracts of fluent heat began,
      And grew to seeming-random forms,
      The seeming prey of cyclic storms,
Till at the last arose the man;

Who throve and branch'd from clime to clime,
      The herald of a higher race,
      And of himself in higher place,
If so he type this work of time.

In tracts of fluent heat began,
      And grew to seeming-random forms,
      The seeming prey of cyclic storms,
Till at the last arose the man;

Who throve and branch'd from clime to clime,
      The herald of a higher race,
      And of himself in higher place,
If so he type this work of time

Questions

1. Like much of the poem, this passage can fit various interpretations at once. It states that when man arose he was “The herald of a higher race / And of himself in higher place.” Here the Victorian notion of progress (i.e. society and culture improve along with science as time goes on) seems to be present, as does a Christian notion of ascending to heaven. Indeed, although Charles Darwin had not yet published Origin of Species when the poem was published, a theory of evolution appears to be present in the passage in which man arises from nature’s “seeming random forms.”

2. Scientific theory and a notion of progress are both present in this passage. In Past and Present (1843), Thomas Carlyle outlines a form of typology based on all human history. This ‘extended typology’ is not restricted to the bible; rather all events of human history can be read as potential types. The rise of man, his thriving, and his status as a “herald of a higher race” as seem to be in line with contemporary evolutionary thought. These events could also be the adumbration of a future antitype, and thus a kind of historical typology of a future kingdom of god. Is ‘historical typology’ at work in the above passage, or was Past and Present published too late to influence Tennyson?

3. The line “If so he type this work of time” is ambiguously worded. What exactly is meant by “type” here, and who is “he?” Is this simply reference to Hallam as a type, or is mankind figured as a broad type that strives towards Christ-like perfection? Or, is it possibly being used in a scientific sense (as in, “A thousand types are gone”)?

4.In the epilogue, Tennyson makes more direct references to Hallam as a type of Christ. After mentioning the love they shared, and importantly, their suffering, he writes,

Whereof the man, that with me trod
      This planet, was a noble type
      Appearing ere the times were ripe,
That friend of mine who lives in God,

Here Hallam appears as a type of Christ, who appears when at times when humanity is ready to receive him (“ere the times were ripe”). If this is true, then it places Tennyson as in the position of a prophet like “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” (Isiah 40.3), what is later identified in the gospels as John the Baptist. Is Tennyson constructing his position as a prophet?


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Leading Questions

Last modified 8 April 2011