Alfred, Lord Tennyson eulogizes his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam (A.H.H.) in the text of In Memoriam, a poem comprising 131 sections bookended by a prologue and epilogue. In sections XXXI and XXXII, Tennyson describes Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus, the brother of Mary, who died as a result of grave illness; the poet’s biblical allusion to the Gospel of John 11-12 suggests his preoccupation with the possibility of life after death. Tennyson dwells upon Mary’s reaction to the awe-inspiring resurrection, placing particular emphasis on both her disbelief that Lazarus lives again and her veneration for Jesus’ miraculous raising of the dead.
Her eyes are homes of silent prayer,
Nor other thought her mind admits
But, he was dead, and there he sits,
And he that brought him back is there.
Then one deep love doth supersede
All other, when her ardent gaze
Roves from the living brother's face,
And rests upon the Life indeed.
All subtle thought, all curious fears,
Borne down by gladness so complete,
She bows, she bathes the Saviour's feet
With costly spikenard and with tears.
Thrice blest whose lives are faithful prayers,
Whose loves in higher love endure;
What souls possess themselves so pure,
Or is there blessedness like theirs?
Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus served, in antiquity, to convince nonbelievers and doubters alike of the power of Christ, subsequently encouraging them to place their faith in the Savior. In John 11:25, Jesus insinuates that believers will live an eternal spiritual life long after their physical death: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." Although the raising of Lazarus represents a literal manifestation of Christ’s promise, the typical interpretation of the passage remains that pious individuals, pure of soul, will continue a spiritual existence in the afterlife. Tennyson, obviously not foolish enough to hope for Hallam’s resurrection (though, indubitably, he irrationally wishes it true), finds comfort in the fact that his dear friend could achieve some degree of life after death. The afterlife, after all, embodies the last remaining place where Tennyson can hope to reunite with his departed friend.
1. In the final stanza of section XXXII, Tennyson comments upon the “Thrice blest whose lives are faithful prayers/ Whose loves in higher love endure.” Why are these individuals “thrice blest”? Does Tennyson espouse his own religious beliefs in insinuating that one should pursue a pious life?
2. In her commentary “Face to Face,” Leila Meglio explores the relationship between Christ and the individual as presented in Tennyson’s “Prologue” to In Memoriam. Tennyson “makes explicit that no compact solution exists in his poetry, just as there no miracle cure exists for grief. Instead, the reader will follow his true experiences struggling with his grief for his late friend, experience it with him, and draw some closeness to God by acknowledging the complexities between the human and divine rather than claiming to truly see and understand his ways.” Based on what we know, biographically, about Tennyson, does he become more religious following Hallam’s death? Is it his increased closeness to Christ that comforts Tennyson, encouraging him to believe that he may, one day, see Hallam again?
3. The image Tennyson paints of Mary bowing before Christ and bathing his feet with her hair comes directly from John 12:3. The original text reads as follows: “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.” Why would Tennyson allude to this particular gospel passage? To what extent does Mary’s reaction to Lazarus’ resurrection mirror the joy Tennyson would feel to see Hallam again? How does this instance relate to the poet’s discourse on life after death?
Last modified 8 April 2011