Alfred, Lord Tennyson composed In Memoriam between 1833 and 1850 to elegize the recently deceased Arthur Henry Hallam, his former classmate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Both members of an elite society of intellectuals known as the Apostles, Tennyson and Hallam developed an intimate friendship that survived college and extended into adult life. Tennyson’s composition comprises 133 sections interwoven with a myriad of images and motifs; each fragment, however, functions independently of the others and can be read as a single, separate entity. The structure of In Memoriam reflects Tennyson’s belief in the power of simple verse to convey emotion effectively and realistically; the poet rejected conventional elegy, believing that its more formal structure forced the reader through a too rigid, and therefore disingenuous, sequence of emotions and experiences. Tennyson: A Memoir, published by Tennyson’s son, quotes the poet arguing that the fragmented structure of In Memoriam allows for a more genuine and realistic expression of his emotional progression from grief and despair to hope and his eventual acceptance of “Faith in a God of Love”:
The sections were written at many different places, and as the phases of our intercourse came to my memory and suggested them. I did not write them with any view of weaving them into a whole, or for publication, until I found that I had written so many. The different moods of sorrow as in a drama are dramatically given, and my conviction that fear, doubts, and suffering will find answer and relief only through Faith in a God of Love. ‘I’ is not always the author speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking through him (304-5)
The first phase of Tennyson’s emotional journey marks a period of concentrated personal grief in the immediate wake of Hallam’s death; the poet adamantly believes that he will perpetually mourn his friend — to the continuous tolling of “one set slow bell” — until he, too, passes away.
Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever look'd with human eyes.
I hear it now, and o'er and o'er,
Eternal greetings to the dead;
And "Ave, Ave, Ave," said,
"Adieu, adieu," for evermore. [Section LVII, lines 9-16]
The poet resigns himself in line 16 to the idea that he has bid farewell “for evermore” to his departed friend; his conviction that he has been eternally parted from Hallam suggests that Tennyson questions, at least in the early phases of his grief, the existence of the soul’s survival and existence in an eternal afterlife. Immediately following this period of pronounced despondency, however, Tennyson recedes from his sorrow to meditate on man’s place in Nature and the relationship between science and religious faith. Though he does not yet profess to possess, at this point, the faith that he finds by the poem’s close, Tennyson’s twofold contemplation of religion and science point toward his struggle with and eventual acceptance of faith and religion.
Tennyson’s meditations on science and religion combine to form a central fiber of In Memoriam: the poet’s play upon the word “type” becomes a recurring motif of the work. In the text of the poem, Tennyson uses the word “type” in both a religious and biological context. Religious typology, conventionally, is a Christian form of biblical interpretation that claims to discover divinely intended anticipations of Christ and His word in the Old Testament. Typological symbolism infiltrated works of art and literature in the Victorian era, rendering biblical imagery particularly characteristic of mid to late nineteenth-century England. Hallam, iconographic of both the religious and biological types present in In Memoriam, prefigures the second coming of Christ (religious typology) and the progressive evolutionary enhancement of man (biological typology). The final two stanzas of the poem’s Epilogue detail Hallam as the “noble type” — an early manifestation of the ideal man:
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,
That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.
By the poem’s end, however, Tennyson reconciles any conflicts between the religious type and the biological type by asserting that the latter falls within the bounds of the former; in other words, Tennyson’s newfound faith leads him to attribute the existence of biological development and evolution to God’s eternal plan for man and earth. The pattern of life — “to which the whole creation moves” — falls under “One God, one law, one element.” God, thus, epitomizes the physical and spiritual center of man’s existence — the point from which all things originate. Prior to avowing his resolution in faith and God, however, the vast majority of In Memoriam details Tennyson’s engagement with the apparent fundamental conflicts present between religion and science. Historically, religion and science represent conflicting spheres of thought: one could not sanction recent scientific findings or breakthroughs without subsequently shirking scripture and, thus, God.
The prologue to In Memoriam acts as a blueprint for the 132 sections that follow; written after the completion of the poem, it serves to inform the reader that Tennyson’s emotional journey begins with grief — an emotion he readily admits to have been founded in the “confusions of a wasted youth” — but ultimately culminates in a religious awakening. Importantly, however, the poem’s prologue revolves around the essence of faith and how one must “embrace” Christ and His “immortal Love,” believing in His power although its existence cannot be proven:
Strong Son of God, immortal Love
Whom we, that have not seen they face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove [lines 1-4]
. . .
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow. [lines 21-24]
Tennyson contrasts the notion of faith with that of knowledge: the latter implies fact founded in seeing something to be true while the former requires belief in spite of an intrinsic inability to base that trust in logic or reason. The poet alludes to his time spent groping for knowledge in lieu of trusting in faith as the equivalent to time spent in metaphorical darkness; to trust in God is to be perpetually enlightened by His wisdom and “immortal Love.” In the last several stanzas of the Prologue, Tennyson asks God for forgiveness, admitting that the grief he initially felt for Hallam originated from his childish confusion that death parted individuals indefinitely. Rather, Tennyson admits, he should have realized sooner that Hallam, “whom [he] found so fair,” lives eternally in the afterlife — a “worthier” home for one of “noble type.”
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise. [lines 37-44]
The close of the prologue, thus, alludes to Tennyson’s ultimate reverence for God and his desire to obtain increased spiritual wisdom and awareness. He attributes all his prior religious doubt and uncertainties to the “confusions of a wasted youth” — a childish reverie devoid of divine direction.
Sections 55 (LV) and 56 (LVI) of In Memoriam — two fragments among many that resonate profoundly with one another — encompass perhaps Tennyson’s most aggressive confrontation with the tension that exists between God and Nature. In Section 55, Tennyson particularly addresses that Nature seems to care only for the continuation of species — the biological “type” — as opposed to the preservation of the individual life. God, unlike Nature, considers each life so precious that it survives forever in the afterlife; Tennyson implies that the belief that “no life may fail beyond the grave” represents an intrinsically spiritual tenet. God and Nature, given the opposite perceptions of each regarding individual life worth, are effectively “at strife” with one another.
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?
Tennyson, familiar with contemporary scientific treatises, acknowledges the ruthlessness of the struggle for survival in nature that most associate with Darwin’s theory of natural selection (although Darwin published his theory well after the publication of In Memoriam). Tennyson, in the third stanza of the section, paints for his readers a picture of the inherent cruelty that exists in nature and the “secret meaning in her deeds” — her perpetual pursuit of the ideal biological type. In realizing this struggle, however, he turns to God of his own volition to pray that man will not also succumb to Nature’s ruthless selectivity:
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
Tennyson’s word choice in the above stanzas indicate that he still withholds doubts regarding God’s supremacy and His preservation of the human soul in the afterlife; the assurance of life after death remains of particular importance, of course, because the poet yearns for an eventual reunion with his departed friend, Arthur Hallam. Upon “considering everywhere” the prevalence of natural selection in nature, Tennyson “falter[s] where [he] firmly trod,” indicating that he developed misgivings in light of his recent contemplation of Nature’s power. In the wake of his newfound spiritual uncertainty, the poet can only “stretch lame hands of faith, and grope” toward “what he feels is Lord of all.” Note how the italicized words (the emphasis is mine) lack the confidence and forcefulness of one who boasts concrete religious convictions and an unwavering faith in God. Tennyson, at this point in the poem, continues to journey toward spiritual maturity but can only “faintly trust the larger hope” — a hope that contains both the promise of an eternal afterlife and a spiritual reunion with Hallam.
Tennyson continues his exploration of the phenomenon of natural selection and the biological type in Section 56 of In Memoriam. In the first six lines of the section, Tennyson personifies Nature as a seemingly ruthless destructor of types, or species:
"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.
"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
Fossil findings and records originating from the various strata of the earth — “from scarped cliff and quarried stone” — provide evidence of the extinction of both individuals and entire species; Tennyson, who believes that Nature, unlike God, “care[s] for nothing,” fears that man may suffer a similar fate. Tennyson’s lament for Hallam, thus, increases in scope as he realizes the possibility that the entire human species could die out, leaving all that remains of mankind to “Be blown about the desert dust,/ Or seal’d within the iron hills” [lines 19-20].
The poet continues to doubt his original conviction from Section 54: God’s plan for man requires “that nothing walks with aimless feet;/ That not one life shall be destroy’d,/ Or case as rubbish to the void” [lines 5-7]. In other words, everything serves a greater purpose and God divinely preordains that purpose. Although this assertion represents a hopeful interpretation of all worldly events, the doubts that Tennyson expresses in Sections 55 and 56 would seem to indicate that the true order of Nature is destruction, not the “immortal Love” of Christ and God, the alleged divine Creator of the Earth.
Section 118 of the poem suggests a more redemptive outlook on evolution and Nature that counters Tennyson’s doubts from Sections 55 and 56. The first stanza encourages the reader to consider the vast stretches of geological time while consciously separating the human body (“Nature’s earth and lime”) from the soul: “Contemplate all this work of Time,/The giant labouring in his youth;/ Nor dream of human love and truth,/ As dying Nature's earth and lime” [lines 1-4]. The ultimate fate of the soul, thus, cannot be irrevocably linked with the fate of the human body: in death, the body no longer serves as the soul’s physical vessel. That fact, however, does not prevent the communion of disembodied souls in the afterlife. While human evolution and development prefigures the eventual emergence of more highly evolved generations on earth, it also alludes to the elevation of man in heaven — the “higher place.”
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
Within himself, from more to more;
Or, crown'd with attributes of woe
Like glories, move his course, and show
That life is not as idle ore,
But iron dug from central gloom,
And heated hot with burning fears,
And dipt in baths of hissing tears,
And batter'd with the shocks of doom
To shape and use.
Here, Tennyson suggests that evolution is partly a matter of individual will; the human race only evolves if individuals take the initiative to reproduce (“type”) its development in their own lives. That development can advance gradually (“from more to more”) or occur in large steps achieved, for example, through suffering and grief. Lines 20-25 dictate that the “central gloom . . . [the] burning fears . . . [the] hissing tears . . . [and] the shocks of doom” serve to “move [man’s] course” ever onward. “Life is not as idle ore” but, rather, is constantly being shaped and manipulated by adverse emotions so as to propel human evolution and development forward. Section 118, thus, effectively accounts for man’s worldly grievances; overcoming such adverse emotions, such as those inspired in Tennyson by Hallam’s death, empowers man. The poet, thus, urges the individual to progress (“move upward”), physically or emotionally, to a “higher” nature.
Section 124 of In Memoriam contains Tennyson’s assertion that his newfound faith originated neither from evidence in nature nor from philosophical arguments (“thro’ the questions men man try”). Nature’s seemingly evil tendencies, which Sections 55 and 56 discussed at great length, thus can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God; as the poet asserts in the Prologue, faith intrinsically requires “believing where we cannot see.”
That which we dare invoke to bless;
Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt;
He, They, One, All; within, without;
The Power in darkness whom we guess;
I found Him not in world or sun,
Or eagle's wing, or insect's eye;
Nor thro' the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun:
If e'er when faith had fall'n asleep,
I heard a voice `believe no more'
And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumbled in the Godless deep;
Tennyson does, however, emphasize the ease with which one can stray from belief “if e’er . . . faith [should] fall asleep.” Reasons to doubt God’s presence exist, particularly in the overly analytical mind, yet the poet professes his ability to ward off any inclinations toward faithlessness. His simple statement, “ ‘I have felt,’ ” refers to the climax of the poem in Section 95, where Tennyson details his mystical experience of contact with Hallam’s soul; having “felt” the poignancy of a spiritual moment, the poet cannot now allow doubt to impair his belief in the Lord.
A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason's colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answer'd "I have felt."
And what I am beheld again
What is, and no man understands;
And out of darkness came the hands
That reach thro' nature, moulding men.
Tennyson compares his spiritual awakening to a child’s maturation into manhood. In reaction to his prior religious uncertainties, the poet claims to have been “like a child in doubt and fear” — unable to make more of his grief and confusion than a “blind clamour” marked by childish misunderstandings and inarticulate cries. Tennyson weaves this image of infantilism throughout the poem, particularly from Section 54, where he imagines himself “An infant crying in the night:/ An infant crying for the light:/ And with no language but a cry.” As most children inspired by fear, however, Tennyson feels a comforting presence nearby (“knows his father near”); in this case, it is the heavenly Father that provides the reassurance and support so desperately sought after by the poet. Though “no man understands” the workings of God, Tennyson asserts that His hands — symbolic of His vitalizing, sustaining presence — supersede Nature (“reach thro’ nature”) to embody the supreme “moulding” force of man.
In Section 131, the last remaining section of the poem that precedes the Epilogue, Tennyson champions man’s “living will that shalt endure.” In other words, the poet elevates man’s ability to endure hardship by turning to the Lord, as he did, for spiritual support and guidance.
O living will that shalt endure
When all that seems shall suffer shock,
Rise in the spiritual rock,
Flow thro' our deeds and make them pure,
That we may lift from out of dust
A voice as unto him that hears,
A cry above the conquer'd years
To one that with us works, and trust,
With faith that comes of self-control,
The truths that never can be proved
Until we close with all we loved,
And all we flow from, soul in soul.
The opening stanza contains an allusion to 1 Corinthians 10:4, which reads “They drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.” The scriptural passage refers to Moses’ striking of a rock on Mount Horeb to extract water for the Israelites; however, because Moses strikes the rock to obtain water, rather than speak to it, God denies him access to the Promised Land. Moses’ will to endure — he continues to lead his followers to the Promised land in spite of his punishment — represents the resilience of character and soul that Tennyson advocates for by the poem’s close. Faith, by its nature, the poet has come to realize, contains “truths that never can be proved” and, thus, requires man to wait patiently for the unknown. All will be revealed at the moment of death and, until then, one must trust in God regardless of the difficult trials faced by the human soul.
Tennyson’s emotional journey and subsequent spiritual revelation in the wake of Arthur Hallam’s death requires the poet to reflect on man’s place in the world and the existence of a God. In the distraught manner of one who mourns the recently deceased, Tennyson continuously questions his religious faith, particularly in light of Nature’s seemingly cruel and ruthless predisposition. The reader, subject to the emotional turmoil of the poet, experiences almost firsthand Tennyson’s indecision and ultimate realization that faith requires belief — belief in a God and an eternal afterlife — without proof or knowledge of either’s existence. Tennyson effectively reconciles any conflict between religion and science by attributing the functions of nature — natural selection, individual development, and species’ evolution — to fall under God’s jurisdiction.
Landow, George P. Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought. Boston and London: Routledge, 1980.
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, and Erik Irving Gray. In Memoriam: Authoritative Text: Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.
Tennyson, Hallam, Lord. Tennyson: A Memoir. London, 1897.
Last modified 23 May 2011