Life makes few guarantees. The contemporary cliché "Nothing is certain except death and taxes" accurately captures the cavalier attitude with which we acknowledge both our frailty and lack of control while keeping an ironic distance from our inevitable departure. In a classic case of art imitating life, writing makes few guarantees. Sudden surprise plot developments, radical changes in style, and the portrayal of outrageous events are only a few of the tools authors can use to create a wholly unpredictable atmosphere, dismantling the existence of certainty. However, one aspect of writing is common to virtually every text: the ending. With poetry, which frequently contains shorter or sparer text and fewer words, the ending's prominent placement often grants it an even greater overall importance than the ending of a novel can possess. The last part of a poem nearly always serves a vital function in understanding the ultimate meaning of the piece: the final couplet in a sonnet marks the crucial twist, the closing monologue of a play can impart summary and insight, and even the final verses of a song usually resolve those preceding.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson's extended elegy In Memoriam and T.S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land portray one of the few certainties of existence: death. However, Tennyson's and Eliot's methods and results depart radically from one another after sharing that singular basic fact. The ending of each work provides a rich ground for exploration of the differences between Tennyson's Victorian identity and Eliot's high Modernist associations. Tennyson's hopeful epilogue and Eliot's final dirge-like section contrast strongly in tone and style, causing In Memoriam to present the tidier resolution, expressing joy and faith in God and the promise of humanity's progression whereas The Waste Land settles into a deep modernist despair, with assertions of isolation and the futility of life. Ultimately, the ending of each piece allows the reader to draw conclusions about the overall intentions of each poem, which eventually pare down to Tennyson's Victorian strivings for universality and accessibility versus Eliot's more abstract attempts at reaching an elite group of intellectuals.
Many scholars regard Tennyson as a prototypical Victorian. Glenn Everett cites "his ready acceptance of the mores of his day, his willingness to conform to popular taste, to write a poetry that was easily understood and enjoyed" (Everett) as chief reasons for Tennyson's recognition as a classic Victorian. In Memoriam, Tennyson's elegy to his friend Arthur Henry Hallam after Hallam's premature death, exemplifies these qualities. Some of the poem's one hundred and thirty-one sections delve into the mystical or contain novel revelations about the nature of grief, even expressing doubt in religion. However, the epilogue reverts to more optimistic and traditional subjects: faith in God, the coming of Christ, and the cycles of life. The change in tone from despairing to joyous contributes greatly to the accessibility of the poem, in conjunction with the return to religion, the description of universal life processes and the focus on humanity, and the difference between the semi-conclusive endings of each section as contrasted with the finality of the epilogue. The ending of In Memoriam shifts to accommodate Tennyson's characteristics which Landow identifies as most typically Victorian, and the poem as a result is accessible to far more readers than Eliot's.
For the conclusion of In Memoriam, Tennyson depicts his sister's wedding as a backdrop for the positive events and ideas in the epilogue, which constitute an optimism not fully present anywhere else in the poem. Foremost, he can demonstrate that although he still loves and remembers Hallam, he has moved away from his grief and can identify the aspects of life which bring him joy; no longer does every event remind him of his mourning. A stanza near the middle of the epilogue illustrates Tennyson's progression to a new acceptance while also demonstrating the constant progression of universal life cycles. Tennyson reaches toward this universality when he devotes the closing section of his elegy to marriage, a milestone that would have typically been celebrated by the vast majority of his Victorian readers. If a reader did not celebrate his own marriage, he almost certainly would have attended the weddings of relatives or friends. The constant references to specific people — to the bride, to the groom, to Tennyson himself, and to the deceased Hallam — create the sense that the closing section of In Memoriam is primarily a testament to humanity and the cycles of life. Tennyson traces the growth of his sister from infancy to the moment of the wedding in one example of life's progression:
For I that danced her on my knee,
That watched her on her nurse's arm,
That shielded all her life from harm,
At last must part with her to thee; [Epilogue.45-48]
The stanza has several effects. First, it amplifies the idea of continued progression through life by marking specific moments in Tennyson's sister's growth, creating the bookends of infancy when her brother "danced her on her knee" (45) and she was cradled "on her nurse's arm" (46) and adulthood, when her brother recognizes that she has become an adult separate from him and that he "must part with her" (48). The final line "At last must part with her to thee" (48) carries extreme weight and illustrates several other significant differences between the epilogue and the rest of the poem. Unlike the vast majority of the sections of In Memoriam, where Tennyson focuses upon Hallam's death and his own mourning, he now shifts his focus to another person close to him: his sister. Moreover, he recognizes calmly that he "must part with her" (48), a calmness that foreshadows his eventual acceptance of Hallam's death by the poem's end. Finally, the stanza directs Tennyson's focus from the young man who has departed from his life to the young man who will enter his life. During the vast majority of In Memoriam, Tennyson uses the second person to address Hallam, but here he addresses his sister's husband with "to thee" (48), implying both that his obsessive grief has subsided and that he is now able to love and welcome another young man into his family. These developments mark crucial changes in Tennyson's attitude, fashioning a lighter, more joyous tone for the conclusion of the piece. Additionally, the attention to specific moments common to the lives of most people contributes further to In Memoriam's overall accessibility.
The final two stanzas of the epilogue further assert Tennyson's settling into a state of peace and coming-to-terms with his friend's death. Perhaps even more significantly, they introduce the return to faith in God and position Hallam as a Christ-like figure. Although Tennyson alludes to the apocalypse in the concluding lines of In Memoriam, he presents even this fearsome biblical event with hope and confidence:
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,
nd one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves. [Epilogue. 137-144]
As in the earlier stanzas of the epilogue, Tennyson demonstrates here that he has not simply forgotten or blocked his misery over Hallam from his mind on the day of his sister's nuptials. By explicitly mentioning Hallam in the reference "the man, that with me trod, this planet, was a noble type" (138), he implies that although his mind is still occupied by thoughts of his dear friend, he has moved from all-encompassing mourning to peaceful acceptance. The word "type" (138) is a significant choice which can mean both "kind of person" and race (as in the human race). Landow's definition of typology as "a Christian form of biblical interpretation that proceeds on the assumption that God placed anticipations of Christ in the laws, events, and people of the Old Testament" (Landow, Biblical Typology) supports the idea that Tennyson's choice of the word "type" (138) places Hallam in the role of a Christ-like figure, a "noble type" whose presence on earth functioned as an example of the qualities men should seek to exhibit.
In the final stanza, Tennyson alludes to the apocalypse with the same level of peace and acceptance he previously demonstrated with regard to Hallam's death, expanding his new inner calm from the specific to the vast occurrence he believes will cause a kind of death of the entire world. Tennyson further links Hallam's death with the concept of God and the apocalypse by means of establishing his friend as one "who lives in God" (140). Several phrases in the final lines indicate that Tennyson looks toward the future cosmic and religious events of the world as positive occurrences: “far-off, divine event" (143) strongly shows that Tennyson believes the end of the world to be a benevolent occurrence for believers, while "toward which all creation moves" (144) suggests that he recognizes the end of the world to be not only inevitable but correct. He writes of it as the natural and appropriate finality for the world, something the human race should welcome rather than fear. Furthermore, the phrase "all creation" (144) unifies not only the human race but all of life on earth. This unification highlights the similarities that exist among all human beings, whereas the multiple references to the number one in line 142, "One God, one law, one element" (142), further compress humanity into a single mirror of God. The combination of humanity and divinity that characterize the final two stanzas of In Memoriam open the poem's accessibility to an even wider range of readers: they present themselves as testaments to all human beings — at least those of Christian faith — and thus to the vast majority of Tennyson's audience.
At the moment of the nuptial ceremony itself, Tennyson once again uses the second person to address the new young man, reaffirming that he has moved beyond his grief over Hallam's death. In addition, he increases the poem's appeal to its readership by focusing on human life and the communal nature of humanity, though in this case he utilizes a seemingly contradictory technique to complete this task. Two stanzas near the middle of the epilogue describe the signing of the marriage book, then present inanimate objects as possessing human characteristics:
Now sign your names, which shall be read
Mute symbols of a joyful morn
By village eyes as yet unborn;
The names are signed, and overhead
Begins the clash and clang that tells
The joy to every wandering breeze;
The blind wall rocks, and on the trees
The dead leaf trembles to the . [Epilogue. 57-64]
The significance of the command "Sign your names" (57) extends beyond marking a second use of the second person in relation to Tennyson's son-in-law; it also indicates Tennyson's strong involvement in the wedding. In his depiction, he does not perceive himself simply as a bystander, but as an integral part of the ceremony. Ideas of rebirth, building upon the previous descriptions of life cycles, reveal themselves in Tennyson's prediction that the names of the newlyweds will be seen by "village eyes as yet unborn" (59). "Village" (59) functions as a kind of metonymy or reverse synecdoche; rather than literally asserting that the village has eyes of its own, Tennyson uses the poetic technique to state that future generations of villagers will be able to view the names of the couple in public records. The assigning of a human body part and characteristic — eyes and the ability to see — to the traditionally inanimate "village" (59) serves as a basis for Tennyson to assign human characteristics to other inanimate objects. The church bells receive the ability to speak and therefore to communicate, as "overhead/Begins the clash and clang that tells" (60-61), while the breeze assumes the ability to "[wander]" (61) and to hear, therefore providing an audience for the message that the church bells communicate. Tennyson gives both bells and breeze the ability to feel, as indicated by the usually human sense of "joy" (61). "Joy" (61) also reflects back to the term "joyful morn" (58) in the preceding stanza, which simultaneously assigns the ability to emote to the abstract concept of morning while also providing a homophonic paradox: a "joyful morn" (58), an abbreviation for a "joyful morning", exhibits a sharply opposing contrast to the paradoxical idea of a "joyful mourning", and highlights the degree to which Tennyson has moved on from his grief. However, Tennyson does not allow every inanimate object the gift of human perception: the rock wall remains "blind" (63), and when the leaf "trembles" (64), an oddly human movement, he is clear to note that it is "dead" (64). By granting human characteristics to inanimate objects and elements of nature, Tennyson implies that the celebration of humanity in the epilogue is so great that it overtakes even non-human entities. However, by depriving the wall of sight and the leaf of life, he cements the idea that the final section of In Memoriam focuses not on objects but on human life and humanity's continued communion with God.
The discussion of the final section raises an important question: what constitutes an ending? Is it the final lines, the final stanzas, the final section? Throughout In Memoriam's one hundred and thirty-one sections, Tennyson comes to nearly as many partial conclusions. Within most sections, he resolves an idea that he has previously introduced. Many could stand on their own as individual short poems, such as section 45, which presents the possibility that the formation of an individual identity isolates men from one another and the world. The section concludes with a sort of half-resolution:
This use may lie in blood and breath,
Which else were fruitless of their due,
Had man to learn himself anew
Beyond the second birth of Death. [45.13-16]
Tennyson reaches two semi-conclusions here: first, the line "this use may lie in blood and breath" (13) identifies the reason for the formation of identity while mollifying the idea of isolation by presenting it as a necessity with a purpose instead of a dismal event "fruitless of [its] due" (14). Moreover, Tennyson continues to struggle with his concept of Death, giving it a partial definition by terming it a "second birth" (16). In these typical partial resolutions, Tennyson does not conclude or resolve his feelings about Hallam's death, but does reach other, smaller conclusions about death in general. The multiple introductions of new questions and their corresponding resolutions throughout In Memoriam give the poem increased motion; rather than ruminating solely on his own ability to accept the death of his friend, Tennyson infuses the elegy with greater universality and increases his chances of holding the reader's interest with his series of smaller climaxes and resolutions. The miniature conclusions act as semicolons within the structure of the piece as a whole: they create partial stops, encourage the reader to contemplate the many ideas about death that are spread throughout the poem, and allow for partial feelings of resolution without upstaging the grand conclusion of the final epilogue section. Rather than diminish the force of the absolute ending, they prepare the reader's mind for a bigger revelation, and their large numbers provide a contrast to the singularity of Tennyson's ultimate conclusion. Though the short sections conclude upon specific ideas, the fact that the piece continues on after those conclusions suggests that the real conclusion is still to come, and makes the final stanzas that much more powerful. In addition, the large number of fairly dark or depressive resolutions makes the brilliant light of faith in God that Tennyson exhibits in the final stanzas even more prominent.
The Waste Land
The final section of T.S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land, "What the Thunder Said", contrasts sharply to the neat optimism of the epilogue to In Memoriam. The final pages of Tennyson's elegy turn toward the light of faith in God and hope for the future whereas the final pages of The Waste Land settle further into futility. Eliot cultivates an atmosphere of detachment, creating a scene in which no normal person could take part. In Memoriam, which is inclusive, eemphasizes the similarities that cluster humans into a cohesive group of beings whereas The Waste Land places itself outside the grasp of all but the most studied intellectuals. Tennyson and Eliot lived and wrote under extremely different circumstances, and although Tennyson's influences most likely included other Victorians and an impetus to stay within the norm, Eliot's included World War I and the desecration of Europe. During his period, innovation was valued much more highly than remaining within the boundaries of cultural norms. More than simply different or innovative, The Waste Land is formidable, somber, and at times alienating. Eliot undertook a task opposite to Tennyson's: to create a poem that possesses a fairly dismal resolution, requires outside knowledge to understand, does not place faith in God, has little regard for the cycles of life or humanity, and essentially showcases its own inaccessibility as a Modernist piece directed toward an elite group of readers.
No shortage of factors contribute to making the last part of The Waste Land intellectually superior, abstruse, and generally inaccessible to the majority of potential readers. "What the Thunder Said" is heavy with allusions, cryptic statements, and languages other than English. In the last stanza, Eliot utilizes all three techniques:
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ut chelidon — O swallow swallow
Le Prince D'Aquitaine àla tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih [424-434]
In order to understand The Waste Land in its entirety, Eliot almost requires the reader to familiarize himself with the work from which Eliot draws many themes, From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, whom he cites in his Notes on The Waste Land. Eliot's publication of the poem with his own notes indicates his awareness of the piece's complexity. The notes do impart some explanation and greater accessibility, granting the reader assistance in reading, struggling with, and interpreting the piece, but only result in a comparatively reduced degree of difficulty. In some instances, they aid in placing Eliot's many allusions, such as "Hieronymo's mad againe" (432), which according to the notes references Spanish Tragedy. However, the notes do not explain the significance of the allusion, making them useful only to a reader who is already familiar with Spanish Tragedy — likely a very small group. In a similar vein, although Eliot provides the English translation for "shantih" (434), his note on lines 428-430 does not translate but only indicates the text from which Eliot drew the phrases, along with the lines preceding them in the original text. The obscurity of allusions and the use of multiple languages, in conjunction with Eliot's propensity for the cryptic, work to remove the conclusion from the realm of understanding of the common reader, reserving the full bearing of the piece for a small group of well-read intellectuals.
In Memoriam's final lines specifically name God as a source of hope and peace for all of mankind and present Hallam as a Christ-like figure representative of the good that exists within the human race. Tennyson presents the message that people should rejoice because even death does not separate man from God; rather there is hope for men to retain themselves beyond the grave. The Waste Land possesses its own references to both God and Christ, but sets forth a very different conclusion about both. Eliot describes his thoughts about God and the afterlife far more obliquely than Tennyson:
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one [388-391]
Here Eliot seems to dismiss Tennyson's idea that men will reassume their living selves in a second birth after death. He deprives the dead of any power or agency by noting that their homes (their graves) have been "tumbled" (388), possibly by the wind; subsequently, he demonstrates the futility of death and the possible non-existence of an afterlife by stating "Dry bones can harm no one" (391). Eliot questions religion again when he describes the chapel as "empty . . . only the wind's home" (390), insinuating that just as the chapel does not provide physical shelter, God, by metonymy, does not provide a spiritual home for mankind. God is a nearly absent figure, whom Eliot references in "What the Thunder Said" only through the bleak physical manifestations such as the empty chapel. In utilizing a non-Christian form, the Upanishad (Collected Works 54-5), Eliot further distances himself from traditional Christianity. Like God, Christ is missing from the final section of The Waste Land; he makes only a possible appearance and his figure is indistinguishable:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded. [360-364]
The hooded figure suggests Christ, but Eliot does not name him specifically. This ambiguity suggests that religious faith is tenuous in the world that Eliot creates, a probable allusion to the atmosphere in which he lived: Europe after World War I. In his notes on The Waste Land, Eliot indicates that one of the major themes of the final section is "the present decay of Eastern Europe" (Collected Works 53). This stipulation is an important key in deconstructing the meaning of the piece. After the destruction and massive annihilation of armies, religious faith suffered a tremendous blow; in the final section of The Waste Land, Eliot creates a portrait of that uncertainty and bleak outlook. The specifics of the tone and mood as they relate to post-war Europe further remove the ending of the poem from the realm of universal understanding. Far more so than In Memoriam, The Waste Land speaks to a specific readership, and Eliot does not concern himself with accessibility.
The title of Eliot's final section immediately establishes the hierarchy of the poem's conclusion: the thunder literally dictates, rolling over the piece with echoes of futility and illuminating the degree to which humans have lost control. If Eliot were to explicitly discuss "types" here, his would not refer to Christ or humanity but instead would consist of a few animals and a host of inanimate objects. Eliot creates a world in which the ratio of human beings to non-humans is inverted in comparison to Tennyson's marriage ceremony, where inanimate objects are granted some human characteristics but people remain at the forefront. Instead, the people who do exist in "What the Thunder Said" assume eerie, less-than-human characteristics, and the vast majority of words and actions are said or performed by objects:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells [378-385]
The unnamed woman's major purpose is to coax music out of her hair, which Eliot strips of its human qualities when he describes it as "strings" (379). The comparison suggests that although she creates the music, she lacks agency overall and serves only as a literal and figurative instrument, added to the sinister orchestra on which the section focuses. The other sources of music include some actual animals: bats that disturbingly acquire "baby faces" (380), and the "cock" (392) of the following stanza. Eliot furthers the mood by having instruments that do not seem unusual in the creation of music assume new functions here, such as the bells that take on the roll of "[keeping] the hours" (384). Finally, the fact that voices emerge from "empty cisterns" (385) implies that no bodies exist to attach to the voices, which also sing out of wells personified as "exhausted" (385). The creation of a new hierarchy in which boats speak (419) and winged animals fly about with the faces of human babies relegate human beings into positions lacking power, making the ending of The Waste Land far less accessible than the fairly straightforward, humanity-loving final stanzas of In Memoriam.
The Waste Land contains far fewer sections than In Memoriam — one hundred and twenty-seven fewer, counting Tennyson's epilogue. The comparatively small number of sections in Eliot's poem causes fewer partial resolutions, making the function of each section's ending significant. Tennyson builds speed and retains interest in his poem by means of miniature climaxes throughout. This is not possible for Eliot given that there are only five sections; instead, he creates momentum directed toward "What the Thunder Said" by sometimes concluding a section in the midst of the action. For example, "The Fire Sermon" concludes:
burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
Burning, a participle, indicates action still in progress. Its repetition highlights the idea that the section finishes while the action is not yet complete, urging the reader to continue until he reaches an actual conclusion. Section II, "A Game of Chess", finishes with
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night,
The line offers a fairly traditional and decisive ending, but a casual ending in a non-casual poem does not have the same force that it could have in a more casual work. It certainly does not supply the force and weight of a highly formal ending, which the traditional Upanishad ending "shantih" (430) provides for "What the Thunder Said". Non-endings and casual endings in The Waste Land cause the momentum of the piece to gather in the final section, illuminating the characteristics of the ending which exemplify that The Waste Land is challenging and not easily accessed.
Love perpetually occupies one of the primary altars to which poets pay homage. The other most visited and revisited subject is death. These two holy grails of literature, though definitely not exact opposites, exist as foils for one another in relationships similar to those between beginnings and endings. Although beginnings are crucial in establishing the intent of the text, endings perhaps possess more importance because their ideas and assertions remain in the reader's mind without having to compete with any subsequent ideas. Is death universal or personal? Though Tennyson regards his struggle with grief over Hallam's death as singular throughout much of In Memoriam, his epilogue utilizes many techniques aimed at creating accessibility, suggesting that he has solved the problem created by the universality of death and grief. Optimism, faith in religion, and celebration of humanity appeal to his Victorian readership and remain accessible to readers and scholars beyond the Victorian era. Eliot, in contrast, uses abstruse structures and cryptic allusions to cloak the meaning of The Waste Land from the masses, even though he seems to perceive death and destruction as entirely public and widespread issues. His detached tone, religious questions, and preempting of humanity for inanimate objects may have both alienated some of his potential readers while winning critical praise and elevating The Waste Land to the status of a formidable intellectual challenge. Ultimately, Tennyson and Eliot's writings establish them as products of vastly different literary periods, and their attempts at accessibility or inaccessibility reflect the differences between Victorianism and Modernism.
Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems. New York: Harcourt, 1952.
Everett, Glenn. "Tennyson and Victorianism." The Victorian Web.
Landow, George. "Biblical Typology: A Brief Definition." The Victorian Web.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. In Memoriam. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1850.
Last modified 21 May 2004