In section 39 of In Memoriam A.H.H., Tennyson returns to the image of the yew trees as keepers of the dead. However, here he begins to address the trees as paradoxical symbols that invoke both fertility and death. In line 3, he describes the active nature of the yews that respond to the poet "With fruitful cloud and living smoke." This almost mystical picture of the trees which release their cloudlike pollen into the atmosphere of the dead embodies the primary struggle within the poem. In the image of the yews, Tennyson calls upon an underlying tension between a feeling of renewed life and a one of closure in death. The fruitful pollen insinuates a sensation of fecundity which seems to stretch out over the far reaches of the scene. Nevertheless, the phrase "living smoke" almost recalls the smoke of the ashes that appears to be continually rising from the dead. Thus it appears at the beginning of section 39 that Tennyson is trying to illustrate a cyclical union between life and death. However, as Tennyson continues to play upon the contradictory nature of yew, his intentions become more ambiguous. He goes on to support this above image in the second stanza when he describes the personified trees as creatures who bow down to the dead but who also partake in the budding rituals of spring. It is in line 8, however, that the poem seems to take a turn with the introduction of Sorrow. Sorrow is invoked here in the form of a woman who is preoccupied with the gravity of death and who also tends to dramatize this gravity:

But Sorrow, — fixt upon the dead,

And darkening the dark graves of men, —
What whisper'd from her lying lips?
Thy gloom is kindled at the tips,
And passes into gloom again. [lines 8-12]

The last two lines of the final stanza seem to bring the paradox of the yew tree to a close, for here the "gloom," or the deathlike quality of the trees, seems to outweigh their fertility. Here we not only see the passage of the flowers on the yew, but we recognize the tips of the trees as being ignited with grief and death. This death, the lines suggest, is eternal in that the tree is fated to forever return to its fundamental characteristic of "gloom." However, it is the ambiguity of these last lines that seems to call the entire poem into question. Do these lines represent the assertion of Sorrow or of the poet?

Furthermore, if it is Sorrow who is speaking, then does the poet agree with this resolution?

Is the yew tree nothing more than a somber partner to the dead? And does death offer up such a sensation of finality that we should not search for life in or after death?

Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Leading Questions

Last modified 16 September 2003