T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland acts as a spiritual rewriting of Tennyson's In Memoriam on a number of levels. In the broadest sense, we note the very different conception of the apocalyptic moment in Tennyson's verse and in Eliot's bleaker narrative poem. Nonetheless, T.S. Eliot himself saw more commonalities than differences between his own and Tennyson's age, and it is possible that Eliot took advantage of the somewhat rhetorical nature of Tennyson's last stanza to In Memoriam. Certainly, Eliot's version of the apocalypse was one which denied even the possibility of resurrection and salvation, a possibility which pervades Tennyson's last lines:

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. [lines 141-144]

Eliot, in his essay In Memoriam, describes a disjunction between Tennyson's deeper, and what Eliot suggests as being atheistic, feelings of loss and Tennyson's more superficial attempt to return to God at the end of the poem. The distinction, asserts Eliot, is one between surface and depths, one between Tennyson's attempts at reconciling himself with the spiritual beliefs of his age and Tennyson's desire to confront his own rising sentiments of dejection and disbelief in the loss of his friend. Nonetheless, Tennyson does construct his poem in such a way as to create a turning aside from his personal sorrow (along with a resurging belief in God) at the end of the poem. It is here where we begin to see Hallam as a Christ-figure of sorts who promises the coming of a new kind of human being. Thus Tennyson illustrates a phenomenological sentiment at the end of the poem that could be construed as a multifaceted resurrection of sorts: a resurrection of hope, of spring, of man, of God, of spirit. It seems, however, that in the conclusion to his essay In Memoriam, Eliot still insists on viewing Tennyson's poetic resolution as a false one, as one which is already beginning to reveal what Eliot terms the "shallowness" of the Victorian age:

Tennyson seems to have reached the end of his spiritual development with In Memoriam; there followed no reconciliation, no resolution . . .for Tennyson faced neither the darkness nor the light, in his later years. The genius, the technical power, persisted to the end, but the spirit had surrendered. A gloomier end than that of Baudelaire: Tennyson had no singulier avertissement. And having turned aside from the journey through the dark night, to become the surface flatterer of his own time, he has been rewarded with the despite of an age that succeeds his own in shallowness [p. 627].

Such a vision may account for some of Eliot's rewritings of Tennysonian verse in The Wasteland. For example, if we turn to the final stanza of Tennyson's In Memoriam which appears before the epilogue to the poem, we see a conception of Mosaic law which Eliot obliterates in section V of The Wasteland entitled "What the Thunder Said." In stanza 131 of In Memoriam, Tennyson is clearly trying to conjure up an image of the human will which chooses to endure hardship and sacrifice by following the way of God:

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. [lines 1-12, section 131]

These few stanzas point to the part of the Old Testament when God tells Moses to wave his staff over the rock so that water will flow from it. Moses, of course, strikes the rock and is then forbidden to enter the Promised Land, but the water, nonetheless, still flows from out of the rock. In Tennyson's version of this type, Mosaic law is both conflated with an invocation of Christ's resurrection and the speaker's own experience dealing with the loss of Hallam. Tennyson's interpretation of this biblical moment supports the infallibility of God by recognizing Moses' will to endure and follow God even after receiving his punishment, for Moses after striking the rock still led his people to the Promise Land even though he was forbidden entrance. Therefore, in the final stanza before the epilogue, Tennyson is calling for a kind of human will which can endure the hardships and trials which God sets forth, one which can wait patiently for the unknown. That is to say, Tennyson ascribes to the notion that all will be revealed at the moment of death, but that until then we must believe in God through the most difficult trials of the human soul.

This sort of blind faith and belief in the moment of resurrection is something which Eliot certainly leaves no room for in his bleak vision of humanity. By playing with the imagery of the mountain on which Moses dies overlooking the Promised Land and with the sterile presence of the desert in the scenes from Exodus, Eliot writes a reversal of the Tennysonian belief in a human will which returns to God. Here, in The Wasteland, Eliot alters the Mosaic type by writing of a rock which provides no water. In Eliot's version of the striking of the rock, there is no hope for purification or resurrection, no water to "flow thro' our deeds and make them pure." In The Wasteland of our time, urges Eliot, there is no hope for the apocalyptic resurrection, no truth to be revealed at the close of life, but rather in our world the dead are dead, and the living are merely waiting to die:

. . .He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand no lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool amongst the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine-trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water. [lines 328-359, section V]

In the sounds of the water and the images of Spring, Eliot reveals that our hope for purification and resurrection is a mere illusion, but that the water, so to speak, does not exist. Hence, for Eliot, the human endurance is one of stasis and disillusionment. We can, therefore, see how Eliot's reading of Tennyson affects his writing of "The Wasteland."


But how accurate is this reading? That is to say is there an unnatural progression in In Memoriam which accounts for Eliot's reading of surfaces and depths? What parts of In Memoriam specifically come closer to the sentiments of The Wasteland, and how on a less thematic level does Eliot borrow from Tennyson in terms of his use of poetic devices such as sound and repetition? Eliot and Tennyson both use repetition in two manners, that is to say, in order to achieve two very different results. What are the two effects achieved through repetition in both In Memoriam and The Wasteland and where specifically are they used?

How do we explain Tennyson's notion of living both "soul in soul" (line 12, section 131) and living "in God" (line 140, end of Epilogue), and how are these two notions reconciled? Is Tennyson setting up a concentric hierarchy of God, ghost, and man, and according to Tennyson, how does Hallam fit into this design?

Both Tennyson and Eliot have segments of their long poems dedicated to the burial of the dead, and it seems that in part I of The Wasteland (lines 19-30) Eliot is playing with Tennyson's image of the yews from sections 2 and 39 of In Memoriam. How does Eliot conceive of the yews differently from Tennyson, and how in Eliot's passage are the biblical allegory of the rock and Tennyson's images of the yews conflated?

It is possible that Eliot's poem begins where Tennyson's ends? This chronology, of course, suggests that The Wasteland can be read as a response to the final stanza of In Memoriam. Is it fair to say that Tennyson ends In Memoriam with a rhetorical question? And if so, does Eliot seem to be reading this end ironically? Finally, how would an ironic reading of this final stanza act as a contrast to the remainder of Tennyson's epilogue and the end of the poem which proceeds the epilogue?

Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Leading Questions

Last modified 3 May 2003

Last modified 8 June 2007