Though it far precedes the emergence of stream of consciousness as a common narrative device, the rapid alteration of grief and hope in Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam verges on reproducing the whirl of emotions that overwhelmed him after Arthur Hallam's death. Tennyson notices this emotional vacillation early in the text, stating "What words are these have fall'n from me?/ Can calm despair and wild unrest/ Be tenants of a single breast,/ Or sorrow such a changeling be?" (XVI ll. 1-4). Here, the opposition is between "calm despair" and wilder grief, but more troubling for the narrative structure of the poem is the simultaneous presence of atheistic despair and confident Christian faith. Tennyson can placidly contemplate Hallam's body moldering in the grave, because "No lower life that earth's embrace/ May breed with him, can fright my faith" (LXXXII ll.3-4). The poem seems to move towards acceptance and hope, and yet this move exists in awkward concord with the depth of doubt expressed in LIV through LVII. Take LV and LVI where Tennyson writes:

The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fall beyond the grave
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

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. [Section 55; ll. 1-20]

'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:
The spirit does but mean the breath.
I know no more.' And he, shall he,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law —
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed?

In Memoriam; [LVI ll. 1-16]

Questions

1. At other points in the poem, Tennyson introduces criticism (an example is the charge that he is overestimating Hallam's potential), but he quickly address it. While the speaker may move away from the grief of these stanzas, does he ever express how he is able to accomplish this? If the spirit or the soul is but the mechanical process of respiration, as Nature charges, then Hallam's death means that he has ceased utterly. How can this be squared with the joyous visions of Hallam in heaven?

2. How can the speaker separate God and Nature? Can God's creation struggle against him?

3. The beautiful English countryside, the setting of Tennyson's fondest memories of his friendship with Hallam is the same physical geography that gave rise to Aurora Leigh's first glimmerings of poetical genius. How can nature be both the express of God's greatness and beauty (as it is in Aurora Leigh) and "red in tooth in claw"?

4. What is the foundation of the speaker's faith? If the speaker "fall[s] with my weight of cares" on the stairs "that slope thro' darkness up to God" is he able to create a positive conception of faith? Or does faith stem from exhaustion?

5. How should the reader interpret the dust and chaff that the speaker gathers in hands in light of Christian religious imagery? Dust is that from which man is formed, but it is also the inert substance his flesh becomes? The chaff is that which is separated and left behind. Is the speaker being left behind, or all of humankind?


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Leading Questions

Last modified 8 November 2004