The long, fragmented poem is an innovation of Victorian poetry, but even as it is used to amend the recurring opposition of tableau and narrative in Tennyson’s poetry, or to revolutionize the epic for the modern audience of the time, it is a specific form that presents its own set of obligations and liberties that the poet and the poem must respond to. One of the obvious strengths of the form is that its natural wealth of parataxis provides a fertile environment for great complexity of image and statement, where contradiction can be preserved outside of a linear, causal pressure. Another property of the form is that it is easy to stall, to become repetitive, to loose direction despite the building anxiety towards climax the fragments create. In Tennyson’s elegy, “In Memoriam”, fragment 48 most clearly indicates an acknowledgement and response to the form of the poem. But a waning authorial distance and the possible lack of consistency between what the poem says here and what it does throughout the rest of the poem may cast doubt on the presence or relevance of such a response.

If these brief lays, of Sorrow born,
Were taken to be such as closed,
Grave doubts and answers here proposed,
Then these were such as men might scorn.

Her care is not to part and prove;
She takes, when harsher moods remit,
What slender shade of doubt may flit,
And makes it vassal unto love;

And hence, indeed, she sports with words,
But better serves a wholesome law,
And holds it sin and shame to draw
The deepest measure from the chords;

Nor dare she trust a larger lay,
But rather loosens from the lip
Short swallow-flights of song, that dip
their wings in tears, and skim away. [In Memoriam 48]

To what does the first line of this fragment refer? What large mass of the poem is this fragment in the middle of in terms of the progression we learned about in class on Monday? How do you think this fragment relates to the rest of the poem?

When I read the last line of the first stanza I thought Tennyson was reading my mind — I was definitely fed up with the lack of the personal ‘I’ and long string of inactive fragments that came before- but there’s still no ‘I’ — how does the Sorrow of this poem relate ideas/themes in the surrounding poems?

What was inactive about some of the previous poems (if you agree)? What might does inactivity have to do with logic? What are Sorrow’s concerns as agent in the second stanza? Are these contradictory?

What, if anything, is jarring about the combination of tone of the words ‘vassal’ and ‘love’? How do the tones of verbs like "take," "loosen," "dip," "skim," "make," "hold" interact with each other?

What the relationship between the poet and Sorrow?

What’s this about a ‘wholesome’ law, what law is this, and how does ‘wholesome’ modify the ideal of a law?

‘Nor’ indicates some previous negation — what does it refer to? Do these stanzas compete or are they in cooperation with each other?

What seems to be the importance of the "short swallow-flights of song" in contrast to the "larger lay" and what might this have to say about the fragment and its use in the poem.


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Leading Questions

Last modified 17 September 2003