We, as humans, are inclined to question whether our consciousness or soul persists after death. Does our most basic essence — our memories, our wills — cease to exist when our bodies fail? In Tennyson's elegy In Memoriam A.H.H., the speaker attempts to reconcile the permanence and transience of life while mourning the death of a close friend. The speaker contemplates, at first, a bleak view of his own existence in section L.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
     Is rack'd with pangs that conquer trust;
     And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
     And men the flies of latter spring,
     That lay their eggs, and sting and sing And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
     To point the term of human strife,
     And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

The poem's many sections reflect the progression of disconnected thoughts experienced during grieving process. In section LIV, the speaker modifies his outlook towards death by drawing upon his religious faith. He assures himself that dying is not without a higher purpose.

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
     Will be the final goal of ill,
     To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
     That not one life shall be destroy'd,
     Or cast as rubbish to the void,v When God hath made the pile complete;

As the speaker reconciles his dread of physical death with his faith in the persistence of the soul, he also begins to accept the passage of his friend.

Questions

1. How does Tennyson use imagery to convey the speaker's bleak view of death (in section L)?

2. Robert Browning's "Rabbi Ben Ezra" also addresses the persistence of life after death. However, compared to Tennyson, Browning delivers a very different attitude towards the subject. What kind of tone does Browning establish, and how does he create the tone?

Ay, note that Potter's wheel,
That metaphor! and feel
Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay, —
Thou, to whom fools propound,
When the wine makes its round,
"Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day."

Fool! All that is, at all,
Lasts ever, past recall;
Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:
What entered into thee,
That was, is, and shall be:v Time's wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.

3. Why does Tennyson chose to compare Time with a "maniac" and Life with a "Fury" — figures that evoke madness and destruction? In contrast, why does Browning compare Time with a potter's wheel and Life with a clay vessel — objects of creation?

4. The speaker begins every stanza in section L with "Be near me." Who is he addressing? How does this anaphora affect the tone of the passage, if at all?


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Leading Questions

Last modified 4 February 2009