Tennyson's encounter with the spirit of his recently deceased friend, Hallam, in Section 95 of In Memoriam marks a change in his grieving process. Early on in the poem (Section II), Tennyson, the speaker, wishes to "grow incorporate into" the "Old Yew" — that is, to be eternal, immovable, unchanging, and emotionless. Grief places such a burden on him that the life of a "sullen tree" is more desirable than his experience. Tennyson says of this Old Yew:

O, not for thee the glow, the bloom,
      Who changest not in any gale,
      Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
      Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
      I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

Coming on Section 95, the reader is placed in a setting of dark night, reflecting the same despair and doubt that Tennyson has experienced leading up to this point. "Light after light [goes out], and [he is] all alone", when suddenly Tennyson is visited by the spirit of his dear friend.

So word by word, and line by line,
      The dead man touch'd me from the past,
      And all at once it seem'd at last
The living soul was flash'd on mine,

And mine in this was wound, and whirl'd
      About empyreal heights of thought,
      And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world,

®onian music measuring out
      The steps of Time -- the shocks of Chance--
      The blows of Death. At length my trance
Was cancell'd, stricken thro' with doubt.

Tennyson enters a trance in which he sees a higher order in the powerful and seemingly chaotic forces, Time, Chance, and Death. This insight into the "deep pulsations of the world" reveals that an "aeonian music" gives structure and rhythm to these forces, thereby making them comprehensible to humans. The significance of this realization is even apparent in the structure of the poem. Whereas nearly every line is formed of eight syllables, the line "Aeonian music measuring out" has ten. Doubt interrupts the supernatural vision, and Tennyson's surroundings return to normal: the eight-syllable lines return, and the following stanza is nearly identical to one before the trance. The "knolls," "couch'd at ease," return, and the "white kine [glimmer]" once again.

Though Tennyson seems to reject the encounter, his outlook is still affected by it. The section begins in night, and by the end "[broadens into boundless day]," signaling a shift in his grieving for Hallam. Despair and doubt give way to hope, symbolized by the rising sun, which allows for his eventual rationalization of this hope into faith. Through faith, Tennyson finds resolution.

Questions

1. In the last three stanzas of Section 95, a breeze gathers "from out the distant gloom" that "[trembles] o'er the large leaves of the sycamore, and [fluctuates] all the still perfume, and gathering freshlier overhead, rock'd the full-foliaged elms, and swung the heavy-folded rose, and flung the lilies to and fro, and said, 'the dawn, the dawn.'" Given the image and symbolism of the Old Yew in Section II, and the presence of night at the start of the poem, what is the significance of this wind that ruffles the trees and ushers in the dawn?

2. What does the wind's presence tell us about the effect of Tennyson's vision on his grieving process?

3. As Tennyson builds up to his vision of the aeonian music, he describes reading or hearing the words of the dead:

A hunger seized my heart; I read
      Of that glad year which once had been,
      In those fall'n leaves which kept their green,
The noble letters of the dead:

And strangely on the silence broke
      The silent-speaking words, and strange
      Was love's dumb cry defying change
To test his worth; and strangely spoke

The faith, the vigour, bold to dwell
      On doubts that drive the coward back,
      And keen thro' wordy snares to track
Suggestion to her inmost cell.

So word by word, and line by line...

Is Tennyson being contacted by his friend's spirit from beyond the grave, or do the words and lines of his poetry initiate his trance? This could either be a Romantic, supernatural experience, or a comment on the role of his poetry, both of which would influence his grieving process.


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Last modified 11 February 2010