Alfred, Lord Tennyson opens In Memoriam with an introductory poem titled simply “Prologue.” This poem sets up the tone of the rest of the text for the reader; while the bulk of the poems in it focus on Tennyson’s mourning and remembrance of his dear friend, the prologue makes it clear that Tennyson also struggles with the idea of a faithful man’s position in a changing world. Tennyson alludes to well-known Biblical images to inform the reader of the deeper complexities within the relationship between God and the individual. The prologue begins by commenting on the nature of man’s faith in a higher power:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade,
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Tennyson first articulates the blind trust inherent in faith; man cannot establish concrete evidence of God’s existence or greatness but instead must simply believe. The second line of the poem references an important reoccurring biblical image, the idea of seeing God face to face. This phrase occurs in a number of places in the Bible (including in Exodus, where it is established that Moses speaks to God “face to face as a man speaketh to his friend” 33.11), but most vitally is mentioned in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13:

Charity never faileth: but whether [there be] prophecies, they shall fail; whether [there be] tongues, they shall cease; whether [there be] knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

This verse expresses the constrained nature of the relationship between man and God. It acknowledges that man “know[s] only part” and cannot understand divinity or the way in which God works fully. “Charity,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, carries several meanings revolving around Christian love for God, from God, and towards other Christians. This love, then, exists as the only aspect of religion which cannot fail, just as Tennyson acknowledges that “by faith, and faith alone” man binds himself to God. Man cannot comprehend God’s actions, but he observes God’s world about him, and from this comes to a complex picture of God who creates “these orbs of light and shade,” both life and death, joy and pain. He sees God “through a glass, darkly” in the events that unfold around him, a distorted image of both a merciful and loving God as well as one who takes away loved ones. Yet the vital final line of the poem expresses that this flawed perception will not always be so. Now, man cannot understand or see God truly, but “when that which is perfect is come” man will know god “face to face” just as the exalted prophet Moses did. 1 Corinthians expresses that the individual’s relationship changes as man himself changes and grows from a child to a wiser adult. Tennyson, too, describes the relationship as a dynamic one:

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell,
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,

But vaster . . .

Tennyson refers to the tension existing between an individual’s experiences and his faith in order to illustrate this relationship. He acknowledges the spread of knowledge, the tangible opposite of faith, and the increasing trust in science emerging in the age. Just as loss and suffering strain the way in which the individual can love and trust in God, science begins to encroach on society’s faithfulness. Yet Tennyson describes the mind and soul as “according” and trusts that one day they will create together an even stronger faith. He, like 1 Corinthians, believes man sees only one part of the picture, but will one day come to more fully comprehend and love God. The prologue ends with Tennyson alluding to his “childish” musings:

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

He admits his flawed perception of God; the use of the word “youthful” seems to reference Tennyson as still being in the childish state, moving towards a fuller understanding of God. He takes the role of a sort of anti-prophet, saying outright that his words may “fail in truth.” Yet this perhaps may be the most vital clue to why this poem precedes the rest of the collection: he makes explicit that no compact solution exists in his poetry, just as there no miracle cure exists for grief. Instead, the reader will follow his true experiences struggling with his grief for his late friend, experience it with him, and draw some closeness to God by acknowledging the complexities between the human and divine rather than claiming to truly see and understand his ways.

Questions

1. In brief, the above analysis argues that Tennyson viewed the individual’s relationship to God as necessarily flawed and distanced but will someday change to a closer and even stronger relationship and faith, “face to face.” Does he ever suggest why or how this change will occur? Does it appear that his relationship has changed with God?

2. The first passage ends with an apparent distortion of the image in Genesis of Eve’s foot coming down on the head of the serpent, bruising both:

Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

The image places God in Eve’s place, stepping upon man’s head, and connects it to God being the creator of both life and death. Why does Tennyson use a version of the serpent’s head bruising Eve’s heel in this context? What does this imply about man’s perception of God? Does this image seem to characterize Tennyson’s feelings toward a higher power as positive or negative or neither?

3. Why did Tennyson choose to open In Memoriam with this poem? How does it affect the reading of the poems that follow it? Does it matter that it was written after the rest of the text?

4. After calling attention to the growing coexistence of “knowledge” or science and “reverence” or faith, Tennyson suggests that the unity of the two will create a “vaster” harmony. What could this refer to? Did Tennyson have a particular religion or form of practicing faith in mind, or did he simply mean that science should strengthen faith rather than take from it?


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Leading Questions

Last modified 5 April 2011