decorative initial 'A' lfred, Lord Tennyson's elegy In Memoriam is an examination of religious faith and doubt, a questioning of human worth, immortality, and poetry itself. At heart, however, it is an expression of grief for the loss of Tennyson's good friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. Throughout the poem, though particularly in the early sections, Tennyson uses the metaphor of widowhood to illustrate the depths of his loss and grief. The use of the lyric "I" in these sections of the poem throws into question Tennyson's intentions, as well as his actual relationship with Hallam, who was engaged to Tennyson's sister. The sense of loss conveyed in the poem as a whole, and especially in these sections, is intense and physical: a beating heart, a once-clasped hand, tears. The contrast between the physicality of grief in certain sections of the poem and the more abstract questions of religion ask the reader to determine not only the nature of grief, but the nature of love.

Tears of the widower, when he sees . . .
Her place is empty, fall like these

Which weep for ever new,
     A void where heart on heart reposed:
     And, where warm hands have prest and closed.
Silence, till I be silent too.

Which weep the comrade of my choice
     An awful thought, a life removed,
     The human-hearted man I loved,
A Spirit, not a breathing voice. [13, 1-12]

Still more, that cannot but deplore,
     That beats within a lonely place,
     That yet remembers his embrace,
But at his footsteps leaps no more,

My heart, tho' widow'd, may not rest
     Quite in the love of what is gone. [85, ll 107-114]

Questions

1. Why does Tennyson describe himself as a widow(er)? What does this suggest about his relationship with Hallam, or more broadly, the role of marriage versus the role of friendship in this period? Is he writing from his sister (Hallam's fiancée's) point of view or his own? How does the lyric "I" affect the reading of these very personal sections of In Memoriam?

2. The body (or its absence) is foreground in these passages, as in section 7, lines 3-5: "Doors, where my heart was used to beat/So quickly, waiting for a hand,/A hand that can be clasp'd no more." Again, what does this suggest about Tennyson's relationship with Hallam? What is the role of the body in processing grief, or in expressing love? Does the physical nature of Tennyson's love undermine its spiritual quality? Does Tennyson's insistence that he loved Hallam's "Spirit" not his "breathing voice" contradict his frequent emphasis on the body and touch?

3. What divisions does the poem make between human and divine love? In section 129, Tennyson writes:

Known and unknown; human, divine;
     Sweet human hand and lips and eye;
     Dear heavenly friend that canst not die,
Mine, mine, for ever, ever mine [ll 5-8]

Do the two loves feed on each other, are they ultimately the same thing?

4. Place is also foregrounded in these sections of the poem. Section 8 begins:

A happy lover who has come
     o look on her that loves him well,
     Who 'lights and ring the gateway bell,
And learns her gone and far from home.

He saddens, all the magic light
     Dies off at once from bower and hall
     And all the place is dark, and all
The chambers emptied of delight:

So find I every pleasant spot
     In which we two were wont to meet
     The field, the chamber and the street,
For all is dark where thou art not. [8, 1-12]

This section, as well as section 7, anchors love and memory in very specific places. How does this contrast to the idea of Heavenly or immortal love? What is the purpose of light and dark imagery in section 7?


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam Leading Questions

Last modified 3 May 2003