Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam is littered with references to biblical events, characters, and motifs. Tennyson often uses these references to characterize the emotions he feels at the loss of his friend — they color his emotions, articulate his thoughts, and provide a backdrop against which we can better understand the poet’s pain. In the fourteenth poem, Tennyson discusses how he would feel should his friend be brought back and how he would consider his resurrection a natural event, a reference to the natural resurrection of Christ. The next poem (XV) continues this analogy by depicting a kind of judgement day that heralds the coming of the kingdom of heaven:
To-night the winds begin to rise
And roar from yonder dropping day:
The last red leaf is whirl'd away,
The rooks are blown about the skies;
The forest crack'd, the waters curl'd,
The cattle huddled on the lea;
And wildly dash'd on tower and tree
The sunbeam strikes along the world:
And but for fancies, which aver
That all thy motions gently pass
Athwart a plane of molten glass,
I scarce could brook the strain and stir
That makes the barren branches loud;
And but for fear it is not so,
The wild unrest that lives in woe
Would dote and pore on yonder cloud
That rises upward always higher,
And onward drags a labouring breast,
And topples round the dreary west,
A looming bastion fringed with fire.
The poem seeks to color the poet’s emotions as images of fire and brimstone that stir the reader into empathizing with the depth of the poet’s pain. The friend’s death becomes as powerful and moving an event as judgement day itself.
1. What is the “looming bastion of fire” that Tennyson refers to? Is it the oncoming kingdom? Or can it work to symbolize the realization of his friend’s death?
2. Is Tennyson’s conception of death tied up with religion? Or is Tennyson simply using religious death motifs to keep his reader’s interest?
3. The progression of poems 14 to 15 is a marked change in tone, as is the transition from 15 to 16. How did Tennyson intend this poem to be read in this context?
Last modified 6 April 2011