Tennyson provides a major influence on Eliot's poetry throughout his career, and of all his poems In Memoriam had the most pervasive effect, as its wasteland imagery, style, subject, and experimental structure appear again in The Wasteland. Indeed, The Wasteland in many ways appears a spiritual rewriting of Tennyson's In Memoriam. Although Eliot imitated Tennyson in his first poems, by the time he set out on his own path, he tended to denigrate his predecessor in critical essays, but as he matured, he increasingly acknowledged Tennyson's mastery.

In his fine book on Eliot's Victorian inheritance, David Ned Tobin describes how pervasive was Tennyson for young poets at Harvard:

The subject of "Tennyson at Harvard" suggests a paradox: Tennyson was the compromising arch-Victorian, or the unread, dead Great Poet, or the misread Master — but in all cases his poetry was still impossible to avoid, still a living voice. Eliot's Harvard poems, like those of his peers, echo the voice of Tennyson. . . . A young man writing poetry in the first decade of this century would find it impossible to avoid the shadow of Tennyson. It wasn't necessary to "discover" him, or cultivate a special enthusiasm for him. One simply knew Tennyson, Tennysonian diction, Tennysonian nuance, Tennysonian themes. Eliot's early poems bear this out. [85]

The older he became, the more secure his reputation as a major poet, the more Eliot found himself able to praise Tennyson. As Tobin shows, in succeeding iterations of remarks on his Victorian predceessor, Eliot made his praise less and less equivocal until by 1936 he could write: “Tennyson is a great poet, for reasons that are perfectly clear. He has three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety, and complete competence" ("In Memoriam," Essays, p. 175; quoted by Tobin, p. 122). Eliot, Tobin points out, "no longer had to cloud his appraisal of Tennyson with defensiveness" (p. 122).

By this point in his career, the modern poet unequivocably praises his predecessor's great experimental elegy:

Its technical merit alone is enough to ensure its perpetuity. While Tennyson's technical competence is everywhere masterly and satisfying, In Memoriam is the most unapproachable of all his poems. Here are one hundred and thirty-two passages, each of several quatrains in the same form, and never monotony or repetition. . . . We may not memorize a few passages, we cannot find a "fair sample"; we have to comprehend the whole of a poem which is essentially the length that it is. . . . It is unique: it is a long poem made by putting together lyrics, which have only the unity and continuity of a diary, the concentrated diary of a man confessing to himself. It is a diary of whiich we have to read every word. [333-34; quoted in Tobin p. 139]

Some of Eliot's highest praise of In Memoriam comes, Tobin demonstrates, during the years he is composing The Four Quartets, another major work with strong parallels to the elegy (150-51). Anyone interested in the rich, complex relatinship between the two poets — each perhaps the most influential of his age — should read Tobin's valuable book.

References

Eliot, T. S. Essays Ancient and Modern. London: Faber and Faber, 1936.

Tobin, David Ned. The Presence of the Past: T. S. Eliot's Victorian Inheritance. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983.


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