The structure of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's epic elegy, In Memoriam, exposes the reader to the evolution of the poet's feelings and attitudes over chronological time, which flows in tandem with the unfolding of the verse. Because the poem supposedly portrays the speaker's feelings at the moment he is writing the stanzas, there are many contradictions in thought and belief throughout the work — revealing the shifting, ever-changing nature of human nature. The most significant example of this change is the author's attitude toward eternal life. That is, the author's preliminary disbelief in immortality and spirituality is transformed as the protagonist's grief lessens over time and he rediscovers the importance of combining both the spiritual and the material worlds.
The reader is led to believe that the speaker's lack of faith is not only a consequence of Hallam's death, but also symptomatic of the times, evidence of an increasingly skeptical Victorian society in the era immediately pre-dating Darwin. The author's poem uses explicit references to the mechanistic and materialist scientific paradigms of the 1830s, and in the beginning of the poem, it seems as if the speaker has wholly abandoned his faith in favor of the cold and calculated science of electric impulses and natural selection. However, as the work progresses, the reader senses a veritable lifting of the poet's soul, for as the years pass following his friend's death, he is once again able to recapture his connection to and respect for the spiritual world, able to extend his poetic aims beyond the limits of his personal grief to higher planes of aesthetic creation.
In the following section of the poem, Tennyson stresses the necessity of infusing society with simple faith, with belief that exceeds the popular intellectual egoism that abounded in the scientific world and among the higher, educated classes in this time period
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in . . .
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be. [Section 106, p. 71]
In this frame of mind, the poet scorns those figures of the intellectual world who espouse cynicism in the face of religious belief and spiritualism, the scientists who reduce human beings to a set of "cunning casts in clay" operating by a system of mechanized magnetic reactions.
I trust I have not wasted breath:
I think we are not wholly brain,
Magnetic mockeries; not in vain,
Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death;
Not only cunning casts in clay;
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matter Science unto men,
At least to me? I would not stay.
Let him, the wiser man who spring
Hereafter, up from childhood shape
His action like the greater ape,
But I was born to other things [Section 120, p. 80]
However, Tennyson's assertion of the supremacy of the spiritual world over the material sphere is by no means unqualified. Immediately prior to what many critics dub the final section of the poem, when the poet begins to reconcile his doubt concerning faith and immortality with more scientific notions of evolution and materialism, the speaker's emphasizes his own skepticism with pure religious faith. Using Hallam's questioning nature as a prototype for his own, the poet accentuates the necessity of maintaining doubt, for doubts strengthen individuals by forcing them to reason and fight against their uncertainties.
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest
doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather'd strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the specters of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone,
But in the darkness and the cloud,
As over Sinai's peaks of old,
While Israel made their gods of gold,
Altho' the trumpet blew so loud. [Section 96, p. 62]
In the end, where do you feel the speaker's stands in the realms of doubt and religious faith? How does the author reconcile the spiritual and the material worlds? Does one supersede the other, or are they of equal value, merely existing in separate planes? How does the author's understanding of faith and disbelief alter throughout the course of the poem? How is your own reading of the poem affected by Tennyson's shifting and occasionally ambiguous perspectives on the spiritual and the material?
Would you consider this poem a religious literary work? How does its religious and moral tone compare with other Victorian works, most especially Aurora Leigh? Specifically, where do Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Tennyson converge in their views on spirituality? Where do they diverge? How do these authors understand the role of the poet in the greater society?
Now compare Tennyson's views on his contemporary Victorian society with those espoused by Carlyle. In what aspect of Tennyson's poem does he seem to mimic Carlyle's perspective on the evolution of this society?
Last modified 5 April 2004