Decorative Initial A lfred Lord Tennyson uses his poem In Memoriam A.H.H. not only as an outlet for the emotions that surface at the loss of a dear friend, but for a much more ambitious purpose as well. Within the structure of this elegiac poem, Tennyson works to illuminate various phenomena of the psyche that others have described simply as "indescribable." A consummate poet, Tennyson attempts this difficult task by employing the power of words.

In Section 95, Tennyson recounts how on a summer night outdoors, singing old songs renews for him the full force of his friend Arthur's absence:

By night we linger'd on the lawn,
     For underfoot the herb was dry;
     And genial warmth; and o'er the sky
The silvery haze of summer drawn;

And calm that let the tapers burn
      Unwavering: not a cricket chirr'd:
     The brook alone far-off was heard,
And on the board the fluttering urn:....

While now we sang old songs that peal'd
     From knoll to knoll, where, couch'd at ease,
     The white kine glimmer'd, and the trees
Laid their dark arms about the field . . .

When the poet beings to remember Hallam two stanzas later, Tennyson begins to engage the power of language in earnest to elucidate some of the more inexplicable occurrences common to human existence. In the next two stanzas immediately following, Tennyson explores these grand and abstract ideas including the nature of Time, Change, and Death all of which he ponders during an experience he identifies as a trance.

Æonian music measuring out      The steps of Time -- the shocks of Chance--
     The blows of Death. At length my trance
Was cancell'd, stricken thro' with doubt.

But four lines, no matter how poetic, cannot capture the immensity of these concepts. Language has its boundaries, which Tennyson acknowledges in the next stanza.

Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame
     In matter-moulded forms of speech,
     Or ev'n for intellect to reach
Thro' memory that which I became:

Perhaps not a completely successful attempt to render the ineffable comprehensible, but a worthwhile endeavor, regardless of the outcome.

Questions

Is Tennyson's attempt to explore these grand scale ideas by using poetic language, is Tennyson successful overall? Is he successful in Section 95?

After the death of her husband Prince Albert, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary "Next to The Bible, In Memoriam is my comfort." Is this poem still as affecting an elegy and mediation today, or has its appeal faded with the close of the Victorian Era?

If Tennyson kept the scope of this poem small, focusing solely on the death of Alfred Hallam, would In Memoriam have gained such wide acclaim? In other words, is the particular as effective as the universal?

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Last modified 3 February 2009