Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain.
— John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale," 51-56.
Now, sometimes in my sorrow shut,
Or breaking into song by fits,
Alone, alone, to where he sits,
The Shadow cloaked from head to foot,
Who keeps the keys of all the creeds,
I wander, often falling lame,
And looking back to whence I came,
Or on to where the pathway leads;
— Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam 23, 1-8.
Both John Keats in "Ode to a Nightingale" and Alfred Tennyson in In Memoriam portray death as an entity that follows the author. By placing such a personal face on such a distant and inconceivable end, each author manages to approach his questions and thoughts of death in a more concrete manner. For example, Keats, having called Death "soft names in many a mused rhyme," expresses his past appeals for a gentle end. He has been "half in love with easeful Death." He sees it as an end to the suffering of his life and appreciates it for that. Since now "it [is] rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain," his personification of the concept of death makes it easier to handle and to express. Tennyson, too, writes of a nearly human death, his "Shadow cloaked from head to foot." This persona allows him, too, to conceptualize the indeterminate ideas associated with the end of his life: he approaches this shadow and contemplates death when he sinks deepest into questioning his past and future. As well, his theological views show through: Death is the man "who keeps the keys of all the creeds;" an entity with eminent control.
Both men, by personifying death in this manner, approach a concern that pervades much of their works and, indeed, much of their lives. Keats finds himself entranced with his imminent end, and in "Ode to a Nightingale" realizes that he could find little better time and spot to pass on than that particular moment. His is not a fickle or random flirt with death, though. It is a romance born of long hours of contemplation, of his aching need to see beyond the curtain of his life. This contemplation has led him to accept death in its imminence and reality; in the poem he has turned to the hope of a fair and gentle passing. Tennyson's work, though marked by this same contemplation, does not come to the same peaceful conclusions. His picture of death reflects a less Romantic, more Victorian, questioning of faith and religion: he can only see the "Shadow cloaked from head to foot." This concealment of its nature disturbs him terribly. Moreover, he comes to its contemplation when "falling lame." He, too, needs to know to what end his life is coming to; but he has not found the serenity of Keats' soft whispers: he breaks "into song by fits." Both men need to understand the end towards which their lives are heading. Keats approaches his death with a Romantic serenity; Tennyson approaches his with the inner angst of the Victorian loss of faith. (John Caperton, "The Crisis of Organized Religion," In Memoriam Web)
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000