Decorative Initial Tennyson's radically experimental In Memoriam provides an instance of the truth of Walter Benjamin's remark that "the history of every art form shows critical epochs in which certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is, to say, in a new art form" ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, ed. by Hanna Arendt, trans. by H. Zohn, New York: Schocken, 237). Another instance of this principle appears in Victorian word-painting, particularly in the hands of Ruskin and Tennyson, which anticipates in abundant detail the techniques of cinematography. Whereas word-painting anticipates a future medium (cinema) by using narrative to structure description, Tennyson's poem anticipates electronic hypertextuality precisely by challenging narrative and literary form based upon it. Convinced that the thrust of elegaic narrative, which drives the reader and the mourner relentlessly from grief to consolation, falsified his own experiences, the poet constructed a poem of 131 fragments to communicate the ebb and flow of emotion, particularly the way the aftershocks of grief irrationally intrude long after the mourner has supposedly recovered.

Arthur Henry Hallam's death in 1833 forced Tennyson to question his faith in nature, God, and poetry. In Memoriam reveals that Tennyson, who found that brief lyrics best embodied the transitory emotions that buffeted him after his loss, rejected conventional elegy and narrative because both falsify the experience of grief and recovery by mechanically driving the reader through too unified — and hence too simplified — a version of these experiences. Creating an antilinear poetry of fragments, Tennyson leads the reader of In Memoriam from grief and despair through doubt to hope and faith, but at each step stubborn, contrary emotions intrude, and one encounters doubt in the midst of faith, pain in the midst of resolution. Instead of the elegaic plot of "Lycidas," "Adonais," and "Thyrsis," In Memoriam offers fragments interlaced by dozens of images and motifs and informed by an equal number of minor and major resolutions, the most famous of which is section 95's representation of Tennyson's climactic, if wonderfully ambiguous, mystical experience of contact with Hallam's spirit. In addition, individual sections, like 7 and 119 or 28, 78, and 104 variously resonate with one another.

From George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992; Hypertext 2.0, revised, expanded edition, 1997.

Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson In Memoriam

Last modified 1998