ennyson's great experimental epic-length elegy relates to the literary canon in ways as complex as it does to genre and style. In the first place, Tennyson wrote In Memoriam during the time that modern notions of the canon took form. Secondly, its systematic allusions to Tennyson's predecessors construct his own personal version of a canon of great works that its readers must recogbnize to understand and appreciate Tennyson's poem. In Memoriam's allusions to Homer, Vergil, Catullus, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton in effect insert his words into the canon and implictly claim importance and even greatness for his tribute to Hallam. In fact, In Memoriam, which immediately established Tennyson's reputation when it appeared, quickly earned enormous fame — as had Dante's Commedia and Milton's Paradise Lost on their appearance.
As therefore one of the most popular and historically influential poems of the nineteenth century, In memoriam certainly earned a place in the canon, that informal list of great works that every knowledgeable reader and author supposedly knows. Nonetheless, a century and a half after its publication, In Memoriam reveals some of the problematic aspects of the very idea of such status. Since the canon in most cases really has become equivalent to what students read in courses, and since today comparatively few students read Victorian poetry (as opposed to, say, the numbers who read Victorian fiction), it has little of the presence to modern readers that it did to contemporary Victorian ones. In fact, one could argue that in the late-twentieth-century redefinitions of the canon, In Memoriam has ended up farther from the center of authority and acquaintance than many minor works of fiction.
Last modified 20 February 2010