The Romantics and the Victorians both addressed the idea of preservation of a perfect moment. In Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the perfect moment is one frozen in art, while in "In Memoriam," Tennyson struggles to preserve perfect moments in the past spent with his dear friend, Arthur Hallam.
"Urn" is almost a debate between art and life.
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet do not grieve."
The recompense for the lover's eternal frustration is his lover's everlasting beauty and his own everlasting passion for her.
Pipes play unheard melodies of unimagineable beauty, trees remain ever green, love remains ever fresh. But then Keats turns and calls the timeless images preserved in art a "Cold Pastoral." He seems to suggest that the process of living and dying, to know life in all its joy and sorrow, is more eternal than actual immortality in a frozen emotion, hinting at "Ode on Melancholy"'s theme that beauty is beauty because it is ephemeral. The final ambiguity is the controversy over the use of quotation marks in the second to last line. In this version, the quotation marks attribute the statement "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'" to the urn and its immortality in art, implying that the following statement " — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," is Keats' commentary on the truth of the urn's statement. But without the quotes, both maxims are the urn's views, which brings into question the authority of the two statements. Even with the quotes, there is uncertainty over whether the "ye" addresses mankind, in which case we are to understand that beauty really is truth, or whether it addresses the urn, which could be read as a criticism of its ultimate limitation in interacting with the entire range of human experience in asserting that beauty is all, art is all. Also, doesn't the very fact that the question is being put into an art form, poetry, make it highly ironic and even hypocritical? Hence, the value of preserving a perfect moment in art is never clearly confirmed nor denounced.
"In Memoriam" is marked with touching scenes of Tennyson's searching for reminders of times spent with Hallam. He visits Hallam's house, his old dormitory room, longing to see Hallam's face, hear his voice, clasp his hand. He poignantly attempts to recover perfect moments with Hallam by sapping the physical reminders, but he cannot.
So find I every pleasant spot
In which we two were wont to meet,
The field, the chamber, and the street,
For all is dark where thou art not."
Only towards the end of the poem does Tennyson abandon his attempts to preserve past moments and the transitory things that died with Hallam and turn to the immortal things that live on.
My love involves the love before;
My love is vaster passion now;
Tho' mix'd with God and Nature thou,
I seem to love thee more and more."
By letting go, the gradual transition from attempting to preserve perfect past moments to the appreciation of that in Hallam which is permanent and universal, Tennyson enumerates the various purposes of poetry. Sections 1-27 are marked with despair and overwhelming grief. Poetry is there a release from emotion, a comfort and solace. In sections 103-31, faith is all-encompassing, rendering poetry almost a mission to spread universal truths. Unlike Keats in "Urn," Tennyson reconciles himself with the temporal dilemma and learns to let go of past moments, however perfect, for more eternal things.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000