Wednesday, May 15, 2013


For the past month, while working on a rewrite of my middle grade historical mystery, I've been indulging my new found love of Tennyson's poetry. A great discovery for me is In Memoriam, a book-length elegy which is really a series of elegies in 131 poems, to his friend, Arthur Hallam, along with a prologue and an epilogue in verse.

Tennyson met Hallam at Trinity College in Cambridge and they became fast friends. When Hallam unexpectedly died of apoplexy on a trip to Europe with his father, the death deeply affected Tennyson's family. Hallam was engaged to Alfred's sister, Emily, and Alfred lost his closest friend. Devastated, Tennyson began writing the poems as a way to cope with his grief.

But the poems evolved into more than elegies to a lost life. Tennyson wrote them over a period of seventeen years. During that time, he was wrestling with scientific discoveries of the day—discoveries that presented challenges to one's Christian faith, something the Victorians took quite seriously. Edgar Finley Shannon, Jr., calls In Memoriam, "that monument to the religious questioning of the nineteenth century . . ."1.  T. S. Eliot called it a religious poem and wrote, "It is not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt." 2

Through the successive elegies, Tennyson worked through questions of whether the soul persists after death, whether there can be a loving creator if the creations simply become buried under geological strata through the ages, whether evolution suggests man is higher on the evolutionary scale, whether the future will usher in a superior being to man as we know him now, and so on. Tennyson finally made his peace by recognizing the validity of scientific reality in Nature, and the validity of spiritual reality in God, deciding that they worked by different laws.

Because In Memoriam addressed concerns of the Victorian Age at so many levels—including the Victorian attitude toward mourning—it was hailed as a masterpiece when it was published in 1850. Soon after, Tennyson became England's new poet laureate. (Wordsworth had passed away, Queen Victoria was looking for a successor, and Prince Albert read In Memoriam and admired it.) 3. In later years, after the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria told Tennyson, "Next to the Bible in Memoriam is my comfort." 4

The success of In Memoriam brought financial security and enabled Tennyson to wed his long-time sweetheart, Emily Sellwood. 

As I've been reading through the poems, I was amazed at how many famous lines I recognized: 

"Tis better to have loved and lost/ than never to have loved at all."

"Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky/ . . . Ring out the old, Ring in the new . . ."

"Our little systems have their day; / They have their day and cease to be . . ." 

"Theirs is not to reason why, / Theirs is but to do and die . . ."

"Nature, red in tooth and claw . . . "

Some of the above information has been taken from a fine biography of Tennyson at Poetry Foundation HERE, and some (including the four foot-noted quotes) has been taken from a book I would highly recommend:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam
Authoritative Text, Criticism
Second Edition
Edited by Erik Gray, Harvard University
W. W. Norton & Company, 2004
1. p. 110
2. p. 138
3. p. xiii
4. p. xiii