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The Structure and Coherence of In Memoriam

Tennyson's In Memoriam is a collection of 133 poems (counting the prologue and epilogue).  The following material is meant to give you an overview of the entire collection, as well as some of the critical issues surrounding it.  As a class, we will only be reading selections from the work.   However, I think it will be helpful to you if you catch a glimpse of the big picture.

Overview of In Memoriam

#1-29:  Tennyson is grief stricken, obsessed with the question of Hallam's death, feeling helpless, yet not completely despairing.  He is glad to have an ideal regarding life and death, even if it seems unkempt.  He moves through a cycle of emotions, emotions which he defends as normal and necessary.

#30-50: We will not be covering any of the poems in this section, but do keep in mind that they help explain the transition between the grief process above and Tennyson's larger doubts and fears in the next section.  The stress in these poems is on genuine Christianity, especially a search for comfort in the New Testament.  Unfortunately, Tennyson doesn't find much.   He looks at resurrection symbols like Lazarus and Easter, and he discusses life as a vale of soulmaking.  Sometimes he almost sounds Platonic with the soul losing its identity in a great oneness.  He is looking to the state of eternal life as a potential answer, but the problem is that no definitive answer is coming from the other side.

#50-65:  Here he examines the central questions of God and Nature.  Is God provident in the world?  How can there be suffering and death if God is all powerful and all good?  He balances such themes as the temporal and the eternal, wisdom and knowledge, faith and/or science, and he wonders about the purpose of human life.  He struggles deeply with the wasteful appearance of Nature, and he continues to look to the dead in eternal life as some kind of answer.  We will not be reading poems #59-65.  These focus more on the question of our eternal destiny and its potential character.

#66-110:  Here Tennyson puts forth his philosophy of social concern, stressing Hallam as both a social creature and a humanitarian.  He has a vision of Hallam, accepts the idea of an eternal process moving on, and seeks to avoid the temptation of isolation.  We will be reading a few poems from this selection that begin to focus more on some of Tennyson's answers, including the famous #95 where Tennyson begins to settle into something like certainty.

#110 ff.: Tennyson begins to move to some resolution.  He suggests that knowledge serves wisdom, that human beings have a higher purpose, and that the soul is the basis for immortality.  We will look at several of these poems, including the epilogue, and discuss whether we find Tennyson's answers helpful.

Critical Issues with In Memoriam

Because In Memoriam is a collection of poems, it lacks the unified plot and direction of some epics.  Some would even contend that it is not a well-constructed whole at all. Do the poems provide a single message?  Here are some potential problems with the poem's structure:

  1. It is not a continuously linear poem.  The parts were not originally written together; they have a large variety of styles, some of which seem incompatible with others. 
  2. The poem seeks to bring together Tennyson's grief over Hallam, his own battle with religious doubt, as well as questions of philosophical nature.  Do these varying elements work together?
  3. The sequence has no close, regular form of development.  It is possible to see the sequence structured around a three year period built around the three Christmas poems; each poem shows a growing sense of hope and resignation as time passes. (Two of these--#28 and #78 are in our text. If you interested in the third poem, click here.)
  4. There is no clear picture of Hallam given; Hallam is "present" but not really the dead friend.
  5. Many have criticized his conclusions as paltry.  He seems to conclude that we need a belief in personal immortality or else we are lost politically, socially, and ethically, yet he offers no real substantive basis for this faith.

Tennyson's Strategies in Dealing with Doubt

Tennyson's poem deals with far more than his individual loss at Hallam's death; it also deals with the larger problem of a natural world full of death and pain.  Tennyson struggling with the theodicy problem (the nature of evil and suffering):

  1. Tennyson is seeking to understand the nature of doubt.  There must be an escape from death somewhere or life is a hideous mistake.
  2. He is seeking to see the problem of death in the light of recent scientific questions about evolution.  However, he has divided empirical knowledge from intuitional faith to the point that the two are hard-pressed to work together.
  3. He stresses that the invisible is truly real and that the future offers a challenge.  He is concerned with social progress: Can the world be better in the future than it has been in the past?
  4. He stresses the need for cooperation is working towards change and rejecting isolationism. (The sequence ends with a marriage.)
  5. Theodicy is a relational problem.  Even if we fear the absence of God, we continue to speak to that Presence, thereby affirming God.

Understanding the Resolution

Tennyson will propose a solution to the problem, especially in some of the later poems in the collection.  Keep in mind this general contour as you come to the concluding selections we will be reading:

  • It can be understood as a move from Grief  to Acquiescence to Joy/Peace; from Wounded Love to the Triumph of Love; and from Loss of Hope to the Recovery of Ascent.
  • It can also be understood as a new faith in the persistence of the remembered past and a growth of the poet's mind in which the poet learns to "reorder natural facts to achieve philosophical pattern."  In other words, the poet learns how to "resee" what has happened in a new way.

[The above material is taken in part from Dr. James Barcus, Baylor University.]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding