Discuss Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam” as an elegy

“In Memoriam” was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson specifically to mourn the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. As such, this poem is an elegy, and the note of lament must predominate in it. It is, therefore, surprising that anybody should think that the elegiac note in this poem is lost in the poem’s religious and philosophical overtones. The religious and philosophical elements in the poem are certainly very prominent. In fact, these elements impart to this poem a certain weight and significance that the poem could not have had without them. The essentially Victorian character of the poem derives from its religious and metaphysical speculations. But the elegiac note is by no means swamped or even pushed into the background by these speculations. On one hand, the opinion has been expressed that the grief of In Memoriam is extravagant and exaggerated, and at the other extreme is the view that the elegiac note is lost in its metaphysics. The fact of the matter is that these two themes are the most important in the poem, and they almost balance each other.

In the earlier part of the poem, the poet’s grief is the paramount theme. The elegiac note in this earlier portion is therefore very pronounced, while metaphysical speculations enter the poem only a little before its middle when the poet feels his faith being challenged by the current scientific ideas. In the very opening lyric of the poem, the writer refers to his grief which he wants to retain and not to be rid of. His grief over Hallam’s death is intense because his love for Hallam was intense. If grief goes, it will mean that the poet’s love for Hallam has also fled. Therefore he says: “Let love clasp grief lest both the drowned”. Gazing at the immemorial gloom of the old yew tree in the churchyard, the poet wants to identify himself with it. The “thousand years” of the tree’s gloom fascinate him and he wishes to “grow incorporate” into it. In other words, he wishes his grief to become permanent, though a little later finds the fellowship of sorrow somewhat cruel and asks whether he should crush his sorrow or embrace it as his “natural good”. At the same time, he finds his grief so oppressive that he would like to get some relief from it by “the sad mechanic exercise” which means the writing of verses or what he calls “measured language”.

The poet’s lament continues when he says that, though death is common, his grief over his friend’s death does not diminish on that account. “That loss is common would make my own less bitter, rather more,” and he goes on to compare himself with a father whose son has been shot on the battlefield, to a mother whose sailor-son gets drowned in the sea just when she is praying for his safety, and to the maiden whose lover and would-be husband fails to turn up because he has perished on the way. The poet’s fate now is similar to that of this maiden; “To her, perpetual maidenhood, And unto me no second friend”. This lament is followed by the poet’s visit (actual or imaginary) to the house where Hallam used to live. But Hallam is no longer there, and Hallam’s hand can no more be clasped by the poet: “And ghastly through the drizzling rain on the bald street breaks the blank day”. The lines in which the poet expresses his feelings at the time of this futile visit are most poignant and moving. All those spots where the two friends (the poet and Hallam) used to meet- the field, the chamber, and the street-are now dark to the poet because Hallam is no longer there. There is deep regret in me poet’s “forsaken heart”. The poet thinks it worthwhile to continue writing these verses in memory of his friend.

The elegiac note is never lost in the course of the poem though it is certainly hushed towards the close, as it was bound to be because in most elegies the development of thought and feeling leads to such a consummation. It is the elegiac note or the expression of the poet’s grief and love that is the motivating force behind all the metaphysical speculations. It is the poet’s grief and love that inevitably drive him to ask questions about immortality and God. Indeed, it seemed that the creation of the stars, the earth, animal life, and their subsequent history were in accordance with the operation of certain mechanical laws of Nature. The dual character of In Memoriam must not be forgotten: it is an elegy, and it describes the author’s experience of a spiritual conflict ending in the victory of faith over doubt.

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