“In Memoriam” by Alfred Lord Tennyson was specifically composed as a heartfelt lament for the untimely passing of his dear friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. The poem is undeniably an elegy, intended to evoke a prevailing sense of mourning. It may come as a surprise, then, that some individuals believe the elegiac quality of the poem is overshadowed by its religious and philosophical aspects. Indeed, the religious and philosophical elements hold a prominent position within the poem, bestowing upon it weight and significance that it would otherwise lack. The essence of Victorian sensibilities is intricately tied to the religious and metaphysical musings conveyed in the poem. However, it would be inaccurate to assert that the elegiac tone is overshadowed or relegated to the background by these contemplations. On one hand, there exists an opinion that the grief expressed in “In Memoriam” is exaggerated and extravagant, while on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who claim that the elegiac essence is lost amidst its metaphysical ruminations. In truth, both of these themes are of utmost importance in the poem, and they nearly balance each other in their significance.
In the initial segments of the poem, the predominant theme is the poet’s profound grief. During this early phase, the elegiac tone resonates strongly, while metaphysical contemplations gradually enter the poem around its midpoint, prompted by the poet’s faith being challenged by contemporary scientific ideas. Right from the outset of the poem, the poet acknowledges his grief, expressing a desire to retain it rather than dispel it. His grief for Hallam’s demise is intense, reflecting the intensity of his love for his departed friend. To the poet, the dissipation of grief would imply the departure of his love for Hallam as well. Hence, he pleads, “Let love clasp grief lest both the drowned.” Observing the timeless gloom of the ancient yew tree in the churchyard, the poet yearns to merge his identity with it. He becomes captivated by the tree’s “thousand years” of somber darkness and aspires to “grow incorporate” with it. In essence, he desires for his grief to become enduring, yet subsequently, he finds the fellowship of sorrow somewhat harsh, pondering whether he should suppress his sorrow or embrace it as his “natural good”. Concurrently, he finds his grief burdensome to the point that he seeks some solace through “the sad mechanic exercise,” which alludes to the act of composing verses or what he refers to as “measured language.”
The poet’s sorrow persists as he acknowledges that even though death is a common occurrence, it does not diminish the bitterness of his grief over his friend’s demise. He states, “That loss is common would make my own less bitter, rather more,” and proceeds to draw comparisons to a father whose son is shot on the battlefield, a mother whose sailor-son drowns at sea while she prays for his safety, and a maiden whose lover and prospective husband fails to return due to his untimely demise along the way. The poet now shares a fate similar to that of the maiden—forever in a state of maidenhood, with no prospect of a second friend. This lament is followed by the poet’s visit, whether real or imagined, to the house where Hallam once resided. However, Hallam is no longer present, and the poet can no longer clasp his hand. The poet vividly describes the bleakness of the scene as the drizzling rain casts a ghastly pallor upon the empty street. The lines that convey the poet’s emotions during this futile visit are deeply poignant and profoundly moving. The familiar locations where the two friends would meet—the field, the chamber, and the street—now appear dark and devoid of meaning to the poet in the absence of Hallam. The poet’s forsaken heart is filled with profound regret. Nonetheless, he deems it worthwhile to continue penning these verses in memory of his beloved friend.
Throughout the progression of the poem, the elegiac essence remains ever-present, even though it may become subdued towards the conclusion, as is expected in most elegies where the evolution of thought and emotion naturally leads to such a culmination. The elegiac note, which encompasses the poet’s grief and love, serves as the driving force behind all the metaphysical contemplations. It is the poet’s grief and love that inevitably compel him to inquire about matters of immortality and divinity. Indeed, it appears that the formation of stars, the earth, the existence of animal life, and their subsequent history adhere to the workings of certain mechanistic laws of nature. It is important not to overlook the dual nature of “In Memoriam”: it is both an elegy, recounting the author’s encounter with a spiritual conflict that ultimately concludes with faith triumphing over doubt.