Harriet – GSAL Alumna (2019 Leaver)
Editor’s Note: Former student Harriet (2019 Leaver) was an editorial member of Salutaris, the Sixth Form academic journal, during her time at GSAL. This excellent and highly compelling essay was originally published in Salutaris 2019, a project led by Mrs Gray, E-Learning Designer. CPD
It took Tennyson seventeen years to write ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The 22-year-old poet, close to Tennyson since the time of their first meeting at Cambridge and newly engaged to the latter’s sister, was killed by a cerebral haemorrhage in Vienna, in what is seen as one of the most important events in Tennyson’s life. ‘In Memoriam’ was written as an elegy to his lost friend, and the long period of composition might be said to reflect the lasting nature of Tennyson’s grief and his desire to remember Hallam properly. This might also be reflected in the structure of the poem. It consists of 131 staves of varying length, spanning a number of years, in which Tennyson’s feelings about Hallam as they occur at different moments are explored, as are the issues which the death leads him to consider. Whilst the poem clearly shows development in Tennyson’s emotions, and ends hopefully on an epithalamion celebrating the wedding of another of his sisters, his grief does not diminish nor, arguably, does it find full expression; he merely comes to terms with it. It is interesting to note that Tennyson did not originally intend the sections to be collected as a structured poem, or to be published at all, and when they were it was initially anonymously. These circumstances all raise issues which Tennyson indeed discusses in ‘In Memoriam’: what can be achieved by the artistic expression of grief and, crucially, whether it can really be expressed at all.
It seems that initially Tennyson did not think it could. When asked by Hallam’s father, the year after his death, to contribute to a memoir, Tennyson wrote that his attempts ‘failed to do [Hallam] justice’. ‘I failed to please even myself’, he decided; ‘in the dearest service I could be employed in, I should be found most deficient’. He apparently found himself unable to convey the intense emotions which he felt, or to express the greatness he perceived in his friend. He promised to focus on ‘the construction of some tribute’ in the future; we might infer from this statement that a memoir could never be the right medium, but that he certainly saw expression in some form as necessary. Tennyson writes about these tensions openly in ‘In Memoriam’, and implies that even whilst writing his ‘tribute’, he finds it difficult to truly fulfil his intentions. At one point, for example, he writes that although he is able to describe his ‘lighter moods’, ‘there are other griefs within/ And tears that at their fountain freeze’, suggesting the inability for these deeper sorrows to be described as they occur Tennyson’s own mind. The impossibility of doing justice to Hallam in words is also reiterated to explain Tennyson’s focus on his own emotions rather than on his friend:
I leave thy praises unexpress’d
In verse that brings myself relief,
And by the measure of my grief
Leave thy greatness to be guessed.
The first person pronouns here are enveloped by the second person pronouns in a way which might suggest Tennyson’s total absorption in thoughts of, and reverence for, his friend. Moreover, it is implied that Tennyson feels a sort of guilt for this incomplete articulation of his feelings, which might have been detected already in his response to Hallam’s father. Stave V, in which Tennyson deals with the issue of the articulation of his loss in the most explicit detail, opens with the claim:
I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
The noun ‘sin’ continues the quasi-religious manner in which Tennyson refers to Hallam; he seems to regard the topic as in some way sacred, which might explain his desire to treat it properly, as well as the difficulty of encapsulating something so important in limited, human language, even in its elevated form of poetry. The somewhat paradoxical idea of language’s ability to ‘half reveal/ And half conceal’ abstract emotions is especially interesting, and seems to be at the heart of Tennyson’s difficulties: he apparently feels a duty, and certainly a desire, to elegise the loss of his friend, but doing so belies the massive and ineffable nature of his grief. The gap between human consciousness and the language we use to express it is revealed.
However, even voicing this issue is in some ways an attempt by Tennyson to communicate his grief, and the poem is, after all, a lengthy and wide-ranging consideration of the thoughts and emotions surrounding Hallam’s death. Evidently, expression is not entirely impossible, or it is at least worth attempting. The reasons for this expression, and its results, can be further examined. Tennyson implies that he feels compelled to write about his bereavement not just as a ‘tribute’ to his friend, but also for his own sake, as a potential consolation; it is ‘verse that brings myself relief’. This does not seem to be a wholly satisfying source of comfort, though, only a sort of anaesthetic:
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
The assonance in the last line nicely reflects the ‘numbing’ effect which writing has on Tennyson, his poetry becoming a method to help him endure suffering. This stanza is also a particularly good example of how he uses the form of ‘In Memoriam’ to convey his emotions, as the steady, even monotonous rhythm here demonstrates the tranquilising effect of his ‘measured language’ and ‘sad mechanic exercise’. Although the iambic abba rhymed tetrametric quatrains which Tennyson uses are not the completely original invention which he considered them to be, they are associated with this poem more closely than with any other work, to the extent that they are sometimes known as IM stanzas. Their envelope rhyme scheme creates a sense of stasis which may convey Tennyson’s difficulty in moving on from Hallam’s death, while the metre’s regularity might reflect the inescapability and weariness of his grief. It has even been suggested that the stanzas can represent the steady continuation of life in processes such as breathing and the heartbeat, which persist in spite of the devastation of Hallam’s death. Despite Tennyson’s emphasis on the inadequacy of poetry to communicate his grief, he manipulates it highly skilfully to suit his subject.
Ultimately, though, I would argue that Tennyson’s grief remains private; as he suggests, his poetry, however good it is, cannot replicate the intensity of his emotions. Rosenblum claims that ‘the poem repeatedly demonstrates the proposition that language acts, specifically the writing of this poem, can modify feeling and behaviour’, but Tennyson does not seem to show this to be the case: ‘In Memoriam’ may document the development of his grief, but it is apparently only a superficial account of what he actually feels, having little effect on the deeper currents of his emotion. He seems to acknowledge this in stave LII:
“Yet blame not thou thy plaintive song,”
The Spirit of true love replied;
“Thou canst not move me from thy side,
Nor human frailty do me wrong.”
This stanza implies that Tennyson’s grief, and the love from which it is inextricable, so transcends language that it cannot be articulated through poetry. Perhaps he accepts, to an extent, that it is therefore inevitable, and so acceptable, for his elegy to fall short of its subject; his inadequate treatment of Hallam’s death cannot diminish his love and loss. In fact, it might even be argued that this is one of the poem’s merits: the reader is not made to feel a part of Tennyson’s grief, merely a witness, forced to contemplate the incomprehensibility of individual human consciousness, the impossibility of true empathy. Of course, though, the poem is not just a personal exercise in mourning, however much I have written as though it is. Where poetry cannot accurately articulate private emotions, it might have the ability to express something else, something universal, about human experience. The issue I have discussed is simply one aspect, admittedly a compelling one, of a poem which spans issues such as religion, science, death, and marriage, and which Tennyson emphasised is not a private poem, but at times ‘the cry of the whole human race’.