“Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”
If there was a poem which encapsulated the potential timelessness of literary endeavour, it is, without a shadow of doubt, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Is it less a poem, more a journey of personal, scientific and human discovery. Written in memory of his dear friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, it’s exploration of intense grief and a search for redemption also encapsulates the deeply-felt concerns of 19th-century Victorian society. Queen Victoria herself is reported to have taken comfort from the work when Prince Albert passed away, and it cannot fail to strike the heart of any individual who has known grief, in any of its dark forms.
The Victorian Period’s great Christian doubt has been commented on by so many modern critics, you could not even begin to list them. The arrival of Darwin and Lyell’s works on the evolution of man shook the 19th century Christian to his core. Many have branded Tennyson’s poem a theodicy; an attempt to resolve the problem of evil. Tennyson speaks to God for all of humanity in the poem, as he asks: If God can no longer be relied upon, where does that leave me and my need for a way of processing loss? The intense preoccupations of the Victorian era are crystalised and refracted through the poet’s consciousness. He approaches scientific problems spiritually, not intellectually, he feels them keenly. His words convey the immense significance that contemporary issues bore for Victorian hearts and minds.
What must be remembered is that the poem has often been said to read like a diary; it is an intensely personal endeavour. Tennyson’s aim was never and could never have been an overt public discussion concerning the mysterious plan or otherwise of God. Generations have identified with the poem, not because Tennyson hoped they would, but because of his skill in depicting the human condition at its most fundamental; the ebbs and flows of grief and love, set against a backdrop of a realisation of a harsh and competitive world. Tennyson expressed misgivings about even rendering his feelings in poetry: “I sometimes hold it half a sin/To put in words the grief I feel.” The words imply a sense of self-imputed guilt for having even borne private grief, let alone broadcast it in the public space.
Tennyson moves through a process of experiencing “honest doubt” in his preconceived ideas of God to something greater than blind faith alone. He processes his grief over a period of many years, and arrives at peace in a realisation that faith can be vested safely in the honesty of human emotions, both grief and love. This is where the work has provided hope for so many. Despite being rooted firmly in its Victorian context, the poem resonates because of its exploration of human nature and the natural world.
The cyclical passage of time and the coming of spring eventually allow Tennyson to take heart that grief does not last for ever. “The life re-orient out of dust” see a newfound comfort being taken in the natural processes of the world. Basil Wiley argues that the poem can be viewed “as an effort to save religion from science by adducing a Coleridgean philosophy of religious experience against a demonstration of God from nature, or by reconciling the nineteenth century belief in the progress of the species with the Christian concept of salvation.” Despite critics’ focus on the pessimism found in nature in much of the poem, towards the end a Romantic inheritance does emerge, and while the same level of comfort in the permanence of nature in Coleridge cannot be found, a certain comfort in man’s emotion being somehow inherently rooted in nature can be. An affinity and a closeness between the spirit of Hallam and the natural world allows Tennyson to carve himself a place within that world too.
Writing about this fantastic piece of work could go on and on. What I really wanted to achieve was to make the reader at least vaguely curious about exploring this fascinating work. Another heartfelt look at grief in a composition which took 17 years to finish cannot be found. If you cannot summon the energy to read the entire thing, which I will admit is rather long, at least listen to the audiobook, which can be found here.