This essay examines Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem about the death of his friend.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “In Memoriam A.H.H.” upon the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, his dearest friend. The poem is nearly 3,000 lines long, divided into 131 sections, and it is a shattering cry of anguish and pain. The only readers unaffected by it must be young people who have yet to experience the death of someone they love.
This paper examines the poem, and the idea of desire as connected with the work.
The word “desire” evokes a strong response, calling to mind as it does a sexual relationship. In our over-sophisticated 21st Century, we tend to see a homosexual relationship between Tennyson and Hallam as being the only possible reason for this outpouring of grief. But critics say no: it was an intense friendship, but there was no hint, on either side, of such feelings:
“This was the beginning of four years of warm friendship between the two men, in some ways the most intense emotional experience of Tennyson’s life … it is almost certain that there was nothing homosexual about the friendship: definitely not on a conscious level and probably not on any other. Indeed, it was surely the very absence of such overtones that made the warmth of their feelings acceptable to both men, and allowed them to express those feelings so freely.” (Fredeman, PG).
In order to understand the friendship, it’s necessary to understand what Tennyson’s life was like, but this paper is too brief to go into it deeply. That’s too bad, because it’s a melodramatic chronicle of drugs, alcoholism and madness that would make a wonderful film. Briefly, Tennyson was emotionally fragile, morbidly sensitive to criticism, the son of a man who had been virtually disinherited by his father, and who used drugs and alcohol to escape from reality. Tennyson had 11 siblings; one brother spent most of his life in an insane asylum; another had recurring bouts of drug addiction; a third was confined to a mental home because of his alcoholism; a fourth was confined on and off throughout his life and died young. Of the remaining children, all had severe mental breakdowns once in their lives. (Fredeman, PG).
... part of each of Tennyson's poems you will find an example of his life, or his feelings about his life and happenings. "T. S ... . These people remained his friends throughout his life, but one member formed an unparalleled friendship with Tennyson. Arthur Henry Hallam, another brilliant Victorian ...
This is the miserable home that Tennyson escaped when he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. At school, he was with young men his own age for the first time, normal young men of his own intellectual level—and he blossomed. He became one of the most important men in the college and was popular for the first time. It’s no wonder, then, that his friendship with Hallam, which formed at this time, was the finest thing in his life.
Hallam and his other college friends supported Tennyson’s writing efforts and encouraged him to keep going. In addition, Hallam fell in love with Emily Tennyson, Alfred’s sister, and they were to be married. Then, unexpectedly, Hallam suffered a brain aneurysm and died. The shock to Alfred was enormous, and it is out of this that “In Memoriam” comes.
The structure of the poem itself mirrors the stages of grief: it’s a wild roller-coaster ride from rage to shock to hope and back again. The 131 sections don’t necessarily flow easily into each other; instead they mimic the unsettled feelings we have as we work through a loss, from staggering disbelief and misery, to bargaining, to final acceptance. But these stages come at different times to different people, and in no set order; thus the sections of the poem follow no set pattern, though they all center on Hallam. Let’s examine some examples very quickly.
In Section VI, the last stanza, he says: “O what to her shall be the end? / And what to me remains of good? / To her perpetual maidenhood, / And unto me no second friend.”
He’s talking about a young woman whose love is killed before they can marry. She is thus doomed to perpetual virginity; he too is doomed to loneliness, because he will never find another friend like Hallam. This is an expression of the sentiment that no one will ever take another’s place. That is of course quite true; no one will ever completely replace someone who’s gone, but other friendships will be possible. At this point, though Tennyson can’t admit that.
... One school that I have been seriously considering is Alfred University of upstate New York. The reason I ... (even with my grades). I first heard of Alfred at the school College Fair. The lady who was ... "only hot girls" generally entails). Though many people love the school, some just don't fit in and ... has to be a ski mountain around for winter time. Now comes the reach school, Northeastern University. I ...
In Section XXII, Tennyson describes the “paths” he and Hallam walked together, meaning their friendship. For four years they enjoyed their companionship, but when they “began to slant the fifth autumnal slope” there “sat the Shadow fear’d of man.” The Shadow (death) parts them and takes Hallam away. Tennyson finishes the section with this stanza: “And bore thee where I could not see / Nor follow, tho’ I walk in haste, / And think, that somewhere in the waste / The Shadow sits and waits for me.”
We can reasonably construe this to represent the terrible longing that most of us have to die too, and so remain with the person we love. The line “tho’ I walk in haste” indicates that he is trying to catch up with Death, not run from it.
Section XXVII contains one of the most famous stanzas in all literature, and is also a statement of acceptance: “I hold it true, whate’er befall, / I feel it, when I sorrow most, / ‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” And the next section (XXVIII) ends with these words: “This year I slept and woke with pain, / I almost wish’d no more to wake, / And that my hold on life would break / Before I heard those bells again: // But they my troubled spirit rule, / For they controll’d me when a boy, / They bring me sorrow touch’d with joy / The merry merry bells of Yule.” Holidays are difficult times when loved ones are gone, but despite everything, the joy of the season helps lift his spirits, and again we find him beginning to accept his loss.
The poem ends with Tennyson speaking of “That friend of mine who lives in God,” indicating that he has been able to let go at last, and accept that Hallam is gone.
“In Memoriam A.H.H.” is filled with longing, anguish, sorrow, and above all desire; the desire for Hallam’s return. In other words, it’s the one desire above all others that can never be fulfilled. It is Tennyson’s hopeless yearning for something he knows cannot possibly happen that gives the work much of its power.
... death of his best and beloved friend, Arthur Hallam. This travesty produced in Tennyson profound spiritual depression, and he vowed to ... basis of their relationship. To Vivien, love is pure sexual passion. Yea! Love, though Love were of the grossest carves/ A portion ... Known as one of Victorian England s finest poets, Lord Alfred Tennyson epitomized the agony and despondency of the degradation of ...
Fredeman, William E., and Ira B. Nadel, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 32: Victorian Poets before 1850. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1984: 262-282. Retrieved 2 Mar 2003 from The Gale Group, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA at:
Tennyson, Alfred (Lord).
“In Memoriam A.H.H.” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Poetry [Web site]. Undated. Accessed: 2 Mar 2003. http://tennysonpoetry.home.att.net/132.htm