The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

II. The Tennysons

§ 3. In Memoriam

The quality which such art, with all its wonderful elaboration, lacks is that last secret of a great style which Dante indicates when he defines the dolce still nuovo—for what is true of love is true of any other adequate theme—

  • Ed io a lui: “Io mi son un che, quando
  • Amor mi spira, noto, ed a quel modo
  • Che ditta dentro, vo significando.”
  • He had not yet written as when a great subject appears to take the pen and write itself. But, in 1850, Tennyson seemed to his readers to have found such an inspiring theme, when the poem on which he had been at work ever since the death in 1833 of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam was published under the simple title In Memoriam, for the theme, death and immortality, was that on which Tennyson ever felt most deeply, was most constantly haunted and agitated by conflicting hopes and fears. In no poems had he written with more evident sincerity, more directness, a finer balance of thought and style, than in those poems which, like Ulysses and The Vision of Sin, were precursors of this longer poem on life and death and immortality, sorrow and sin and the justification of God’s ways to men.

    In Memoriam is not altogether free from the faults of Tennysonian diction, phrasing such as “eaves of weary eyes” or

  • And where the kneeling hamlet drains
  • The chalice of the grapes of God,
  • but, with few exceptions, the style is pure, direct and masculine, and to this not only the theme but the verse contributed, a verse which Ben Jonson and lord Herbert of Cherbury had used before him, but which Tennyson made his own by the new weight and melody which he gave to it. In Tennyson’s hands the verse acquired something of the weight and something of the fittingness for a long meditative poem of the terza rima as used by Dante, the same perfection of internal movement combined with the same invitation to continue, an eddying yet forward movement.

    The construction of the poem in separate sections, some of which are linked together in groups by continuity of theme, was that which gave freest scope to Tennyson’s genius, allowing him to make of each section the expression of a single, intense mood. But the claim for In Memoriam, that it is not merely a collection of poems of varying degrees of beauty but a great poem, rests on the degree of success with which Tennyson has woven these together into a poem portraying the progress of the human spirit from sorrow to joy, not by the loss of love or the mere dulling of grief, but by the merging of the passion for the individual friend, removed but still living, into the larger love of God and of his fellow-men. If the present generation does not estimate In Memoriam quite so highly as its first readers, it is because time, which has a way of making clear the interval between a poet’s intention and his achievement, the expressed purpose of a Paradise Lost and its final effect, has shown that Tennyson failed to make this central experience, this great transition, imaginatively convincing and impressive. It is not in the vague philosophy, with a dash of semi-mystical experience, in which is veiled the simple process by which the heart grows reconciled to loss and life renews her spell, nor in the finished and illuminated style in which all this is clothed—it is not here that the reader of to-day finds the true Tennyson, the poet with his own unique and splendid gifts, but in the sombre moods and the lovely landscapes of individual sections. “Old Yew, which graspest at the stones,” “Dark house, by which once more I stand,” “Calm is the morn without a sound,” “To-night the winds begin to rise,” “With trembling fingers did we weave”—sections such as these, or the passionate sequence beginning “Oh yet we trust that somehow good,” and later, lovelier flights as “When on my bed the moonlight falls,” “I cannot see the features right,” “Witch-elms that counterchange the floor,” “By night we linger’d on the lawn,” “Unwatch’d, the garden bough shall sway,” “Sad Hesper o’er the buried sun”—these are likely to be dear to lovers of English poetry by their expression of mood in picture and music, long after the philosophy of In Memoriam has been forgotten. It is not the mystical experience of the ninety-fifth section which haunts the memory, but the beauty of the sunrise that follows when

  • the doubtful dusk reveal’d
  • The knolls once more where, couch’d at ease,
  • The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees
  • Laid their dark arms about the field:
  • And suck’d from out the distant gloom
  • A breeze began to tremble o’er
  • The large leaves of the sycamore,
  • And fluctuate all the still perfume,
  • And gathering freshlier overhead,
  • Rock’d the full-foliaged elms, and swung
  • The heavy-folded rose, and flung
  • The lilies to and fro, and said,
  • “The dawn, the dawn,” and died away;
  • And East and West, without a breath,
  • Mixt their dim lights, like life and death,
  • To broaden into boundless day.
  • To the theme of the most agitated sections of the poem, those whose theme is not removal of the friend by death from the sight and touch of those that loved him, but the more terrible doubt as to a life after death, the poet was to recur again, to fight more than one “weird battle of the west,” before he faced the final issue with courage and resignation and hope.