Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) is a poem about love and death, the two things which change all things – which is a powerful reason for reading what happens to be a powerful piece of writing, one of the key works of the nineteenth century, and one which has been described antithetically as the epitome of Victorian scepticism and of Christian faith. And there you have it: a great work of art precisely because it contains no single clear moral, despite its many pronouncements, but teaches us instead that life is a complex business which can’t be diluted to the simplicity of a didactic dictum.
The poem partakes rather of that suspension of decision which is the exact opposite of what we expect and get from propaganda, an art form best left to the politicians. Great writers never attempt to reduce human existence to a formula; there are no rights and wrongs, no clear-cut messages in any work of art, and that is why In Memoriam is an artistic triumph.
Another reason for reading the poem is that it isn’t actually a poem, it’s 132 poems, composed over seventeen years, which the author eventually arranged into an invented chronological order, with Christmases and anniversaries and flashbacks, before presenting it for publication as a single composition which it both is and isn’t. So there are two ways to read it: either as it is presented, with its progress from grief and despair to recovery and hope of new life; or recognizing that this was a superficial pattern imposed by the poet on poems that had been composed over a long period according to the mood of the moment, often expressing violent conflicts and clashes of ideas and emotions, and that had then been reshuffled to form a more coherent entity.
What is In Memoriam specifically about? It was begun in 1833 when Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson’s close friend and fellow student at Trinity College, Cambridge, died suddenly while in Vienna of a cerebral haemorrhage. He
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