AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles AmblesideOnline.org

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
______________________________________
Tennyson's "In Memoriam"

by Dorothea Beale, Principal of the Cheltenham Ladies' College.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 25-35


"Der mensch macht die Welt, aber er schafft sie nicht." This is true not only for the world which exists for sense, but for that universe of conceptions which is the home of our spirit. Each age has its own conceptions--those of Plato cannot be those of Dante, nor Dante's those of Milton; and so the poets of our own day speak to us as those of distant times cannot. We may enter into the thoughts of others, but these enter into ours; they strike sympathetic chords, and bring out music for prosaic souls; thus Dante was a power in his own age that he can never be again. Those who said "see the man who has been in hell" had been there themselves, and seen what we cannot see. Milton affects us as the painting of Michael Angelo; for him the serpent, the deadly fruit, were objective to sense, not the spiritual realities they are to us; and even the poets of our own age and country live in such different spheres, that we need to adjust our view if we would learn to know them. Tennyson is the nearest to most of us: he stands between Wordsworth and Browning. To the former, the world of Nature is the grand reality; man is little more than an accident--the inanimate is that which truly lives. For Browning, the magnificent scenery which he paints is merely introduced as the stage on which the human drama is enacted: the soul is the one reality, "the incidents in its development the only thing worth noting."

Tennyson strikes the note by which we modulate from one to the other. The philosophy of our time conceives of Nature as existing only for mind; and in Tennyson's most characteristic poem, which is as descriptive as Wordsworth's we never lose the consciousness of the human presence: Nature is seen by us only as mirrored in mind.

Tennyson belongs to a time of comparative peace; the revolutionary period had passed away with its poets of "Sturm and Drang." He belongs to the age of reverie--like symphony and sonata and "Songs without Words"--to the dawn of the pre-Raphaelite school with its clear and minute effects, and its spiritual atmosphere. He is the poet of peace, of ordered precedent, of reverence and self-control; and one thinks of him as taken away from the evil to come, and is fain to pronounce the epitaph of old--"They shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness." I know it may be said that the "Idylls" treat of war; but it is always an ideal and spiritual combat, which is present to our consciousness: it is not like Milton's call to real battle.

The world in which Tennyson Lived was the quiet village, in the shadow of the church, hallowed by the sanctities of family life: he loved his English home, as few poets have since Spenser. This, together with his utter purity of thought, have made him the friend specially of womanly women, and we owe him a debt of gratitude, because we feel that no poet since Shakespeare has known and reverence woman as Tennyson has done. When that great movement began in the midle of the century, which has changed the ideal of woman's spere and woman's work, Tennyson did not merely ridicule, but interpreted the noble aspiration into noble verse, and prophesied of that true marriage of souls which is being I trust, realised by not a few in our own day. But let us turn to the poem itself. "In Memoriam" may be described as a sort of Journal Intime, extending over several years, and revealing the transformations of sorrow experienced by the mourner. Its musical form is exceedingly melodious. It is difficult to add anything to the words of Robertson, but I have venured on a somewhat fuller analysis.

The poem is divided into a number of cabinet-like compartments, which, with fine and delicate shades of difference, exhibit the various phases through which the bereaved spirit passes from the first shock of despair up to the dawn of hope, acquiescent trust, and even calm happiness. Many a question has been solved, which can only suggest itse3lf, when suffering forces the soul to front the realities of our mysterious existence, such as: Is there indeed a life to come? Will it be a conscious life? Will there be mutual recognition? Or, again: How comes it that one so gifted was taken away so early in the maturity of his powers? Is the law of creation Love indeed. "By slow degrees, all doubts are answered, not as a philosopher would answer them, nor as a teologian, nor a metaphysician, but as it is the duty of a poet to reply, by intuitive faculty, in strains in which Imagination predominates over Thought and Memory. And one of the manifold beauties of this poem is that, piercing through all the sophistries and over-refinements of speculation, and the lifeless scepticism of science, it fall back upon the grand, primary, simple truths of Humanity; those first principles which underlie all creed, which belong to our earliest childhood, and on which the wisest and best have rested through all ages: that all is right: that darkness shall be clear: that God and Time are the only interpreters: that Love is king: that the Immortal is in us: that--which is the key-noteof the whole--

'All is well, though Faith and Form
Be sundered in the night of fear.'"

Mr. Knowles tells us that Tennyson himself considered the poem to consist of nine sections.

The chapters I-viii are introductory. And I think one must feel as one reads these, and indeed all through Tennyson's writing, the underlying faith. Never throughout the poem is there any thought that the loved one has lost by death; only the survivor. It is, faith whispers, like the passing away of the Master; temporary loss is eternal gain, not for him only who has passed away. That is in some degree true for all saintly souls, which was expressed by the breaking of the alabaster vase, when the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. But this thought is developed later. At first he sees death as death, and speaks of treading on our dead selves, and thereby attaining one day a larger outlook than the world of sense can offer. At first, however, this cannot be felt as a consolation at all:

"Who shall so forecast the years,
And find in loss a gain to match?
Or reach a hand through time to catch
The far-off interest of tears?"

At first he will be like the unchanging yew: all the world seems dead now that dear life has passed away (4) and the soul remains in a state of death-like torpor, wherein the measured (5) language of poetry lulls to repose.

(6) At once the words of the opening verse, however, are realised in the enlarged sympathies: he now knows the grief of father, mother, and bride. In the first stage of sorrow, the spirit of the mourner lingers (8) round the earthly dwelling-place, the home, the haunts of his friend; then imagination passes out to meet the (9) ship, and in a most melodious verse, in which we hear the flow of the waves, we have (10) an exquisitely painted sea-piece, and later the picture of the graveyard in the village, and the (11) autumn morning harmonising with the thoughts of death.

(12) Is another lovely allegorical picture of the sould as a bird going out to meet the ship (13), and the poet describes, what (14) we well know, the impossibility of realising at first that our beloved is indeed gone.

(15) Then he speaks of the restlessness of grief; (16) the bringing to shore of the sacred dust, the burial: (17 and 18) this portion closes with the lovely picture (19) symoblising the ebb and flow of grief, and (20) completes the thought.

"There twice a day the Severn fills;
The salt sea-water passes by,
And hushes half the babbling Wye,
And makes a silence in the hills.

"The Wye is hush'd nor moved allong,
And hush'd my deepest grief of all,
When fill'd with tears that cannot fall,
I brim with sorrow drowning song."

(21) hitherto he has been entirely wrapped up in his own grief; now he first becomes aware of voices around, reproaching him for selfish grief. Then the poem passes away from the funeral, and all that belongs to the body, and he dwells in that past which lives again for memory.

(22) He goes over those four years; he gazes on it through a haze of grief, (24) and it appears perhaps glorified, but seen, too, with fuller comprehension; the thought that he might have escaped suffering is rejected (25 and 26); and in the beautiful 27th the thought is summed up:

"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."

(28) The Christmas season summons him to share the joys and sorrows of others, and now in the thought of the (30) living Christ he looks away from the earth, and sees his friend living in the eternal world.

(31-33) He glances at the scripture record of Lazarus, but turns from the Gospel narrative as not an apt theme for the poet; for him the resurrection must be a subjective fact realised in consciousness.

"Urania speaks with darken'd brow:
'Thou pratest here where thou art least;
This faith has many a purer priest,
And many an abler voice than thou.'

"And my Melpomene replies,
A touch of shame upon her cheek:
'I'm not worthy e'en to speak
Of thy prevailing mysteries.'"

And so he accepts this faith, "that life shall live for evermore," because it is unthinkable that death should be the centre of all things, because it is inconceivable there should be no purpose in creation.

This is expressed more fully in the separate poem, "Love and Duty."

Christmas changes into spring (38). He passes from the dead body and the dead past to the thought of a present, of the new (39) home of his friend, like that of the bride. We have a vision (41) of the soul in its higher sphere, (42) thoughts of the larger experience, not separating the friend, but (43) enabling the higher to embrace the lower. It is suggested that life may be suspended as in sleep; if so (44) there must be awakening and renewal of communion; or should the memory of the infancy on earth be gone, spirits who embrace the knowledge of the temporal and the eternal, the guardian angel may bring tidings of the mourner.

But he feels that surely the personality (45), which is realised through experience of earth, cannot be lost, and is sure that the (46) full meaning of life will be seen through, when the sun goes down in the west and lights up the intricate paths through which the soul has passed.

Since all experience is different (47), each soul must have its own personality, through sharing, through love, the good of all.

Then the poet apologises (48) for the slight way in which he meets the questionings: these are but surface touches, there is deep grief:

"If these brief days of sorrow born,
Were taken to be such as closed
Grave doubts and answers here proposed,
Then these were such as men might scorn.

"Nor dare she trust a larger lay,
But rather loosens from the lip
Short swallow-flights of song, that dip
Their wings in tears, and skim away."

(49) Faith ebbs at times, when the frame is racked with pains which conquer trust. Then there seems no purpose in life (51), but the thought of that glorious soul revives it (52), and an answer seems to come from the unseen, assuring him that there is a purpose in life, and one day, when the sell is opened, the pearl, the pure beautiful soul, will be found therein. Through what seems evil good will be realised, and though we dare not say evil is good, we must trust as the little child his mother.

Surely that conviction of the soul (55) must come from God: though Nature seems to cast us down into darkness, yet the faith of humanity (56) survives and we are sure that in the eternal there will be answer, redress. The innate optimism of man must come from God.

And this part closes with the grand appeal to the catholic faith of humanity to God, to final good:

"And he, shall be,
Man, her best work, who seemed so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes;
Who rolled the psalm to waking skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer.

"Who trusted God was love indeed--
And love creates for it law--

"Who loved, who suffered countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or sealed within the iron hills.

"There must be answer and redress.
Behind the veil! Behind the veil!"

Then comes in a second voice, speaking of peace (57), bidding him remember that songs of parting belong to the earth: adieu means not parting, but eternal greeting: we reach (58) a higher stage:

"I hear it now, and o'er and o'er
Eternal greetings to the dead;
And Ave, Ave, Ave, said.
Adieu, adieu for evermore."

There is now peace in sorrow (59); he will not rebel, but be content for his friend's sake, who has passed up higher (60), and his own love is felt to be the assurance of his friend's sympathy.

Yet he is not selfish in longing for recognition (61); the great are not lowered by sympathy with the humble. And then surely sympathy cannot be one-sided--the love he feels is a pledge of his friend's; indeed, separation has quickened his sympathy. Has it not also moved the compassion of the glorified soul? (65). Once more he passes in thought to the grave (66), but there is not, as before, the ebb and flow of the tides (67); but he sees the ebb and flow of light, and he knows that the glorious name is always there, though he cannot always see it.

"Thy marble bright in dark appears,
As slowly steals a silver flame
Along the letters of thy name,
And o'er the number of thy years.

"The mystic glory swims away:
From off my bed the moonlight dies;
And closing eaves of wearied eyes,
I sleep till dusk is dipt in gray."

It is his own darkness (68), and the dream images of this earth which check one's hope.

"I dream'd there would be spring no more,
That Nature's ancient power was lost:
The streets were black with smoke and frost,
They chatter'd trifles at the door."

We have the thought, which we find also in Shakespeare, that the soul crowned by sorrow, wins a fresh dignity and grace.

On the anniversary of the death clouds gather again (71), and shut out the star of hope; and yet as the day passes, and the darkness comes, night speaks of the infinite of worlds, and of perfect law. He feels there must be an eternal purpose being wrought out through seeming failure.

Darkness and death (74) are ever the condition of perfect development, and with this thought in our souls we cannot be eager for fame. We can trust, one day (75) "every good work shall have praise of God." If we ascend to heaven, how small does the earth seem. If we dwell in the eternal, we can never live for time.

"Take wings of fancey, and ascend,
And in a moment set thy face
Where all the starry heavens of space
Are sharpen'd to a needle's end;

"Take wings of foresight: lighten thro
The secular abyss to come,
And lo! They deepest lays are dumb
Before the mouldering of a yew."

"But what of that? My darken'd ways
Shall ring with music all the same;
To breathe my loss is more than fame,
To utter love more sweet than praise."

The second Christmas has come round, and now there is a calmer resignation (78). Friendship fulfils family affection, and then follow thoughts of how death perfects friendship, and makes it secure.

"But death returns an answer sweet:
My sudden frost was sudden gain,
And gave all ripeness to the grain,
It might have drawn from after heat.
And he is really content:

"I wage not any feud with Death
For changes wrought on form and face:

"Eternal process moving on,
From state to state the spirit walks;
And these are but the shatter'd stalks,
Or ruin'd chrysalis of one."

Only he cannot help thinking of the progress which might have been realised on earth in a lifelong friendship.

And the second spring revives his life; he gathers up many thoughts in answer to the (85) expostulation of the same friend who has spoken before, and he recurs to the earliest expression of resignation; the contrast is drawn between the restful love which we feel towards those who cannot change and the glad sympathy and companionship of earth, and then his friend seems to commend his affection for another:

"Arise and get thee forth and seek
A friendship for the years to come.
I watch thee from the quiet shore;
Thy spirit up to mine can reach;
But in dear words of human speech
We two communicate no more."

The voice heard in Nature (86) is now no longer felt to be contrary to the faiths of the soul, and he prays the winds of heaven to breath

"The round of space, and rapt below
Thro' all the dewy-tassell'd wood
And shadowing down the horned flood
In ripples, fan my brows, and blow

"The fever from my cheek, and sigh
The full new life that feeds thy breath,
Throughout my frame, till Doubt and Death
Ill brethren, let the fancy fly,

"From belt to belt of crimson seas
On leagues of odour streaming far,
To where in yonder orient star
A hundred spirits whisper 'Peace.'"

(87) And now he visits no more the silent haunts, but the college where their sympathetic life had begun; (88) the individual grief no longer shuts him in from the glory of the sum of things.

(89) All the beauty of the universe, which they had enjoyed together, united them for ever. (92) And though there is no revelation of this to sense, (93) the communion of holy spirits is something more intimate than converse through sense.

"No visual shade of some one lost,
But he, the Spirit himself, may come
Where all the nerve of sense is numb;
Spirit to Spirit, Ghost to Ghost."

(94) But this is possible only to a heart at peace, and attuned to heavenly music.

"In vain shall thou, or any, call
The spirits from their golden day,
Except, like them, thou too canst say,
My spirit is at peace with all.

"But when the heart is full of din,
And doubt beside the portal waits,
They can but listen at the gates,
And hear the household jar within."

(95) In part this communion is realised as we read the written words of the dead, a fuller meaning is shed on these; and then we have a wonderful description of a night of solitary communion.

(96) Again the same speaker comes in condemning doubt, and there is a noble defence of the heroes who have slain the dragon of darkness, and ascended heights to which we cannot follow them.

(99) The second anniversary is contrasted with the first by the sympathy with others' sorrow, (100) and the old home which is now to be forsaken,

(101) is consecrated by the memory of the past.

(103) There is, too, a vision like the "Morte d'Arthur," and the seen is lost in the unseen; the last Christmas in the old home (104, 105) looks forward to renewed life.

"Long sleeps the summer in the seed,
Run out your measured arcs, and lead
The closing cycle rich in good."

And that bell (106) which we heard before, Adieu! tolling Adieu! Peals with joyful hope. Ring out wild bells--the birthday is once more kept as when he lived. The mourner wins at last the interest, far-off, of tears (108).

Through the power of sympathy, he will gather wisdom, contemplating all that is great and ennobling in life (109); so thought of the dead are felt no longer as depressing (110), but stimulating, and the beautiful memories come back--his friend's love of freedom, his gentleness, his sincerity, his clear perception; and the loss is felt no longer so much for self (112) as for the commonwealth.

(115) The third spring is full of colour and brightness; we may contrast it with the first, 38, and the second, 82; it speaks of resurrection--

"The songs, the stirring air,
The life re-orient out of dust,
Cry thro' the sense to hearten trust
In that which made the world so fair."

(117) Joy could not be known but through sorrow.

(118)As the world passed through the epoch of fire ere it was fit for man, so must the soul of man, even

"As iron dug from central gloom
And heated hot with burning fears
And dipt in baths of hissing tears,
And batter'd with the shocks of doom

"To shape and use. Arise, and fly
The reeling faun, the sensual feast;
Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die."

(119) He lingers no longer over the mortal remains: the (120) body is not the man; we are not "cunning casts in clay."

Hesper sinks to rise as Phosphor; the same sun is there, though we now morn and now hope. (123). The earthly changes. Nature cannot give faith; assurance is found within, for death is inconceivable.

(125) Hope cannot perish if love reigns, and all (127) is well, thoug we see the future dark with coming tempest.

(128) There must be a purpose in all, and eternal life, larger than the life of Nature, fulfilling and embracing the lower.

(129, 130) The far has become near, and the poem closes with the prayer of faith:

"O living will that shalt endure
when all that seems shall suffer shock,
Rise in the spiritual rock,
Flow thro' our deeds and make them pure.

"That we may lift from out of dust
A voice as unto him that hears,
A cry above the conquer'd years
To one that with us works, and trust,

"With faith that comes of self-control,
The truths that never can be proved,
Until we close with all we loved,
And all we flow from, soul in soul."

_____________________________________________________________________

These are the sections into which Tennyson himself divided the poem: I. 1-8; II. 9-20; III. 21-27; IV. 28-49; V. 50-58; VI. 59-61; VII. 62-98; VIII. 99-103; IX. 104-130.