Appendix 9: Tennyson and “In Memoriam.”

Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam was published in 1850 and was written over a period of seventeen years. In its final form, the poem consists of 131 sections, with a variable number of verses in each, plus a Prologue and an Epilogue. In what follows, XVII.3, for example, will mean section XVII, verse 3. The poem was hugely popular in its time, establishing Tennyson’s reputation firmly enough for him to marry on the proceeds and to earn him the post of Poet Laureate. “In Memoriam” was a source of great comfort to Queen Victoria on the death of Prince Albert in 1861. (See Hallam Lord Tennyson’s book Alfred Lord Tennyson: a Memoir by his Son (2 vols, 1897), vol.1, pp. 328, 334, 482-3 & 485.)

In Memoriam was an elegy written in memory of his closest friend Arthur Henry Hallam, whose early death in Vienna in 1833 had devastated Tennyson. The death left him questioning his faith in God, but he strives to override these doubts with the realisation that God’s reasons are not necessarily fathomable by us (P.1), and that it is only through dealing with the difficulties of life that we can progress to spiritual maturity – in particular, the spiritual profit of grief (I.2). In this respect, like Browning’s poem Rabbi ben Ezra, his philosophy opposes that of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. Tennyson would further oppose Omar Khayyam on the issue of life after death, for he firmly believed that he would be reunited with Hallam in the afterlife (IX.5 & XLVII.3); that total extinction at bodily death doesn’t make sense if there is a God (XXXIV.1); but that the existence of life-after-death is, for some reason, a secret deliberately kept from us by God (XXXI.4) and must be accepted as an article of faith (CXXXI.3). Section XCVI of the poem is devoted to Faith and Doubt.

Some of Tennyson’s religious doubts expressed in the poem were unconnected with Hallam’s death: they arose from the conflict between Religion and Science that was prevalent in the nineteenth century, and which we have seen as background to the publication of FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat. (Some of Tennyson’s references to the findings of Science parallel those used by Sir Richard Burton in his poem The Kasidah of Haji Abdu el-Yezdi, dealt with in Appendix 5.) Evolution was the main source of conflict. Natural Selection meant the extinction of species on a vast scale, as demonstrated by the fossil record (LVI.1), and this seemed like ‘wasted creation’, something that appeared incompatible with a perfect Creator, for if God is perfect, why would he deliberately create waste? The answer would seem to be that God created evolution as means of progressing to perfection – Man – and possibly beyond the Man of today (CXVIII.1ff; cf. Le Gallienne, The Religion of a Literary Man (1893), p.112, quoted in chapter 4 of the main essay): the death and destruction to be seen in Nature parallels the death of Hallam; the evolution of life parallels Man’s progression to spiritual maturity, in the achieving of which Man must learn to cope with Life’s misfortunes – in Tennyson’s case, the death of Hallam again. What seems to have haunted Tennyson was the prospect, revealed by Science, that one day the entire Earth and all its life forms might suffer total obliteration – the ultimate act of wastefulness – and yet, perhaps, not if Man and Nature had achieved perfection before that obliteration – that “One far off divine event, to which the whole creation moves.” (E.36)

For the full text of the poem in its final form, together with an introduction and a number of useful critical essays, see In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Norton Critical Editions, edited by Erik Gray (2004). For a useful little book which summarises the entire poem, section by section, see Elizabeth Rachel Chapman, A Companion to In Memoriam (1888).(Tennyson himself very much approved of Miss Chapman’s efforts – see Tennyson Memoir, vol.2, p.332.) Another useful little book, with an introductory essay, and which summaries of each of the poem’s sections, with footnotes to the more obscure references, is the Rev. H.C.Beeching’s, In Memoriam, by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1900). Note, though, that Beeching’s text of the poem is a reprint of the fourth edition of 1851, not the final form. Consequently there are some slight differences in wording, but mainly the final form contains an extra section (XXXIX) written by Tennyson in 1868, and added to the poem in 1870. Beeching’s text thus consists of only 130 sections, whose numbering matches the final version only up to section XXXVIII, thereafter being one less than the final version.

For a useful little book which covers Tennyson’s religious beliefs and philosophical outlook, and how they surface in his poetry, see Sir Alfred Lyall’s Tennyson (1902): for example, his “tendency to doubts and to gloomy meditation on man’s short and sorrowful existence” (p.16); “the cold oblivion that hides so many generations of the past” (p.30); his “trust in the Unseen Power that is guiding all creation to some far-off event” (p.64); his “defence of honest doubt” (p.66); and the necessity “to keep alive the spiritual instincts and the hope of immortality.”(p.138). Lyall also covers the effects on Tennyson of the advances in Science, and with them “the prison-house of materialism” (p.146) – that man may be “no more than other atoms in the ever-changing universe, that prayer is fruitless…and that Nature gives no intimation of conscious survival” (p.69); his fears that Science will “deaden our spiritual aspirations”(p.137); “the oppressive immensity of space and time” (p.138); his despair that human history is ”but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million suns” (p.140); “the cold eschatology predicted by science” (p.145); and his horror of the possibility of the ultimate extinction of mankind (p.149). However, as indicated above in respect of the closing lines of In Memoriam, Tennyson believed that “the immeasurable course of Evolution may tend to some far distant state of rest and happiness” (p.140) and that Evolution “may be typical of the upward striving and gradual emancipation of man as a spiritual being” (p.144). Though he felt “dismay at the pettiness of man’s part and place in the cosmic evolution”, despite this he developed “the conviction that a higher and purified existence surely awaits us” (p.184). And he believed – or hoped – that “friends will meet and know each other again hereafter, and that somehow good will be the final goal of ill. (p.65)

A major source for Tennyson’s religious beliefs is, of course, Hallam Tennyson’s book Alfred Lord Tennyson: a Memoir by his Son, to which we have already referred. Tennyson being such a key indicator of his age – the age into which The Rubaiyat was released – it is well worth quoting a number of passages from it. Thus, of his thoughts on our limited conception of God and the role of Faith, Tennyson said, whilst on a tour of the Alps in June 1869:

“…that perhaps this earth and all that is on it – storms, mountains, cataracts, the sun and the skies – are the Almighty: in fact, that such is our petty nature, we cannot see Him, but we see His shadow, as it were, a distorted shadow: he added that possibly, at that moment, there might be beings invisible to us, who see the Almighty more clearly than we do, and he illustrated his meaning by saying that we have five senses, but that if we had been born with only one of these, our ideas of Nature would have been very different, much more limited.

Tennyson went on to say that supposing there were creatures who instead of having five senses had five hundred, how far they would be in advance of anything we could conceive of! that a worm or oyster, as compared with ourselves, had a very limited mental vision, and he added how very small the Earth must appear to worms and oysters!

I think Tennyson justly recognised the bounds of our knowledge. He said that ‘whatever is the object of Faith cannot be the object of Reason. In fine, Faith must be our guide – that Faith which we believe comes to us from a Divine Source.’

We talked of the Materialists. ‘After all,’ said he, ‘what is matter?’ He added, ‘I think it is merely the shadow of something greater than itself, and which we poor short sighted creatures cannot see. If the rationalists are in the right, what is the meaning of all the mosques and temples and cathedrals, spread and spreading over the face of the earth? They will not easily beat the character of our Lord, that union of man and woman, sweetness and strength.’” (vol.2, p.68-9)

And yet he had an awful doubt: on a visit to Westminster Abbey in 1883, he suddenly said, “It is beautiful, but what empty and awful mockery if there were no God!” (vol.2, p.275.) Again, Tennyson “was occasionally much troubled with the intellectual problem of the apparent profusion and waste of life and by the vast amount of sin and suffering throughout the world, for these seemed to mitigate against the idea of the Omnipotent and All-loving Father.” (vol.1, p.313) But he had “‘the larger hope’ that the whole human race would through, perhaps, ages of suffering, be at length purified and saved” (vol.1, p.321-2). Even so there was that ultimate waste – the final extinction of the human race and destruction of the Earth, predicted by Science. In his letter congratulating Miss Chapman on her book A Companion to In Memoriam, mentioned above, Tennyson wrote that “according to astronomical and geological probabilities, this great goddess Humanity in a certain number of ages will breathe her last gasp.” (vol.2, p.332) Tennyson had a great respect for Science, and saw it as a path to a greater knowledge of God. His son wrote that:

“…he would tell us about the great facts and discoveries in Astronomy, Geology, Botany, Chemistry, and the great problems in philosophy, helping us toward a higher conception of the laws which govern the world and of ‘the law behind the law.’”(vol.2, p.408-9)

Tennyson’s interest in science was profound, “but not… unmingled with fear of its ‘materialistic’ tendencies” (vol.2, p.469). Having read Whewell’s Plurality of Worlds (he didn’t like it), he wrote, “It is inconceivable that the whole Universe was merely created for us who live in this third-rate planet of a third-rate sun.” (vol.1, p.379). The idea that other worlds, circling other suns, might be inhabited with “beings very different from ourselves”, fascinated him. (vol.2, p.336) As some people thought (among them F.D.Maurice), In Memoriam was “a definite step towards the unification of the highest religion and philosophy with the progressive science of the day.”(vol.1, p.298)

Tennyson had “deeply immersed” himself in Lyell’s Geology as early as 1837 (vol.1, p.162), and in 1844 had bought a copy of Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation as it contained “many speculations with which I have been familiar for years, and on which I have written more than one poem.” (vol.1, p.222-3) Evolution, said Tennyson, “makes no difference to me…To God all is present. He sees present, past and future as one.”(vol.1, p.322) He thought that “the further science progressed, the more the Unity of Nature, and the purpose hidden behind the cosmic process of matter in motion and changing forms of life would be apparent.”(vol.1, p.323) Of course he read Darwin (vol.1, p.443), and, in August 1868, met him. The following comes from Mrs Tennyson’s journal:

“Mr Darwin called, and seemed to be very kindly, unworldly, and agreeable. A(lfred) said to him, ‘Your theory of Evolution does not make against Christianity”: and Darwin answered, ‘No, certainly not.’” (vol.2, p.57)

(Interesting in respect of Tennyson's particular poetical responses to Darwinian evolution is Lionel Stevenson's Darwin among the Poets (1932). Tennyson is the subject of chapter 2.)

On the subject of life after death, when his father died in 1831, Tennyson talked of him having gone to ‘that bourne from whence no traveller returns.”(vol.1, p.73) Nevertheless, “he spoke confidently of a future existence” (vol.1, p.264),and said that “if faith means anything at all, it is trusting to those instincts, or feelings, or whatever they may be called, which assure us of some life after this.” (vol.1, p.495)Tennyson loved to talk to country folk, “especially seeking out the poor old men, from whom he always tried to ascertain their thoughts upon death and the future life.”(vol.2, p.211)“I have always kept my faith in Immortality,” he said (vol.2, p.359.)

The famous meeting at which Tennyson and Carlyle crossed swords over the subject of the afterlife, with FitzGerald as ‘referee’, was described by Tennyson to his son thus:

“While touching on the life after death he spoke of Carlyle, and his dimness of faith in the closing years of his life. He said that when he was stopping at a coffee-house in London, Carlyle had come to smoke a pipe with him in the evening and the talked turned upon the immortality of the soul; upon which Carlyle said: ‘Eh! old Jewish rags: you must clear your mind of all that. Why should we expect a hereafter? Your traveller comes to an inn, and he takes his bed, it’s only for one night, he leaves next day, and another man takes his place and sleeps in the bed he has vacated.’ My father continued: I answered, ‘Your traveller comes to his inn, and lies down in his bed, and leaves the inn in the morning, and goes on his way rejoicing, with the sure and certain hope and belief that he is going somewhere, where he will sleep the next night,’ and then Edward Fitzgerald, who was present, said, ‘You have him there’: ‘which proves,’ said my father, ‘how dangerous an illustration is.’” (vol.2, p.410)

Though they had been friends since at least 1835, FitzGerald was no great fan of Tennyson’s later poetry. In 1874 he wrote, “I can care nothing for his Poems since his two volumes in 1842 – except for the dramatic element in Maud, and a few little bits in it.” (III.487) In particular, he did not think much of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Having seen the work, in progress, some years prior to publication, he wrote to W.B.Donne in February 1845:

“If one could have good Lyrics, I think the World wants them as much as ever. Tennyson’s are good: but not of the kind wanted. We have surely had enough of men reporting their sorrows: especially when one is aware all the time that the poet wilfully protracts what he complains of, magnifies it in the Imagination, puts it into all the shapes of Fancy: and yet we are to condole with him, and be taught to ruminate our losses and sorrows in the same way. I felt that if Tennyson had got on a horse and ridden twenty miles, instead of moaning over his pipe, he would have been cured of his sorrows in half the time.” (I.486)

FitzGerald went on to express his fear that In Memoriam would inspire poetesses like Elizabeth Barrett (later to become Elizabeth Barrett Browning) to “set to work to feel friends’ losses in melodious tears”, and when the poem was actually published in 1850, FitzGerald wrote to Tennyson’s brother, Frederick, that he feared its publication would “raise a host of Elegiac scribblers” (I.676) in imitation. Elsewhere FitzGerald described the poem as “tiresome and unwholesome” (II.20), fearing that it would do little “but make us all sentimental” (II 45.)

Tennyson, however, was a fan of The Rubaiyat, and in fact it was Tennyson’s approval that was partly responsible for FitzGerald producing his second edition (III.59, 60). In a letter to FitzGerald written in March 1872 he said that he “admired it immensely.” (III.337), and he attached a poetical tribute “To E. FitzGerald” to his poem “Tiresias”, published in 1885. Though the tribute was begun in 1883 (the section preceding “Tiresias”) FitzGerald died without seeing it, and without Tennyson knowing that he had died (IV.598-9; Tennyson Memoir, vo.2, p.316-7). The section of the tribute following “Tiresias” was written after Tennyson had learned of FitzGerald’s death. F.T.Palgrave (he of Golden Treasury fame) wrote thus:

“Tennyson about the same time, I think, commended to me warmly Fitzgerald’s famous Omar paraphrase, in which old Oriental thought is so marvelously refracted through the atmosphere of modern English style. This poem, at the date to which my literary notes mostly refer, was very scantily accessible to general readers in that limited first edition which contains the original preface in prose, one hardly knows whether more exquisite for its subtlety or its simplicity, and a text not, perhaps, always altered in later issues to advantage. ” (Tennyson Memoir, vol.2, p.505)

In the words of John Tyndall, the poem “Tiresias” is “a discussion between a believer in immortality and one who is unable to believe.” (Tennyson Memoir, vol.2, p.478)