Tennyson's In Memoriam

              Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), a Victorian poet, completed his In Memoriam in 1849 where he wrestled with the contradictions between the idea of a providential god and the bleak evolutionary and materialistic science of the day after the death of his best friend. The poem is divided into 133 cantos. He was son to a clergy man. There are stories of his youth as being secluded and alone. However, all of that changed when he went to Cambridge to study at Trinity College. There he met a gentlemen by the name of Arthur Henry Hallam. He formed a close friendship with him. He thought of him as brilliant and sensitive, the ideal man and certainly friend. Hallam loved Tennyson’s poetry, and he encouraged and helped him publish his first major work. In 1833, when Alfred was 24 years old, Hallam passed away due to a cerebral hemorrhage. This devastated Tennyson, for it was the death of his best friend. It happened to Tennyson at the pivotal age where so many young men and women either bend or to break. Tennyson met the challenge to overcome his grief in this great work. There is a constant thesis, antithesis, and synthesis throughout this work. Before each poem I try to give a brief vignette of what the poem means.


[The systems of man are the scientific theories of the day. Wrestling with faith, doubt plagues his every cherished belief. The orbs and shades are the sun and moon. In this poem Tennyson sees his friend as nearly divine in his humanity, as the ideal man.]

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,

Whom we, that have not seen thy face,

By faith, and faith alone, embrace,

Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade[1];

Thou madest Life in man and brute;

Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot

Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:

Thou madest man, he knows not why,

He thinks he was not made to die;

And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Thou seemest human and divine,

The highest, holiest manhood, thou.

Our wills are ours, we know not how;

Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

Our little systems[2] have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see

And yet we trust it comes from thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before,

But vaster. We are fools and slight;

We mock thee when we do not fear:

But help thy foolish ones to bear;

Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

Forgive what seem’d my sin in me;

What seem’d my worth since I began;

For merit lives from man to man,

And not from man, O Lord, to thee.

Forgive my grief for one removed,

Thy creature, whom I found so fair.

I trust he lives in thee, and there

I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,

Confusions of a wasted youth;

Forgive them where they fail in truth,

And in thy wisdom make me wise.


[This points that ignorance is not bliss; to have known love is blessedness.]

I envy not in any moods

The captive void of noble rage,

The linnet born within the cage,

That never knew the summer woods:

I envy not the beast that takes

His license in the field of time,

Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,

To whom a conscience never wakes;

Nor, what may count itself as blest,

The heart that never plighted troth

But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;

Nor any want-begotten rest.

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.


Be near me when my light is low,

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle; and the heart is sick,

And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame

Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;

And Time, a maniac scattering dust,

And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,

And men the flies of latter spring,

That lay their eggs, and sting and sing

And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,

To point the term of human strife,

And on the low dark verge of life

The twilight of eternal day.


[Science does not suffice. Reason has to try to harmonize science with religion… but is it possible?]

The wish, that of the living whole

No life may fail beyond the grave,

Derives it not from what we have

The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,

That Nature lends such evil dreams?

So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere

Her secret meaning in her deeds,

And finding that of fifty seeds

She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,

And falling with my weight of cares

Upon the great world’s altar-stairs

That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,

And gather dust and chaff, and call

To what I feel is Lord of all,

And faintly trust the larger hope.


[This wrestles with the despairs of ever being able to understand the reason and meaning of life.]

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, `A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:

I bring to life, I bring to death:

The spirit does but mean the breath:

I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,

Such splendid purpose in his eyes,

Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,

Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law—

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed[3]

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,

Who battled for the True, the Just,

Be blown about the desert dust,

Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,

A discord. Dragons of the prime,

That tare each other in their slime,

Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!

O for thy voice to soothe and bless!

What hope of answer, or redress?

Behind the veil, behind the veil.


[This poem reflects the greatness of wisdom over mere facts and knowledge.]

Who loves not Knowledge? Who shall rail

Against her beauty? May she mix

With men and prosper! Who shall fix

Her pillars? Let her work prevail.

But on her forehead sits a fire:

She sets her forward countenance

And leaps into the future chance,

Submitting all things to desire.

Half-grown as yet, a child, and vain—

She cannot fight the fear of death.

What is she, cut from love and faith,

But some wild Pallas from the brain

Of Demons? fiery-hot to burst

All barriers in her onward race

For power. Let her know her place;

She is the second, not the first.

A higher hand must make her mild,

If all be not in vain; and guide

Her footsteps, moving side by side

With wisdom, like the younger child:

For she is earthly of the mind,

But Wisdom heavenly of the soul.

O, friend, who camest to thy goal

So early, leaving me behind,

I would the great world grew like thee,

Who grewest not alone in power

And knowledge, but by year and hour

In reverence and in charity.


[This poem signifies separation will only make the destined meeting sweeter]

 O days and hours, your work is this

To hold me from my proper place,

A little while from his embrace,

For fuller gain of after bliss:

That out of distance might ensue

Desire of nearness doubly sweet;

And unto meeting when we meet,

Delight a hundredfold accrue,

For every grain of sand that runs,

And every span of shade that steals,

And every kiss of toothed wheels,

And all the courses of the suns.


[Nature’s evolution is symbolic of the growth and perfection of man’s spirit.]

Contemplate all this work of Time,

The giant labouring in his youth;

Nor dream of human love and truth,

As dying Nature’s earth and lime;

But trust that those we call the dead

Are breathers of an ampler day

For ever nobler ends. They say,

The solid earth whereon we tread

In tracts of fluent heat began,

And grew to seeming-random forms,

The seeming prey of cyclic storms,

Till at the last arose the man;

Who throve and branch’d from clime to clime,

The herald of a higher race,

And of himself in higher place,

If so he type this work of time

Within himself, from more to more;

Or, crown’d with attributes of woe

Like glories, move his course, and show

That life is not as idle ore,

But 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.


Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, not as one that weeps

I come once more; the city sleeps;

I smell the meadow in the street;

I hear a chirp of birds; I see

Betwixt the black fronts long-withdrawn

A light-blue lane of early dawn,

And think of early days and thee,

And bless thee, for thy lips are bland,

And bright the friendship of thine eye;

And in my thoughts with scarce a sigh

I take the pressure of thine hand.


[This is my favorite poem in the entire elegy to Hallam. It’s of Tennyson fighting off baseness for something that is elevating and almost divine in us, and certainly in his dear friend.]

I trust I have not wasted breath:

I think we are not wholly brain,

Magnetic mockeries; not in vain,

Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death;

Not only cunning casts in clay:

Let Science prove we are, and then

What matters Science unto men,

At least to me? I would not stay.

Let him, the wiser man who springs

Hereafter, up from childhood shape

His action like the greater ape,

But I was born to other things.


[The end of this elegy ends with the thought that human evolution points to what his friend already achieved, maybe even equating him with divinity. How many of us, after all, have seen God in the eyes of their best friend?] 

O true and tried, so well and long,

Demand not thou a marriage lay;

In that it is thy marriage day

Is music more than any song.

Nor have I felt so much of bliss

Since first he told me that he loved

A daughter of our house; nor proved

Since that dark day a day like this;

Tho’ I since then have number’d o’er

Some thrice three years: they went and came,

Remade the blood and changed the frame,

And yet is love not less, but more;

No longer caring to embalm

In dying songs a dead regret,

But like a statue solid-set,

And moulded in colossal calm.

Regret is dead, but love is more

Than in the summers that are flown,

For I myself with these have grown

To something greater than before;

Which makes appear the songs I made

As echoes out of weaker times,

As half but idle brawling rhymes,

The sport of random sun and shade.

But where is she, the bridal flower,

That must be made a wife ere noon?

She enters, glowing like the moon

Of Eden on its bridal bower:

On me she bends her blissful eyes

And then on thee; they meet thy look

And brighten like the star that shook

Betwixt the palms of paradise.

O when her life was yet in bud,

He too foretold the perfect rose.

For thee she grew, for thee she grows

For ever, and as fair as good.

And thou art worthy; full of power;

As gentle; liberal-minded, great,

Consistent; wearing all that weight

Of learning lightly like a flower.

But now set out: the noon is near,

And I must give away the bride;

She fears not, or with thee beside

And me behind her, will not fear.

For I that danced her on my knee,

That watch’d her on her nurse’s arm,

That shielded all her life from harm

At last must part with her to thee;

Now waiting to be made a wife,

Her feet, my darling, on the dead

Their pensive tablets round her head,

And the most living words of life

Breathed in her ear. The ring is on,

The `wilt thou’ answer’d, and again

The `wilt thou’ ask’d, till out of twain

Her sweet `I will’ has made you one.

Now sign your names, which shall be read,

Mute symbols of a joyful morn,

By village eyes as yet unborn;

The names are sign’d, and overhead

Begins the clash and clang that tells

The joy to every wandering breeze;

The blind wall rocks, and on the trees

The dead leaf trembles to the bells.

O happy hour, and happier hours

Await them. Many a merry face

Salutes them—maidens of the place,

That pelt us in the porch with flowers.

O happy hour, behold the bride

With him to whom her hand I gave.

They leave the porch, they pass the grave

That has to-day its sunny side.

To-day the grave is bright for me,

For them the light of life increased,

Who stay to share the morning feast,

Who rest to-night beside the sea.

Let all my genial spirits advance

To meet and greet a whiter sun;

My drooping memory will not shun

The foaming grape of eastern France.

It circles round, and fancy plays,

And hearts are warm’d and faces bloom,

As drinking health to bride and groom

We wish them store of happy days.

Nor count me all to blame if I

Conjecture of a stiller guest,

Perchance, perchance, among the rest,

And, tho’ in silence, wishing joy.

But they must go, the time draws on,

And those white-favour’d horses wait;

They rise, but linger; it is late;

Farewell, we kiss, and they are gone.

A shade falls on us like the dark

From little cloudlets on the grass,

But sweeps away as out we pass

To range the woods, to roam the park,

Discussing how their courtship grew,

And talk of others that are wed,

And how she look’d, and what he said,

And back we come at fall of dew.

Again the feast, the speech, the glee,

The shade of passing thought, the wealth

Of words and wit, the double health,

The crowning cup, the three-times-three,

And last the dance;—till I retire:

Dumb is that tower which spake so loud,

And high in heaven the streaming cloud,

And on the downs a rising fire:

And rise, O moon, from yonder down,

Till over down and over dale

All night the shining vapour sail

And pass the silent-lighted town,

The white-faced halls, the glancing rills,

And catch at every mountain head,

And o’er the friths that branch and spread

Their sleeping silver thro’ the hills;

And touch with shade the bridal doors,

With tender gloom the roof, the wall;

And breaking let the splendour fall

To spangle all the happy shores

By which they rest, and ocean sounds,

And, star and system rolling past,

A soul shall draw from out the vast

And strike his being into bounds,

And, moved thro’ life of lower phase,

Result in man, be born and think,

And act and love, a closer link

Betwixt us and the crowning race

Of those that, eye to eye, shall look

On knowledge, under whose command

Is Earth and Earth’s, and in their hand

Is Nature like an open book;

No longer half-akin to brute,

For all we thought and loved and did,

And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed

Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man, that with me trod

This planet, was a noble type

Appearing ere the times were ripe,

That friend of mine who lives in God,

That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.

[1] sun and moon

[2] Philosophical systems of the religious and scientific

[3] Natural selection