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Passions in PoetryChapter 5 - In Memoriam
by Andrew Lang


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Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 6 - After In MemoriamGo to next article
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Poetry | Biography | Resources
Chapter 5 - In Memoriam
by Andrew Lang

In May 1850 a few, copies of In Memoriam were printed for friends, and presently the poem was published without author's name. The pieces had been composed at intervals, from 1833 onwards. It is to be observed that the "section about evolution" was written some years before 1844, when the ingenious hypotheses of Robert Chambers, in Vestiges of Creation, were given to the world, and caused a good deal of talk. Ten years, again, after In Memoriam, came Darwin's Origin of Species. These dates are worth observing. The theory of evolution, of course in a rude mythical shape, is at least as old as the theory of creation, and is found among the speculations of the most backward savages. The Arunta of Central Australia, a race remote from the polite, have a hypothesis of evolution which postulates only a few rudimentary forms of life, a marine environment, and the minimum of supernormal assistance in the way of stimulating the primal forms in the direction of more highly differentiated developments. "The rudimentary forms, Inapertwa, were in reality stages in the transformation of various plants and animals into human beings. . . . They had no distinct limbs or organs of sight, hearing, or smell." They existed in a kind of lumps, and were set free from the cauls which enveloped them by two beings called Ungambikula, "a word which means 'out of nothing,' or 'self- existing.' Men descend from lower animals thus evolved." {7}

This example of the doctrine of evolution in an early shape is only mentioned to prove that the idea has been familiar to the human mind from the lowest known stage of culture. Not less familiar has been the theory of creation by a kind of supreme being. The notion of creation, however, up to 1860, held the foremost place in modern European belief. But Lamarck, the elder Darwin, Monboddo, and others had submitted hypotheses of evolution. Now it was part of the originality of Tennyson, as a philosophic poet, that he had brooded from boyhood on these early theories of evolution, in an age when they were practically unknown to the literary, and were not patronised by the scientific, world. In November 1844 he wrote to Mr Moxon, "I want you to get me a book which I see advertised in the Examiner: it seems to contain many speculations with which I have been familiar for years, and on which I have written more than one poem." This book was Vestiges of Creation. These poems are the stanzas in In Memoriam about "the greater ape," and about Nature as careless of the type: "all shall go." The poetic and philosophic originality of Tennyson thus faced the popular inferences as to the effect of the doctrine of evolution upon religious beliefs long before the world was moved in all its deeps by Darwin's Origin of Species. Thus the geological record is inconsistent, we learned, with the record of the first chapters of Genesis. If man is a differentiated monkey, and if a monkey has no soul, or future life (which is taken for granted), where are man's title-deeds to these possessions? With other difficulties of an obvious kind, these presented themselves to the poet with renewed force when his only chance of happiness depended on being able to believe in a future life, and reunion with the beloved dead. Unbelief had always existed. We hear of atheists in the Rig Veda. In the early eighteenth century, in the age of Swift -

"Men proved, as sure as God's in Gloucester,
That Moses was a great impostor."

distrust of Moses increased with the increase of hypotheses of evolution. But what English poet, before Tennyson, ever attempted "to lay the spectres of the mind"; ever faced world-old problems in their most recent aspects? I am not acquainted with any poet who attempted this task, and, whatever we may think of Tennyson's success, I do not see how we can deny his originality.

Mr Frederic Harrison, however, thinks that neither "the theology nor the philosophy of In Memoriam are new, original, with an independent force and depth of their own." "They are exquisitely graceful re- statements of the theology of the Broad Churchman of the school of F. D. Maurice and Jowett--a combination of Maurice's somewhat illogical piety with Jowett's philosophy of mystification." The piety of Maurice may be as illogical as that of Positivism is logical, and the philosophy of the Master of Balliol may be whatever Mr Harrison pleases to call it. But as Jowett's earliest work (except an essay on Etruscan religion) is of 1855, one does not see how it could influence Tennyson before 1844. And what had the Duke of Argyll written on these themes some years before 1844? The late Duke, to whom Mr Harrison refers in this connection, was born in 1823. His philosophic ideas, if they were to influence Tennyson's In Memoriam, must have been set forth by him at the tender age of seventeen, or thereabouts. Mr Harrison's sentence is, "But does In Memoriam teach anything, or transfigure any idea which was not about that time" (the time of writing was mainly 1833-1840) "common form with F. D. Maurice, with Jowett, C. Kingsley, F. Robertson, Stopford Brooke, Mr Ruskin, and the Duke of Argyll, Bishops Westcott and Boyd Carpenter?"

The dates answer Mr Harrison. Jowett did not publish anything till at least fifteen years after Tennyson wrote his poems on evolution and belief. Dr Boyd Carpenter's works previous to 1840 are unknown to bibliography. F. W. Robertson was a young parson at Cheltenham. Ruskin had not published the first volume of Modern Painters. His Oxford prize poem is of 1839. Mr Stopford Brooke was at school. The Duke of Argyll was being privately educated: and so with the rest, except the contemporary Maurice. How can Mr Harrison say that, in the time of In Memoriam, Tennyson was "in touch with the ideas of Herschel, Owen, Huxley, Darwin, and Tyndall"? {8} When Tennyson wrote the parts of In Memoriam which deal with science, nobody beyond their families and friends had heard of Huxley, Darwin, and Tyndall. They had not developed, much less had they published, their "general ideas." Even in his journal of the Cruise of the Beagle Darwin's ideas were religious, and he naively admired the works of God. It is strange that Mr Harrison has based his criticism, and his theory of Tennyson's want of originality, on what seems to be a historical error. He cites parts of In Memoriam, and remarks, "No one can deny that all this is exquisitely beautiful; that these eternal problems have never been clad in such inimitable grace . . . But the train of thought is essentially that with which ordinary English readers have been made familiar by F. D. Maurice, Professor Jowett, Ecce Homo, Hypatia, and now by Arthur Balfour, Mr Drummond, and many valiant companies of Septem [why Septem?] contra Diabolum." One must keep repeating the historical verity that the ideas of In Memoriam could not have been "made familiar by" authors who had not yet published anything, or by books yet undreamed of and unborn, such as Ecce Homo and Jowett's work on some of St Paul's Epistles. If these books contain the ideas of In Memoriam, it is by dint of repetition and borrowing from In Memoriam, or by coincidence. The originality was Tennyson's, for we cannot dispute the evidence of dates.

When one speaks of "originality" one does not mean that Tennyson discovered the existence of the ultimate problems. But at Cambridge (1828-1830) he had voted "No" in answer to the question discussed by "the Apostles," "Is an intelligible [intelligent?] First Cause deducible from the phenomena of the universe?" {9} He had also propounded the theory that "the development of the human body might possibly be traced from the radiated vermicular molluscous and vertebrate organisms," thirty years before Darwin published The Origin of Species. To be concerned so early with such hypotheses, and to face, in poetry, the religious or irreligious inferences which may be drawn from them, decidedly constitutes part of the poetic originality of Tennyson. His attitude, as a poet, towards religious doubt is only so far not original, as it is part of the general reaction from the freethinking of the eighteenth century. Men had then been freethinkers avec delices. It was a joyous thing to be an atheist, or something very like one; at all events, it was glorious to be "emancipated." Many still find it glorious, as we read in the tone of Mr Huxley, when he triumphs and tramples over pious dukes and bishops. Shelley said that a certain schoolgirl "would make a dear little atheist." But by 1828-1830 men were less joyous in their escape from all that had hitherto consoled and fortified humanity. Long before he dreamed of In Memoriam, in the Poems chiefly Lyrical of 1830 Tennyson had written -

"'Yet,' said I, in my morn of youth,
The unsunn'd freshness of my strength,
When I went forth in quest of truth,
'It is man's privilege to doubt.' . . .
  Ay me! I fear
All may not doubt, but everywhere
Some must clasp Idols. Yet, my God,
Whom call I Idol? Let Thy dove
Shadow me over, and my sins
Be unremember'd, and Thy love
Enlighten me. Oh teach me yet
Somewhat before the heavy clod
Weighs on me, and the busy fret
Of that sharp-headed worm begins
In the gross blackness underneath.

Oh weary life! oh weary death!
Oh spirit and heart made desolate!
Oh damned vacillating state!"

Now the philosophy of In Memoriam may be, indeed is, regarded by robust, first-rate, and far from sensitive minds, as a "damned vacillating state." The poet is not so imbued with the spirit of popular science as to be sure that he knows everything: knows that there is nothing but atoms and ether, with no room for God or a soul. He is far from that happy cock-certainty, and consequently is exposed to the contempt of the cock-certain. The poem, says Mr Harrison, "has made Tennyson the idol of the Anglican clergyman--the world in which he was born and the world in which his life was ideally passed- -the idol of all cultured youth and of all aesthetic women. It is an honourable post to fill"--that of idol. "The argument of In Memoriam apparently is . . . that we should faintly trust the larger hope." That, I think, is not the argument, not the conclusion of the poem, but is a casual expression of one mood among many moods.

The argument and conclusion of In Memoriam are the argument and conclusion of the life of Tennyson, and of the love of Tennyson, that immortal passion which was a part of himself, and which, if aught of us endure, is living yet, and must live eternally. From the record of his Life by his son we know that his trust in "the larger hope" was not "faint," but strengthened with the years. There are said to have been less hopeful intervals.

His faith is, of course, no argument for others,--at least it ought not to be. We are all the creatures of our bias, our environment, our experience, our emotions. The experience of Tennyson was unlike the experience of most men. It yielded him subjective grounds for belief. He "opened a path unto many," like Yama, the Vedic being who discovered the way to death. But Tennyson's path led not to death, but to life spiritual, and to hope, and he did "give a new impulse to the thought of his age," as other great poets have done. Of course it may be an impulse to wrong thought. As the philosophical Australian black said, "We shall know when we are dead."

Mr Harrison argues as if, unlike Tennyson, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Burns produced "original ideas fresh from their own spirit, and not derived from contemporary thinkers." I do not know what original ideas these great poets discovered and promulgated; their ideas seem to have been "in the air." These poets "made them current coin." Shelley thought that he owed many of his ideas to Godwin, a contemporary thinker. Wordsworth has a debt to Plato, a thinker not contemporary. Burns's democratic independence was "in the air," and had been, in Scotland, since Elder remarked on it in a letter to Ingles in 1515. It is not the ideas, it is the expression of the ideas, that marks the poet. Tennyson's ideas are relatively novel, though as old as Plotinus, for they are applied to a novel, or at least an unfamiliar, mental situation. Doubt was abroad, as it always is; but, for perhaps the first time since Porphyry wrote his letter to Abammon, the doubters desired to believe, and said, "Lord, help Thou my unbelief." To robust, not sensitive minds, very much in unity with themselves, the attitude seems contemptible, or at best decently futile. Yet I cannot think it below the dignity of mankind, conscious that it is not omniscient. The poet does fail in logic (In Memoriam, cxx.) when he says -

"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."

I am not well acquainted with the habits of the greater ape, but it would probably be unwise, and perhaps indecent, to imitate him, even if "we also are his offspring." We might as well revert to polyandry and paint, because our Celtic or Pictish ancestors, if we had any, practised the one and wore the other. However, petulances like the verse on the greater ape are rare in In Memoriam. To declare that "I would not stay" in life if science proves us to be "cunning casts in clay," is beneath the courage of the Stoical philosophy.

Theologically, the poem represents the struggle with doubts and hopes and fears, which had been with Tennyson from his boyhood, as is proved by the volume of 1830. But the doubts had exerted, probably, but little influence on his happiness till the sudden stroke of loss made life for a time seem almost unbearable unless the doubts were solved. They WERE solved, or stoically set aside, in the Ulysses, written in the freshness of grief, with the conclusion that we must be

     "Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

But the gnawing of grief till it becomes a physical pain, the fever fits of sorrow, the aching desiderium, bring back in many guises the old questions. These require new attempts at answers, and are answered, "the sad mechanic exercise" of verse allaying the pain. This is the genesis of In Memoriam, not originally written for publication but produced at last as a monument to friendship, and as a book of consolation.

No books of consolation can console except by sympathy; and in In Memoriam sympathy and relief have been found, and will be found, by many. Another, we feel, has trodden our dark and stony path, has been shadowed by the shapes of dread which haunt our valley of tribulation: a mind almost infinitely greater than ours has been our fellow-sufferer. He has emerged from the darkness of the shadow of death into the light, whither, as it seems to us, we can scarcely hope to come. It is the sympathy and the example, I think, not the speculations, mystical or scientific, which make In Memoriam, in more than name, a book of consolation: even in hours of the sharpest distress, when its technical beauties and wonderful pictures seem shadowy and unreal, like the yellow sunshine and the woods of that autumn day when a man learned that his friend was dead. No, it was not the speculations and arguments that consoled or encouraged us. We did not listen to Tennyson as to Mr Frederic Harrison's glorified Anglican clergyman. We could not murmur, like the Queen of the May -

"That good man, the Laureate, has told tis words of peace."

What we valued was the poet's companionship. There was a young reader to whom All along the Valley came as a new poem in a time of recent sorrow.

"The two-and-thirty years were a mist that rolls away,"

said the singer of In Memoriam, and in that hour it seemed as if none could endure for two-and-thirty years the companionship of loss. But the years have gone by, and have left

  "Ever young the face that dwells
With reason cloister'd in the brain." {10}

In this way to many In Memoriam is almost a life-long companion: we walk with Great-heart for our guide through the valley Perilous.

In this respect In Memoriam is unique, for neither to its praise nor dispraise is it to be compared with the other famous elegies of the world. These are brief outbursts of grief--real, as in the hopeless words of Catullus over his brother's tomb; or academic, like Milton's Lycidas. We are not to suppose that Milton was heart-broken by the death of young Mr King, or that Shelley was greatly desolated by the death of Keats, with whom his personal relations had been slight, and of whose poetry he had spoken evil. He was nobly stirred as a poet by a poet's death--like Mr Swinburne by the death of Charles Baudelaire; but neither Shelley nor Mr Swinburne was lamenting dimidium animae suae, or mourning for a friend

     "Dear as the mother to the son,
More than my brothers are to me."

The passion of In Memoriam is personal, is acute, is life-long, and thus it differs from the other elegies. Moreover, it celebrates a noble object, and thus is unlike the ambiguous affection, real or dramatic, which informs the sonnets of Shakespeare. So the poem stands alone, cloistered; not fiery with indignation, not breaking into actual prophecy, like Shelley's Adonais; not capable, by reason even of its meditative metre, of the organ music of Lycidas. Yet it is not to be reckoned inferior to these because its aim and plan are other than theirs.

It is far from my purpose to "class" Tennyson, or to dispute about his relative greatness when compared with Wordsworth or Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, or Burns. He rated one song of Lovelace above all his lyrics, and, in fact, could no more have written the Cavalier's To Althea from Prison than Lovelace could have written the Morte d'Arthur. "It is not reasonable, it is not fair," says Mr Harrison, after comparing In Memoriam with Lycidas, "to compare Tennyson with Milton," and it is not reasonable to compare Tennyson with any poet whatever. Criticism is not the construction of a class list. But we may reasonably say that In Memoriam is a noble poem, an original poem, a poem which stands alone in literature. The wonderful beauty, ever fresh, howsoever often read, of many stanzas, is not denied by any critic. The marvel is that the same serene certainty of art broods over even the stanzas which must have been conceived while the sorrow was fresh. The second piece,

"Old yew, which graspest at the stones,"

must have been composed soon after the stroke fell. Yet it is as perfect as the proem of 1849. As a rule, the poetical expression of strong emotion appears usually to clothe the memory of passion when it has been softened by time. But here already "the rhythm, phrasing, and articulation are entirely faultless, exquisitely clear, melodious, and rare." {11} It were superfluous labour to point at special beauties, at the exquisite rendering of nature; and copious commentaries exist to explain the course of the argument, if a series of moods is to be called an argument. One may note such a point as that (xiv.) where the poet says that, were he to meet his friend in life,

"I should not feel it to be strange."

It may have happened to many to mistake, for a section of a second, the face of a stranger for the face seen only in dreams, and to find that the recognition brings no surprise.

Pieces of a character apart from the rest, and placed in a designed sequence, are xcii., xciii., xcv. In the first the poet says -

"If any vision should reveal
  Thy likeness, I might count it vain
  As but the canker of the brain;
Yea, tho' it spake and made appeal

To chances where our lots were cast
  Together in the days behind,
  I might but say, I hear a wind
Of memory murmuring the past.

Yea, tho' it spake and bared to view
  A fact within the coming year;
  And tho' the months, revolving near,
Should prove the phantom-warning true,

They might not seem thy prophecies,
  But spiritual presentiments,
  And such refraction of events
As often rises ere they rise."

The author thus shows himself difficile as to recognising the personal identity of a phantasm; nor is it easy to see what mode of proving his identity would be left to a spirit. The poet, therefore, appeals to some perhaps less satisfactory experience:-

"Descend, and touch, and enter; hear
  The wish too strong for words to name;
  That in this blindness of the frame
My Ghost may feel that thine is near."

The third poem is the crown of In Memoriam, expressing almost such
things as are not given to man to utter:-

  And all at once it seem'd at last
The living soul was flash'd on mine,

And mine in this was wound, and whirl'd
  About empyreal heights of thought,
  And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world,

AEonian music measuring out
  The steps of Time--the shocks of Chance -
  The blows of Death. At length my trance
Was cancell'd, stricken thro' with doubt.

Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame
  In matter-moulded forms of speech,
  Or ev'n for intellect to reach
Thro' memory that which I became."

Experiences like this, subjective, and not matter for argument, were familiar to Tennyson. Jowett said, "He was one of those who, though not an upholder of miracles, thought that the wonders of Heaven and Earth were never far absent from us." In The Mystic, Tennyson, when almost a boy, had shown familiarity with strange psychological and psychical conditions. Poems of much later life also deal with these, and, more or less consciously, his philosophy was tinged, and his confidence that we are more than "cunning casts in clay" was increased, by phenomena of experience, which can only be evidence for the mystic himself, if even for him. But this dim aspect of his philosophy, of course, is "to the Greeks foolishness."

His was a philosophy of his own; not a philosophy for disciples, and "those that eddy round and round." It was the sum of his reflection on the mass of his impressions. I have shown, by the aid of dates, that it was not borrowed from Huxley, Mr Stopford Brooke, or the late Duke of Argyll. But, no doubt, many of the ideas were "in the air," and must have presented themselves to minds at once of religious tendency, and attracted by the evolutionary theories which had always existed as floating speculations, till they were made current coin by the genius and patient study of Darwin. That Tennyson's opinions between 1830 and 1840 were influenced by those of F. D. Maurice is reckoned probable by Canon Ainger, author of the notice of the poet in The Dictionary of National Biography. In the Life of Maurice, Tennyson does not appear till 1850, and the two men were not at Cambridge together. But Maurice's ideas, as they then existed, may have reached Tennyson orally through Hallam and other members of the Trinity set, who knew personally the author of Letters to a Quaker. However, this is no question of scientific priority: to myself it seems that Tennyson "beat his music out" for himself, as perhaps most people do. Like his own Sir Percivale, "I know not all he meant."

Among the opinions as to In Memoriam current at the time of its publication Lord Tennyson notices those of Maurice and Robertson. They "thought that the poet had made a definite step towards the unification of the highest religion and philosophy with the progressive science of the day." Neither science nor religion stands still; neither stands now where it then did. Conceivably they are travelling on paths which will ultimately coincide; but this opinion, of course, must seem foolishness to most professors of science. Bishop Westcott was at Cambridge when the book appeared: he is one of Mr Harrison's possible sources of Tennyson's ideas. He recognised the poet's "splendid faith (in the face of every difficulty) in the growing purpose of the sum of life, and in the noble destiny of the individual man." Ten years later Professor Henry Sidgwick, a mind sufficiently sceptical, found in some lines of In Memoriam "the indestructible and inalienable minimum of faith which humanity cannot give up because it is necessary for life; and which I know that I, at least so far as the man in me is deeper than the methodical thinker, cannot give up." But we know that many persons not only do not find an irreducible minimum of faith "necessary for life," but are highly indignant and contemptuous if any one else ventures to suggest the logical possibility of any faith at all.

The mass of mankind will probably never be convinced unbelievers-- nay, probably the backward or forward swing of the pendulum will touch more convinced belief. But there always have been, since the Rishis of India sang, superior persons who believe in nothing not material--whatever the material may be. Tennyson was, it is said, "impatient" of these esprits forts, and they are impatient of him. It is an error to be impatient: we know not whither the logos may lead us, or later generations; and we ought not to be irritated with others because it leads them into what we think the wrong path. It is unfortunate that a work of art, like In Memoriam, should arouse theological or anti-theological passions. The poet only shows us the paths by which his mind travelled: they may not be the right paths, nor is it easy to trace them on a philosophical chart. He escaped from Doubting Castle. Others may "take that for a hermitage," and be happy enough in the residence. We are all determined by our bias: Tennyson's is unconcealed. His poem is not a tract: it does not aim at the conversion of people with the contrary bias, it is irksome, in writing about a poet, to be obliged to discuss a philosophy which, certainly, is not stated in the manner of Spinoza, but is merely the equilibrium of contending forces in a single mind.

The most famous review of In Memoriam is that which declared that "these touching lines evidently come from the full heart of the widow of a military man." This is only equalled, if equalled, by a recent critique which treated a fresh edition of Jane Eyre as a new novel, "not without power, in parts, and showing some knowledge of Yorkshire local colour."

Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 6 - After In MemoriamGo to next article

This article was written by Andrew Lang.

Andrew Lang, a reknown Scholar and also a Classic Poet in his own right, was born March 31, 1844 in Selkirk, Selkirkshire, Scotland, and died July 20, 1912. He was educated at St. Andrews University and at Balliol College, Oxford, and also held an open fellowship at Merton College until 1875.

His poetry appeared in such volumes as his Ballads in Blue China (1880-81, 2 volumes). He is known for his study of myth and folklore (Myth, Literature, and Religion in 1887, revised 1899), and for his prose translations of the Odyssey (with S. H. Butcher, 1879) and the Iliad (with Walter Leaf and Ernest Myers, 1883). Other works include The World of Homer (1910), Blue Fairy Book (1889, with his wife, Leonora Blanche Lang), Biography of J. G. Lockhart (1896), and a four volume History of Scotland (1900-1907).

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