It's that age-old story: boy meets boy; boy loses boy; boy endlessly ruminates on the nature of loss and grief with some meditations on evolution and religion thrown in just for kicks.
It may sound a bit strange, but that's exactly what's going on in In Memoriam. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (which we should think of as both the "for-reals" Tennyson of the Victorian period, but also as the fictionalized speaker of the poem) wallows in his grief over losing his dear friend Arthur, who has died of a brain hemorrhage at the tragically young age of 22.
While doing so, he falls into a sort of existential crisis in which he contemplates man's place in the vast universe, which is created by either God, or maybe a more uncaring, cold Nature. Of course, that's understandable. Tennyson's also responding to some pretty heavy-duty cultural upheavals of his time, like the newly-circulating Theory of Evolution (thanks, Darwin) and the rise of industrialism.
In Memoriam, which was first published anonymously in 1850, is considered one of the greatest poems of the nineteenth century (and probably one of the greatest poems ever), by one of the greatest poets of the English language: Alfred, Lord Tennyson. When they start handing out titles like "Lord," we know they're not playing around. Lest you doubt Al's street cred as a wordsmith, he was named Poet Laureate of England right after Wordsworth, so his stuff's the real deal. Don't take our word for it, though, Shmoopers. Read on…
We know that you're thinking, Shmoopers. What could a Victorian English poet possibly have to say to you, right? Well, you just might be surprised…
See, everyone will eventually suffer the same kind of loss that Alfred, Lord Tennyson does with his friend. Whether you lose a best friend, a parent, a child, a significant other, or a beloved pet, part of being human means coming to terms with grief.
It also means making some kind of meaning out of it and then having to navigate a world that can oftentimes feel cold and random. So these thoughts aren't just reserved for your emo friend who goes heavy with the guyliner. This is the stuff of legit philosophers and poets, and it digs right down into the real meat of what it means to be human.
Academy of American Poets Tennyson Site
Dig this brief overview of Tennyson's life.
Dive deep into Tennyson's life, as detailed by the fabulous Victorian Web.
The Circle of the Hills
Check out this nifty one-hour documentary that profiles our favorite Poet Laureate.
Richardson Strikes a Pose
Okay, so this is a slightly-hilarious video of Scottish actor Ian Richardson reading parts of In Memoriam in various poses.
Cambridge University Readings
Listen to these English professors get their Tennyson on with some readings from In Memoriam.
The great folks at Librivox recorded the whole thing for your ears.
Here's an inside cover of an early edition of In Memoriam.
This inside cover features our beardy poet.
Tennyson, the Man
The hat and hipster beard really give him that certain something.
The Tennyson Museum Opens
In 2009, an exhibition devoted to Tennyson opened in his previous home of the Isle of Wight. Get the lowdown here.
"New Ways to Think About Grief"
So you want to know which stage of grief Tennyson's in at any given point of the poem? This Time magazine article is a good start, as it offers some new thoughts on the subject.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature
This is one of the go-to standard versions of the poem that is taught, although in excerpted form.
In Memoriam, Norton Critical Edition
For those of us who like the entire text—complete with historical, cultural, and literary contexts as well as a nice side dish of criticism (mmm…criticism)—there's the Norton Critical Edition.