Tennyson's poem, overall, sounds quite musical and lulling (with some exceptions—more on that below), and takes advantage of multiple sound effects to get us there.
He uses assonance both to provide musicality to his poem and to emphasize or create meaning. Here's one example from lines 257-260:
Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
And waves that sway themselves in rest,
And dead calm in that noble breast
Which heaves but with the heaving deep.
Notice how Tennyson repeats the long and short E sounds in the first line, and then the long A sound in the second, followed again in the last two lines with the long and short E sounds. The repetition of these sounds replicates the lulling motion of the sea, which emphasizes the idea of calmness in the stanza.
Let's look at another example from lines 709-712:
The moanings of the homeless sea,
The sound of streams that swift or slow
Draw down Æonian hills, and sow
The dust of continents to be
Check out the repetition of the long, short, and rounded O sounds throughout this stanza. Try reading it aloud and really drawing out those vowels. Do you start to hear yourself moaning? Like "Ooooooh...and Oooowwwwww...and Aaaaahhhhh"? That's basically the effect. And it makes sense, right? He's talking about the sound the sea makes, and it's a mournful sound (it's "homeless," after all, which is pretty sad).
Not wanting consonants to feel left out, Tennyson also uses plenty of consonance, which also contributes to the musical sound and the poem's meaning. Here's when Sorrow addresses Tennyson: "'The stars,' she whispers, 'blindly run; / A web is woven across the sky" (81-82). The use of the repeated soft S sound recreates the soft hiss of whispering, providing a lulling sound, but also suggesting closeness or confidentiality between these two figures.
Where consonance is repeated consonant sounds in various places in a word, alliteration repeats initial consonant sounds.
In the stanza where Tennyson talks about the "Satyr-shape" has "bruised the herb" and "bask'd and batten'd in the woods" (722-724), the repetition of the harsh B sound provides a hard and rough rhythm that replicates the violent act of bruising and battering things.
While most of Tennyson's lines are heavily end-stopped, several use enjambment. This breaks up the lulling music of the poem and signifies where Tennyson's thoughts are getting out of his control—where they're escaping the bounds of the poetic lines. He's dealing with some pretty heavy-duty stuff, so it's not surprising that his thoughts get away from him.
One place we see this is when Tennyson is struggling with his ideas on religion and science (or reason) in lines 2437-2440:
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.
Tennyson doesn't stop at the end of these lines; the end-stops come right smack in the middle, which breaks up the usual flow of the poem. It makes sense that this breaking of poetic bounds would occur when he's wrestling with something so compelling.
"In memoriam" is fancy-pants Latin for "in memory of [insert dead person's name here]." So, we're basically talking about an obituary, folks. The poem's speaker is experiencing the various stages of grief and trying to juggle his sense of loss with his religious faith.
Tennyson wrote his most famous poem in memory of his close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at the tragically young age of 22 in 1833. (Sometimes you'll see the title as In Memoriam A.H.H.)
The work was almost named either Fragments of an Elegy (pretentious) or The Way of the Soul, which really does bring out the angst-y, struggling-with-loss-in-a-senseless-world feeling of the piece. Interestingly enough, the final title was suggested by Tennyson's fiancée, Emily Sellwood (so score one for the ladies) (source).
Things get a little tricky in the setting department because Tennyson jumps all over the place. Let's see if we can find Waldo in this picture:
First and foremost, the poem physically takes place in England. From the menacing yew tree in an English cemetery to the dock where the ship bearing Arthur's body comes to shore to the meadows, fields, and even the streets where Arthur's home is located, we're firmly within the geographical grasp of Tennyson's England.
And we do mean Tennyson's England. Because he's so depressed, these locations usually reflect that. So, the Arthur's house is now "the dark house" (165) and the old yew tree wraps its roots around old bones (61). So, we're in England, but an England that's been warped by the grief, despair, and doubt the speaker is suffering.
Much of the action, then, takes place inside Tennyson's imagination. At times, it's difficult to tell if we're in the real world or within his mind. Some memorable moments that demonstrate this interiority include when he imagines himself as a dove flitting around the ship that bears his friends remains back to England (Canto 12).
More famous and memorable, though, is Canto 95, where Tennyson imagines that he is reunited with Arthur. We're firmly in the landscape of the speaker's mind as he imagines "[t]he dead man touched [him] from the past" and "his living soul was flashed" on his own soul (the speaker's, that is) (1954, 1956).
The setting of the poet himself, then, is important in understanding certain elements of his poem. We're right smack in the middle of the Victorian era, which meant lots of cultural flux and anxiety. A lot of the doubt and wavering on religion that the speaker engages in is caused by things like Darwin's Theory of Evolution (which still causes us some probs, actually).
The poem's speaker is Tennyson, who is meditating most immediately upon the death of his close friend, Arthur, and how he gradually came to terms with it. "But wait," you ask, "are we talking about the real-life historical Tennyson, or is this a fictional persona he's making up?"
Good question, Shmoopers. As it turns out, it's actually both. Tennyson really did have a friend named Arthur, and this poem is an elegy for him. So the poem's really personal and uses "I" and "thou" (the familiar form of "you" in Victorian English), indicating that the two were very close.
Throughout the poem, he re-creates a sense of emotion that he experienced when he was with Arthur. Most memorable is the striking image that "Thought leapt out to wed with Thought / Ere Thought could wed itself with Speech" (499-500). Tennyson dwells on the time spent with his friend as some of the best times of his life, and acknowledges it as a loss that he can never fill.
But the poet is also using the speaker-Tennyson to present a universal sort of voice that tackles grief in its various stages. This universal point of view moves through a period of intense grief to a rumination of the life that was lost, and then opens up on more abstract concepts, such as religion, science, and how puny humans can ever hope to make sense of the chaotic randomness of nature or the hidden plan of God.
Get ready to make sure all your lines are secure and you've packed your ice screws, because we're definitely going far above Base Camp on this one. For one, In Memoriam is loooooong (obvs).
But it'll also challenge your noggin because it's written in fragments, so locating the speaker in time is pretty difficult. Plus, Tennyson throws in a heap of images and metaphors that can be tough to suss out, so those will keep you on your toes. Finally, you'll want to keep your dictionary link open, since you'll be looking up some archaic vocabulary like "burthen," "lea," "Phosphor," and "daw."
Hang in there, though, because you'll be rewarded with arguably one of the greatest poems of the nineteenth century, examining grief, loss, and the struggle to understand randomness against the backdrop of religion.
One of Tennyson's trademarks is his frustration at being unable to express himself the way he wants to. Wait just a second—the man was the Poet Laureate of England, so he must have been able to express himself...right?
Well, sure, but frustration is a common stance that the speakers of his poems take (you might also want to check out "Break, Break, Break" for another example of how this works). In In Memoriam, this comes through in how the speaker is frustrated by his own despair and doubt. He admits that some things he sees he "leave[s] unsaid" (1390) because words are puny things when it comes to some of the huge concepts he's tackling.
We're sure you've heard the phrase "Nature red in tooth and claw." Pretty famous, huh? Well, what about "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"?
Before you read In Memoriam, you might have been tempted to think that someone like Willy Shakespeare coined these phrases. (Really: if you're ever in doubt as to where a pithy quotation comes from, Shakespeare should be your go-to choice.) But in this case the quotes are all 100% Tenny. He's the man.
Tennyson is also a master at combining high-falutin' mythological concepts with everyday occurrences. Here, we get it in several places when the speaker imagines meeting the Muses, and Arthur going on his "Muses' walk."
He also manipulates mad mythology in "Ulysses" (particularly of the Greek variety) and "The Lady of Shalott" (where he gets his King Arthur on).
It's really not surprising why mythology might be on Tennyson's mind. Remember that Darwin's Theory of Evolution had just been introduced during Tennyson's time, so the issue of origins was very much on people's minds. Mythology gives a spiritual counterpoint to the more physical version out there in the scientific realm.
Yes, we're dropping some technical poetry vocab on you. But don't check out on us yet, because it's easier to understand than you think. Let's break down what this actually means:
First, a quatrain is just a verse made up of four lines. That's easy to remember because the word "quatrain" comes from the same root as "quarter," and we know you know it takes four of those puppies to make a dollar.
So find I every pleasant spot A
In which we two were wont to meet B
The field, the chamber, and the street, B
For all is dark where thou art not. A
Next up on our terms list is "iambic." An iamb is a unit of poetry made up of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. You have probably most heard this term in relation to Shakespeare's (and other famous English poets') use of iambic pentameter (five poetic feet per line, or ten syllables), which has a rhythm that sounds like daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM.
Iambs are popular in English poetry because regular old spoken English is largely made up of iambs, so it replicates the natural rhythm of the language.
Tennyson's poem just has one less daDUM in each line, which is where we get the tetrameter part of our equation. "Tetra" means four, so each line has four poetic feet (iambs), or eight syllables.
Here's how it works with that same verse we just looked at. We've bolded the stressed syllables and have separated out each foot:
So find I every pleasant spot
In which we two were wont to meet
The field, the chamber, and the street,
For all is dark where thou art not.
Notice how the stresses fall on words that are important here? Thanks to this form, the following words (and ideas) stand out: "two" (the two friends), "dark" (reflecting the speaker's sense of sadness), and "thou" (he's addressing and emphasizing his absent friend). Neat, eh?
Tennyson writes in lyric verse, which means he's using a first-person narrator to discuss his deep-down personal feelings. "I" is all over the place in the poem, and the speaker's thoughts and feelings are on full display.
Did we say "lyric"? Silly us—actually we meant lyrics, as in plural…as in 131 separate lyrics (also referred to as "cantos," which just means "songs"), with an added prologue and epilogue on either end.
Think of these as "chapters" of the overall long poem. While they are fragments of the process the speaker goes through in coming to terms with Arthur's death, they connect to each other in terms of tone and imagery.
Another consideration when it comes to form is that In Memoriam is the very definition of an elegy. An elegy is a poem that meditates on, or commemorates, the death of a person or thing important to the speaker. Usually elegies are quite a bit shorter than this behemoth, but since it technically fits this definition, we're calling it as we see it.
It's not surprising that a poem concerned with coming to terms with death and dealing with grief might employ lots of imagery relating to darkness and light. It's all about finding that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, right?
Patterns of light and dark, sight and blindness are all over the place in this poem and make up some of the dominant imagery. Better pay attention anytime you see a reference to light, dark, shadows, eyes, seeing, or blindness.
Tennyson uses light to signify things like life (2826) and the hope of faith. Check out how this works right up front in lines 17-20:
Our little systems 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
The speaker characterizes the puny "little systems" of humans (probably referring to human knowledge) as just "broken lights" of God. So, everything humans come up with—and keep in mind that during this time period science was very much on the radar and battling it out with religion—is just a pale reflection of the divine light.
Not surprisingly, the lightness imagery is also wrapped up in being able to see or not see, and being blind on a figurative level. So, a "haze of grief" (517) makes it hard for Tennyson to know whether or not he is actually seeing the past as it truly was, or if he's sugar-coating it. Similarly, where human perception can be clouded, divine perception is always crystal-clear. The eye in Canto 26 that sees everything suggests God's all-seeing and all-knowing sight that exists outside of time.
The flip side is also true. While light and seeing have positive connotations, shadows and darkness are usually the opposite. So, the house that Arthur once lived in is now a "dark house" (165). Also, anytime you see Shadow (and yes, that's with a big, bad, capital letter), Tennyson is usually talking about death personified, which has snatched away Arthur.
But when light and dark are blended, it's not always so clear-cut. For example, toward the middle of the poem Tennyson seems to make things a bit more complicated, mentioning "witch-elms" that make the lawn look "dusk and bright" (1782), and describing how Arthur once liked the shadows cast by the sycamore tree (1783-1784). As Tennyson's attitude toward his loss starts to change, the borders begin to blur a bit (wow...pardon our alliteration).
In fact, the "one mute Shadow" at line 612 is pretty ambiguous. It seems to mean both death and also Arthur's spirit, which is watching his still-living friends sing and play their games at Christmas-time.
That yew tree really seems like something out of Poltergeist, arewerite? It's personified in lines 61-64. It "grasps" the gravestones, while its "fibres" snake down under the earth and wrap around skulls and its roots cozy up to the bones of the dead. Freaky, right?
And as if we didn't get the picture already, Tennyson later describes the yew tree as "dark yew" (780).
The yew tree symbolizes a force of nature that is timeless and super-powerful compared to the fragility of humans, whose bones it stands over. Nature will eventually break down all things made by men, suggested by how the roots wrap around the gravestones.
We see this most often in terms of Tennyson and Arthur holding hands. Tennyson remembers the "hands so often clasp'd in mine" (239) and mentions "clasping brother-hands" (1694). Clasping hands is an image that is repeated many times and emphasizes the bond of friendship that Tennyson shared with Arthur.
This image sometimes occurs in terms of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman. Think about when Tennyson employs the analogy of a widower missing his dead wife, mentioning the heart where "warm hands have prest and closed" (287). So…Tennyson views Arthur romantically?
Well, not exactly—while it seems as if there's more going on than just friendship and fanboying between these two, Tennyson is just grasping throughout the poem to find the right metaphors to describe the vastness of his loss. Sometimes, the close relationship between two lovers seems to fill the bill, so that's what he goes with.
Let's just mark this section with a big "DUH." What do you expect from a 2900-line poem that meditates on losing someone to an untimely death? Lots of images relating to graveyards, bones, vaults, etc., that's what.
From the "stones that / Name the under-lying dead" (61-62) to "sepulchral halls" (1118) to "vaults and catacombs" (1120) to numerous mentions of "graves," Tennyson is obsessively interested in the places where the dead end up.
Finally, the poem likens Arthur's remains to a "precious relic" (378), aka the remains of a saint that are worthy to be venerated as a way to be closer to God.
If Arthur is a relic, then the ship that carries his remains back to England is a sort of reliquary. Tennyson has a reverent attitude toward this ship, naming it "sacred bark" (374) and giving it his blessing so that no storms will harm it and that his "beacon" will "guard it home" (372).
Not only does the ship function as a sort of grave for Arthur, but it also symbolizes the idea of transition from life to death. So, just as a ship crosses the borders between lands via rivers, this ship has also ferried Arthur across the border from life to death in Tennyson's view.
In this poem, the speaker is grieving over the loss of his close friend, which isn't really conducive to anything steamy. There are a few references to holding hands and hugging and some mentions of "breasts" (though never used in a sexual manner—we're talking the nineteenth-century flowery language for "heart"). A "procuress" (female pimp) also makes an appearance, but it's just a brief reference without further elaboration. There are also several extended metaphors involving the love husbands have for wives (and vice versa), but Tennyson keeps things sparkling clean.