Quatrains in (Fairly) Regular Iambic Tetrameter
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.
Tennyson's quatrains have a rhyme scheme of ABBA. This means the first and fourth lines have the same end rhyme, as do the second and third lines. For an example, check out lines 185-188 in Canto 8:
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.