Study Guide

In Memoriam A.H.H. Canto 21

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Canto 21

Lines 437-464

I sing to him that rests below,
   And, since the grasses round me wave,
   I take the grasses of the grave,
And make them pipes whereon to blow.

The traveller hears me now and then,
   And sometimes harshly will he speak:
   "This fellow would make weakness weak,
And melt the waxen hearts of men."

Another answers, "Let him be,
   He loves to make parade of pain
   That with his piping he may gain
The praise that comes to constancy."

A third is wroth: "Is this an hour
   For private sorrow's barren song,
   When more and more the people throng
The chairs and thrones of civil power?

"A time to sicken and to swoon,
   When Science reaches forth her arms
   To feel from world to world, and charms
Her secret from the latest moon?"

Behold, ye speak an idle thing:
   Ye never knew the sacred dust:
   I do but sing because I must,
And pipe but as the linnets sing:

And one is glad; her note is gay,
   For now her little ones have ranged;
   And one is sad; her note is changed,
Because her brood is stol'n away.

  • Tennyson is singing to his friend, who is resting below. Uh-oh—does that mean the place where bad people go?
  • Nope. He just means below the ground, where he is buried. Putting Arthur in Hell wouldn't have made much sense because he was such a good and kind man.
  • The speaker makes little pipes from the grasses that grow on Arthur's grave, and blows them. He imaginatively re-creates the reactions of some people to his piping.
  • One chastises him for being too sad and for making others sad too.
  • Another seems to admire his "parade of pain" (alliteration alert) and praises his consistency.
  • A third one seems to be angry ("wroth" is a nice archaic word for anger) at Tennyson for his grief, and regards his song as "barren" (remember that word from earlier, when we were heading into winter?).
  • He wonders why Tennyson would keep this song up when there's so much more going on in the world.
  • Plus, Science (here personified as a woman) is making the world more understandable. She's "feel[ing] from world to world" and making her secrets known.
  • Tennyson defends himself by saying that they never knew Arthur. He uses the image of "sacred dust" to emphasize just how important his friend still is to him. He's now dust, so this must be years after he's died, right?
  • Ready for another metaphor? Great, here it comes: Tennyson is like a linnet (a little bird). One linnet might be happy and chirp happily because her little birdies have finally ranged from their nest, while another might sing sadly because her brood has been taken away from her.