Study Guide

In Memoriam A.H.H. Prologue

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Lines 1-16

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
  Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
  By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
  Thou madest Life in man and brute;
  Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
  Thou madest man, he knows not why,
  He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Thou seemest human and divine,
  The highest, holiest manhood, thou.
  Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

  • Right away, the speaker (we don't know who it is yet) is pulling out the heavy-hitters. This poem is addressed to the Big Guy himself: Jesus (who is also God, the creator of the universe).
  • He's also "immortal Love."
  • "We" (so perhaps we're meant to identify with the speaker here) can't see Jesus (or God), but we know he is there through faith.
  • But we can't prove it. So we're off to a bit of a shaky start.
  • Check out the assonance in the first line. Tennyson repeats some O sounds there: "Strong Son of God, immortal Love." This cool sound effect links together all of these ideas: strength, the Big Guy, immortality, and love. (Check out the "Sound Check" section for more on this, and keep an eye out for more assonance throughout the poem.)
  • The speaker starts to praise God and talks about how the sun and moon ("orbs of light and shade") belong to him.
  • God also made humans, animals—and death. Uh...wait. That escalated quickly. And if the death talk weren't freaky enough, the speaker drops an unsettling image on us: Jesus as a conqueror with his foot on a skull. So we're getting a double-whammy of death.
  • Notice the anaphora in lines 6-7 with the repetition of "Thou madest" at the beginning of each line. Yep—you'll hear more about this nifty device over in the "Sound Check" section.
  • This whole skull image is so disturbing that it literally breaks the bounds of the poem's rhythm. Line 7 ends with some enjambment
  • But the speaker doesn't dwell on that haunting image for long. He's ready to praise God again, and butters him up by noting that he won't just leave mankind dead.
  • He's too just for that. Instead, mankind is immortal. That's just the way God made us.
  • Jesus is both human and divine. In fact, this makes him the highest specimen of manhood ever.
  • The speaker notes, though, that humans still have free will, but this belongs to Jesus.
  • Okay, so far this is just a bit confusing. Let's read on to sort this out…

Lines 17-32

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.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
  For knowledge is of things we see;
  And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
  But more of reverence in us dwell;
  That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,

But vaster. We are fools and slight;
  We mock thee when we do not fear:
  But help thy foolish ones to bear;
help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

  • Mere mortals have systems that are puny and don't last very long. These systems are all described as "broken lights" of Jesus. That seems like an important metaphor.
  • The metaphor appears to mean that human systems (philosophy, knowledge, etc.) pale in comparison to the divine light of God, which is so much greater than human things. The speaker suggests that humans need to increase their knowledge, but they also need to be reverent.
  • He's now telling us that the mind and soul need to be united so they make one music. Knowledge and reverence need to work together. That makes sense.
  • The speaker seems to have a bit of an inferiority complex. He describes humans as fools. Well, right back atcha, buddy.
  • By not fearing God, people mock Him. He asks God to help us bear...something. This fear, maybe? He also asks the Almighty to help the "vain worlds" (meaning worlds that are really into themselves) bear God's light.
  • There's that image of light again. Darkness and light so far seem to be important, so we better pay attention to those images.

Lines 33-44

Forgive what seem'd my sin in me;
  What seem'd my worth since I began;
  For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.

Forgive my grief for one removed,
  Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
  I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
  Confusions of a wasted youth;
  Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise. 

  • Now the speaker is asking for forgiveness for some kind of sin that seems to relate to pride. 
  • At least that's what we're guessing at this point, since he's talking about "merit" that "lives from man to man," which probably means a man's reputation that is spread from person to person.
  • As it turns out, God doesn't care too much about this.
  • He's also asking for forgiveness for grieving the death of a "fair" (meaning good-looking or nice) man. At least, it appears this guy has died, since the speaker says he now lives with God and is therefore now worthy of even more love.
  • Finally, he asks for forgiveness for his "wild and wandering" words. (Alliteration alert! Get the deets on that in the "Sound Check" section.) Our speaker feels his youth has been wasted for some reason, and hopes God will give him wisdom.
  • So, this section has functioned as a dedication to God (via Jesus). It also works as an evocation of the Muses, with Jesus as the speaker's muse.
  • We also get the hint that since he asks for forgiveness up front for all of these things, we're going to be in for some heavy-duty grieving over whoever this fair man is, and also for the speaker's confusion over something.
  • There's a date of 1849 at the end, which must be the date that Tennyson finished this section of the poem.
  • Let's tentatively call the speaker "Tennyson" for now, and hold off judgment on whether this is the real, historical Tennyson or an alter-ego. Mosey on over to the "Speaker" section for the lowdown.