Study Guide

In Memoriam A.H.H. Themes

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

  • Suffering

    Let's get this one out of the way right up front, shall we? In Memoriam's very title drops a big clue on our heads that we're dealing with grief and mourning. In memoriam means "in the memory of" someone who has passed away. We soon find out that this is Tennyson's close friend, Arthur.

    The entire poem is devoted to how Tennyson, over several years (we think...the chronology gets a bit funky), comes to terms with his grief. A major turning point comes when he famously acknowledges that "'Tis better to have loved and lost / than never to have loved at all" (567-568 and 1595-1596—it's so good he's repeating himself).

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How would you characterize Tennyson's grief in the first section of the poem (through about Canto 30)?
    2. What's going on with the image of widows and widowers? How does this help express Tennyson's grief?
    3. Where does Tennyson find most of his consolation?
    4. In Canto 95, how does the imagined reunion with Arthur work as a sort of therapy for the speaker?

    Chew on This

    All of the over-the-top grief is a bit excessive. It's years later, so Tennyson should just get over it already.

    In Memoriam is a fitting verbal resting place for Tennyson's dear friend.

  • Religion

    Since Tennyson brings up The Big Guy immediately in the prologue of In Memoriam, we know right away that religion will be on the menu throughout the entire poem. This plays out in several different ways. Tennyson is struggling to make sense of the world and his faith after suffering the loss of his friend. Things just don't make sense like they used to.

    He's also struggling against his faith because of nineteenth-century scientific discoveries, like the Theory of Evolution (check out "Themes: Man and the Natural World" for more info on that). Finally, Tennyson is also trying to "justify the ways of God to man," similar to what Milton does in Paradise Lost. If you're a fan of big technical words, that's called "theodicy." (Actually, it's called "theodicy" even if you aren't a fan of big technical words.)

    Questions About Religion

    1. Are you satisfied with Tennyson's acceptance of faith at the end of the poem? Why or why not?
    2. Where does the speaker seem to most express his doubts about religion as an answer to his existential crisis?
    3. What does Tennyson mean by "barren faith" in line 2321? How is this different from just regular old faith?
    4. How is the section about Lazarus thematically important to the poem? What does he represent in relation to Tennyson's loss?

    Chew on This

    Rediscovering his faith completely solves the speaker's anxiety regarding The Big Picture.

    Tennyson ultimately acknowledges that there is immortality, which seems to justify the suffering that God allows in the world.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Here's a fun fact: Tennyson was probably the first English poet to tackle the problem of man's role in a universe that was (at the time) starting to be explained more and more by science (source). The Victorian period, during which time Tennyson lived, was the first period to have to face the implications of Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

    As you can imagine, many people could just not deal with the idea that humans—supposedly the highest form of life and created in God's image—evolved from lower life forms. In Memoriam presents some of this anxiety, perhaps most famously in the nature "red in tooth and claw" verse.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Is the yew tree a positive or negative example of nature? Why or why not?
    2. Check out Canto 15. How do Tennyson's descriptions of nature line up with the mood of the speaker?
    3. What is Tennyson talking about when he mentions the "types" that are taken from "scarped cliff and quarried stone" in lines 1073-1074?
    4. Why are humans no longer "half-akin to brute" in line 2885?

    Chew on This

    Similar to the Romantic poets, Tennyson uses images of nature to show his interior states.

    Tennyson presents nature as mostly a Big, Bad Force that is antagonistic toward humans. Even Darwin's newly-emerging theory is presented in negative terms.

  • Language and Communication

    Something that Tennyson continually runs up against in In Memoriam is his inability to adequately express what he's thinking or feeling. In some ways, this is right on, since he's dealing with lots of difficult concepts: grief, religion, man's place in the universe—oh my! But in another way, this is frankly total bunk. We all know Tennyson is the bomb when it comes to using words. He wouldn't have been made Poet Laureate of England if that weren't the case. So this anxiety about expressing himself is also just a pose to get us to reflect on the natures of words, language, and communication themselves.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why do you think Tennyson uses some purposefully archaic words, like "burthen" and "twain" and "kine" (plural for cow)?
    2. How does enjambment contribute to the feeling of the speaker not being able to express himself the way he wants to?
    3. What are the "silent-speaking word" and "dumb cry" in lines 1946 and 1947?

    Chew on This

    This whole having-problems-expressing-himself thing in the poem is just a cheap ploy. Tennyson is trolling for compliments.

    When words most break down in the poem are the places where we can see the speaker struggling the most with his grief and anxiety.