Analysis of “In Memoriam, A.H.H.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson was one of the premier poets writing during the Victorian period; his subjects and style embody that period of literature. “In Memoriam, A.H.H.” is an elegy in which he mourns the passing of Arthur Hallam, one of his best friends. Section LV is a particularly rich part of the poem when it comes to discussing the ways in which faith, loss and immortality all interact with the reader. At first, it seems like there are two very different sorts of verse within the same section – one that has to do with faith and the other that has to do with nature. After reading more closely, though, one can see that nature and faith are connected much more closely than it might seem at first. For Tennyson, the connection between the two is an important aspect of his writing, particularly in regard to the connection between logic (and science) and faith. When Tennyson was writing, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had just become public knowledge. The size of this poem gives Tennyson the rhetorical space that he needs to interact with major subjects; because his friend’s death has caused him such emotional chaos, he has to face the fact that even though Hallam is just an individual – and because Nature does not pay much attention to the progress of the individual, rather than the species – he expresses hope that Nature will be more careful about the species in general. Later in the poem, of course, the reader learns that, in the same way that man can die individually, humanity could also perish as a species. This brings up significant controversy when one considers the role that faith in God plays for people. The notion of a weight of cares, combined with the metaphorical value of an upward climb in the tomb to the point that one finds God, is the background to the poem. When the poet uses darkness throughout the poem as a background to the imagery, there is usually something going on in the language that has to do with doubt, confusion or despair.
When the speaker reaches the top of this gargantuan slope, of course, he discovers God, which allows him to (although gently) place his hope. His faith is not quite gone, but he would like an explanation to the situation at hand. As the poem nears its end, Tennyson resigns himself to the notion of the extinction of humanity; the fact that humans can achieve eternal life, depending on the specific relation that they have with Jesus, means that physical death is not really tragic; instead, one of should prepare for spiritual immortality. However, Tennyson uses the poem to assert that biological life is already much less important than people think, because of the highly publicized use of the recording machine.
One area of concern has to do with the fact that Tennyson’s writings are awfully dark and doubtful, even for those who know what is coming. In part because of his ongoing battle with the concepts of evolution, many of his thoughts seem twisted, particularly to the interpreter of the era. However, many of his topics are also theologically significant, such as the son of God, who emerges as a subject early in the poem. Initially, God comes up as part of a discussion about the faith and love. The epilogue that finished “A Memoriam A.H.H.” has to do with a marriage; at the end, though, the topic turns toward apocalypse. Even so, the apocalypse is portrayed with a degree of peace and acceptance, as the “far off divine event” is one that is coming, not to be avoided.
The role of nature in contemplating the purpose of the divine is a major concern in this section of the poem. The need to reconcile God and Nature was important at the time, as the demands of science were just growing. There are passages in the Bible that indicate that God is intimately concerned with the affairs of each individual animal, such as the claim that not a single bird falls from the sky, having died, without God knowing about it. This seems unlikely from the perspective of the scientific age, which attempted to view God’s deeds through the lens of human ability and possibility. As a result, Tennyson first moves to claim that nature and providence take care of animals on the level of species, rather than the level of the individual. However, in the next stanza, Tennyson realizes that even entire species have been permitted to disappear from the world – and not just in the case of the Flood of Noah. In the fourth stanza of this section, Tennyson finally just blurts out that it is important to “faintly trust the larger hope.” This might seem, at first, to be a surrender to the harsh reality of life. However, it actually indicates that one of the basic elements of faith is that it often allows no specificity, only permitting trust in the providence of the divine.
Both Tennyson’s “Tithonus” and “Ulysses” have to do with the sense of decay that comes with aging, one of the grand paradoxes of Greek culture. After all, the Greeks prized youth and beauty, as evidenced by many different aspects of their culture. In Odyssey, every time Ulysses came away from another meeting with Athena, he emerged taller with a younger appearance. Aging took away beauty, inexorably, a day at a time, in a process that still frustrates people today. The fate of Tithonus, who was granted immortality but, through a loophole, was not given eternal youth, would have been particularly frustrating for the Greeks, who were left to contemplate the notion of immortality – and eternal aging. In “Ulysses,” Tennyson takes on the end of the king of Ithaca who took two decades to return home from the war in Troy, because of his battle with Poseidon. Both of these dramatic monologues use the frustration of the first-person narrator to build a sense of sympathy within the reader.
In “Ulysses,” the long-wandering king of Ithaca has been home for decades, having slaughtered all of the suitors in his own royal hall upon returning home. The task of governing a country, though, after not only fighting the Trojans, but also escaping the clutches of such menaces as Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclops, and the Sirens, proves to be too mundane for the cunning and wily master of subterfuge, who used a giant wooden animal to turn the tide of a decade-long war against Ilium. Now, the maintenance of a small kingdom has become boring. As he points out, “[i]t little profits that an idle kingmatched with an aged wife, I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, that hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me” (1, 3-5). In other words, the lifetime of public recognition that was part and parcel of the experience of being Ulysses has faded, and even his own subjects appear to fail to recognize him as they see him in the streets. In other words, instead of cavorting with such beautiful women as Calypso, while traveling from adventure to adventure in the Mediterranean Sea, Ulysses now feels like he is running a driver’s license office in a small town in the middle of South Dakota. Because he “cannot rest from travel[he] will drink life to the lees” (6-7). There is no middle ground in a life like this.
In “Tithonus,” the feeling of helplessness with regard to aging is even more poignant, because while Ulysses will ultimately die, allowing him some release from his frustration about his life, Tithonus will never die. Instead, he will simply continue to age. He feels like he is withering “slowly in thine arms, / Here at the quiet limit of the world,/A white haired shadow roaming like a dream” (6-8). Like Ulysses, Tithonus uses this monologue that he has been given to create a sense of injustice toward himself. Forced to dwell as “immortal age beside immortal youth” (22), Tithonus becomes a laughingstock around the rest of the immortals, who all live forever in a young, attractive state. Tithonus does not get to stay that way, though. In both poems, the speakers use images to express their frustration with their lot in life.
When Browning undertakes the dramatic monologue, the purpose is somewhat different. Instead of speaking from the point of view of the subject of the poem, there is some distance placed between the speaker and the subject. For example, in “My Last Duchess,” the speaker is considering a portrait of a duchess on the wall and makes some comments about her life. Here, the young girl clearly was enjoying her sexuality a bit more than the Duke liked. The speaker notes that the duchess “liked whate’er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (24). This could mean simple friendliness, but in the erotically charged Victorian era, in which anything that could be sexual was quickly locked away (which led, ironically, to a frenzied expression of sexuality, simply done away from public view), this duchess was not conforming to the expectations of her time. As with Tennyson’s monologues, Browning also uses the format to express some displeasure with the status quo. However, Browning does not use the Greek culture as a filter through which to view the rest of human history. Instead, Browning uses the later Italian Renaissance culture, which allows him to insert a variety of characters, both real and imagined, in order to make his point. In “Fra Lippo Lippi,” the “monk” Lippo serves to show some of the absurdity taking place during those earlier times, particularly within the Catholic church in the Renaissance era. The example of Lippi, who left the “corrupt” world behind to gain the life of the monk – which includes the “good bellyful, the warm serge and the rope that goes all round, and day-long blessed idleness beside!” (103-105). The sarcasm which rolls through this poem shows Browning’s own opinion of the breed. He uses the third-person descriptions in his poems to bring his opinions to the forefront; in the case of Tennyson, it is the first-person observations that accomplish the rhetorical task.
Greenblatt, Stephen, et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature 8th ed. Vol. 2. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. Print.