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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jan-July, 2014



A critical analysis of the Philosophy of Tennyson’s In Memoriam

Dr. Gopal Sinha

Asst. Registrar (Estt.), Admn. Dept., Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, Jharkhand

Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ may be hailed to be one of those rare pieces of poetry where the poet covers the journey from philosophy to metaphysics to dream-land and back to the rational view of the common world. It is soul searching adventure endearing us to reach out to those hidden recesses of life which lied buried beneath the dusts of the humdrum of everyday lives. It is not a philosophical poem, like Robert Bridges’s Testament of Beauty. Tennyson does not attempt to give us a reasoned metaphysic of God, soul, and immortality. Yet, the poem reveals the poet reaching out through mental struggle – with the finds of Science, the science of his day – to faith in Divine Purpose, the destiny of the individual and the race, in ever-increasing fulfillment of higher values. We see him winning his way to certitude regarding the continuity of human personality after death, calculated to bring scope and chance to realize all that it has striven for in the realm of Ends. Like Carlyle’s Teufelsdrockh (in Sartor Resartus) the poet of the In Memorium makes a spiritual pilgrimage from “The Everlasting Nay” to the “The Everlasting Aye.”

   Birth in this life is a separation or disengagement of the individual soul from the World-Soul, in which there is no separateness or limitation. Through the experiences of the senses and the body the soul develops into self-consciousness or personality. When the union on soul and body is dissolved by death, the soul enters in a second individual life. It puts on a new body and finds its field of destiny in another planet or star :

“Pierces the keen seraphic flame
From orb to orb, from veil to veil.”

- a field or sphere that is free from the limitations of its life here. “Though occasionally described as though it were an existence of merely contemplative happiness, it is generally imagined as a life of activity in which the soul takes part in some common work and so advances on the path of progress. Usually, though not always, the poet thinks of the soul as remembering the past and its earthy companions; occasionally he imagines it as being, at least for a time, peculiarly near to the beloved on earth and perhaps even able to ‘touch’ them without the intervention of sense. Souls bound by love or friendship in this life will meet and recognize one another in the next.

   Through a series of embodied lives, the soul evolves, approaching the Divine perfection ever nearer. The poem does not envisage the soul’s absorption in God, - though, in Tennyson’s Memoir we see the loss of personality in the Divine Light was to him no ‘loss’ but only true life. That “each, who seems a separate whole,” should re-merge “in the general soul is faith as vague as all unsweet.”

   The poem does not tell us anything of the souls that go astray in this life. After many missings of the way, the poet believed that they too would reach God. If life, to Tennyson, was understandable without faith in a God of love, it was equally so without faith in ‘immortality’, that is, the conscious and unlimited continuance of the life of the soul after death. This faith, as we have said, was not born of intellection or reasoning from the phenomena of the physical world, but of sense, deeper and higher than all our analytical faculties:
“We have but faith! We cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;”

When the poet uses the words, ‘know’ and ‘feel’ with reference to Reality, he means this intimate spiritual sense. In one of the poems of this collection, the poet rebukes moods of blank negation, which are dispelled by the intuition within:

   “A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason’d  colder part,
And like a man in warth the heart
Stood up and answered, “I have felt”.

   The lines quoted form ‘The Ancient Sage, Holy Grail and other poems illustrate the mystic strain in the poet. He was subject to moments of trance when the world of space and time fell away from him, and the human consciousness yielded place to the Experience that defies thought and language. The mystic in Tennyson speaks emotionally that he has caught “the deep pulsations of the world”, and he sees into ‘the life of thing’, like Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey:

   “And what I am beheld again
What is, and no man understands”.

In Memoriam appears more to the ardent reader as the pilgrimage of the soul. In the earlier poems we see a soul in the agony of loss, for the one thing that makes life worth while is gone. One can conquer it in one of two ways. One may forget the dead. But when memory dies, love too dies. Hence as the poet puts it :
“Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d”

Or, one may, without allowing to be tormented by it, revolve, always, in one’s subconscious life, thoughts of the dead. One embalms memories and lives in them. Only two lives matter – the person who enshrines memories, and the enshrined. The rest of the world does not. Neither of these ways of getting over sorrow is true victory. In both cases, the better part of ourselves perishes. That alone is victory in which the lower self dies and the higher is born. Secondly, love must grow stronger, but should take within its ambit, not one person elect and favoured, nor a few, but all suffering creatures who come into our lives. And, as what each of us actually realizes in tangible beneficence is small, our thoughts and dreams should take in every worthy cause or noble activity in any part of the world.

   This cannot be achieved by many at one stroke. One passes through intermediary phases. One begins by realizing that the longing for the physical nearness of the dead – his eyes, his expression, the clasp his hand – does not satisfy us. We must love the loveliness of the character and personality that has been taken away. We see that having risen on to higher plane, the departed spirit, purged of all earthly dross, is still with us in sympathy and love. Rising from this thought, mourner yields to the conviction that the spirit of the departed is present wherever the ideals it pursued are actively cherished. Every kind of greatness one comes across is a reminder. To love those ideals is to love him. Evolved humanity in the future would be like Arthur Hallam. Indeed, having shed the moral part of him he has fused himself into all Nature:

   “Thy voice is on the rolling air;
I hear thee where the waters run;
Thou standest in the rising sun,
And in the setting thou art fair.”

The first part of the peom is entirely personal to himself and his friend. It records the several phases of sorrow – sullen hopelessness, wild unrest, calm despair, tender tears the woes of memory and association… Then follows that transition time which interests most those who care for intellectual analysis. Various arguments concerning immortality, for and against are put, and answers attempted to them. Mood after mood of the questioning soul is represented, some bright, some dark, half doubt half faith some of wonder whether the living soul have life, others wonder if the dead be alive; and if so, of what kind is their life and whether it touches ours at all… Then comes the crisisand the end of all the thought, all the doubt – so far as he has gone to bring forth the light of innermost philosophy. The poet establishes his belief that his friend is alive, and that his friend’s being is working in his own; that therefore he has sufficient comfort to live again in other men, to remember the mighty hopes that make us men. It is the beginning of new departure and is followed at once by lovely verses: ‘Sweet after showers, ambrosial air,’ in which all nature leads heavenly peace. The poet lays the specters of the mind by the larger love. All humanity comes within the orbit of that love.

   The evolution of the poem may be traced to the simple cycle of life wherein we move from one simple realization to another by common experience. At first the poet is downed in grief and plays with it, and makes love to it as if wearily, sinking into it deliberately, and pausing to cheat himself with somber fancies. He follows the voyage of the ship that brought his dead friend back, and re-threads the course of his friendship. After many ebbs and flows of feeling the finds that grief is a true possession; and he begins to found a kind of faith upon it. He finds in the mystery of life itself, and in that of love, some assurance of survival; failing this, life itself would be a chaos. Then he has a glimpse of hope that the dead may care for us; he mue3ses on the possible nature of the disembodied soul, and on how far it may remember its earthy, affections. He revolts against the idea that the soul after death , is at once absorbed  in the Whole; he judges, a matter of blind faith that evil may in the end somehow generate good, in spite of the indifference of Nature to man, her chief product. Then follow reflections upon the value and quality of posthumus fame, which Tennyson, unlike the Elizabethans, but like Emily Bronte holds lightly. At last, in the dark grden, he has the trance-like experience in which he believes that he communes with his friend. After this his love grows afresh, and widens out to include mankind, whose hopes and future occupy him to the calming of his grief. Love, now universalized, is seen to be the principal of human progress. Man’s free will, and the outlook of the race form a foundation for hope.

   In Memorium is the most deliberately philosophic of Tennyson’s works; and by it his claim to be considered a thinker, as distinct from poet must stand or fall. It is a collection of elegies in memory of the poet’s friend whose death transforms the mental landscape of the poet. It is a rather a representation of the moods and reflections of the poet which came as a result of his loss. More ever the death of his closest and dearest companion brought him face to face with those eternal problems of death and evil, the answer to which science has to leave to faith. In Memorium met the needs of its times as few poems has ever done. It stated people’s doubts for them, always a confronting thing. It gave expression to the moods from despair to hope through which these doubts, it showed the doubter how he could reach a modus Vivendi. For Tennyson was not philosopher enough to frame a new affirmation: in the face of doubt he could only fall back on feeling, plead that compelling desire for the old faith in immortality and a Divine Goodness was a sufficient basis for such faith, and give expression to his own experience that such a feeling was enough to live by.

   Such inner harmony as In Memoriam possesses, comes from the drift of spiritual experience rather than from the two laborious efforts. The tradition of the English Elegy is followed, in that the note of mourning modulates into a hymn of faith; as in Lycidas and Adonias, the turning point is discernible, but the looser structure involves a recurrence of earlier moods, so that the pattern is less precise. For this reason, among others, the poem is poignantly convincing as an expression of personal loss, the alternate subsidence and upwelling of grief, and the outcome is renewed happiness. Seeking to impose upon the original simple elegies a vague hint of allegorical intent, Tennyson spoke of In Memorium as “a way of the Soul.” The value of the poem, however, is not in this philosophic afterthought but in its lyrical and meditative record of changing moods. There is the gradual healing of grief with the continuance and widening of a love so spiritualized that it can exist without the presence of the beloved.

   In some sections Tennyson sought to reconcile traditional faith with the new ideas of evolutionary science; but in others faith and reason are opposed. From both the poetical and psychological points of view this dichotomy is part of the lasting attractiveness of In Memoriam. The concessions to the scientific spirit have been derided as feeble attempts to rescue something from the wreck of creeds; they express a characteristic Victorian state of mind. The contrasting mood comes and goes, as do all mystical experiences, with the breath of the spirit; it is revealed in passages of profound feeling and haunting beauty, especially in the incomparable ninety-fifth section, perhaps Tennyson’s supreme utterance. These passage are founded upon certain trance like experiences in which the poet seemed to be, like St. Paul, caught up into a region beyond earth. They are equally beyond the region of argument in which much of the poem moves. The course of speculation passes through doubt to an affirmation of belief in personal immortality. The future life is contemplated as a confirmation of the evolutionary process ever nearer and nearer to God.

   In Memoriam was received with appreciation by leaders of the most diverse schools of thought. The imagery drawn from recent discoveries in astronomy and geology attracted the attention of the scientists, who also marked the poem’s underlying evolutionary assumptions. The liberals welcomed its attempted compromise between science and religion. The orthodox recognized the effort to save faith from the grip of conquering materialism. Modern readers, brushing aside these old claims upon their attention, are still won by its sustained beauty, its deep feeling, its wealth of imagery, now tender and intimate., now gorgeous and elaborate, and its revelation of the poet’s personality. It is easier today to sympathize with Tennyson’s wistful yearning after certainty than with arrogant dogmatism. The fused tremulousness of doubt and faith make the poem the more moving.

   As an elegy, its length militates against the effectiveness; but after all it is much more than an elegy; it is a deliberate statement of Tennyson’s religious philosophy, and incidentally presents those vexed questions inter-relating religion and science that were beginning to trouble the poet’s generation. It exhibits more fully than any poem of hitherto had done, his knowledge of science and his power to actualize in exquisite phrase the latest discoveries of science; it illustrates afresh his visualizing gift of pictorial description, and the givnettes of lyrical English scenery in this poem can rank with his descriptive work. As a work of art, indeed, it is worthy of the highest praise. Not only is it a metrical masterpiece, for the movement of the verse suits to perfection the brooding and contemplative manner; but it is rich to overflowing in rhythmic felicities, and many of its lines have passed into our language and become common property. Perhaps, here and there, the highly wrought craftsmanship obtrudes a shade too much and passes the borderline between art and artificiality; but the lapses are few and the inevitable expression many. Every age has to state and solve its problems afresh, and the statement of one age will not satisfy by another. But the work has a universal quality, which enable it to satisfy the spiritual needs of every age; and some of the separate poems are among the literature which Tennyson or his age produced.  The descriptive or emotional lyricism in the poem develops round the structure of a subject; the scenes or episode, a trifle deficient in sustained energy, which the poet spontaneously produces, nevertheless group themselves into a whole where each supports the other. Several of the interludes are of rare and entrancing beauty.   

The great astronomers of our day who forget their little self in the study of the hundred thousand million galaxies in space, and physicists who are lost in the ultimates – no one knows the nature of mesons and neutrons- do not entertain the least doubt that the man who thinks of his ‘self’ has no self-worth perpetuating. The philosopher is concerned with the Self, and not with the ‘self’. Each one of us catches only a glimpse of truth, and even that is often but truth of appearance. The worth of personality lies in forgetfulness of personality. The worth of personality lies in forgetfulness of personality. Whoso loseth his self shall gain it, and whoso would gain it shall lose it. As J.B.S. Haldane says somewhere in Possible Worlds, he who longs for, or is concerned with, his immortality does not deserve it. It is this truth that we miss in the In Memoriam

Works Cited:

  1. In Memorium : Tennyson, Lord Alfred
  2. A History of English Literature : Compton-Rickett, Arthur
  3. The Literature of the Victorian Era : Walker, Hugh
  4. A History of English Literature : Cazamian and Legouis
  5. The History of History Literature : C. Baugh, Albert
  6. Nature poetry in In Memoriam : Brooke, Stopford
  7. Tintern Abbey : Wordsworth, William
  8. The Temper : George Herbert