Tennyson’s Poetry

by: Alfred Lord Tennyson

Arthur Henry Hallam

My Arthur, whom I shall not see Till all my widow’d race be run; Dear as the mother to the son, More than my brothers are to me.

In these lines from “In Memoriam A. H. H.,” the poet uses his departed friend’s name, a name not directly stated often throughout the poem. The poet establishes Hallam’s importance by comparing their friendship to three other close relationships. The poet misses Hallam as much as a late spouse, holds him as dear as a mother, and feels closer to him than to his own brothers. The poet’s grief is clear and raw, perhaps because, while not appearing at the beginning of the elegy, these lines were the first written of the poem.

He past; a soul of nobler tone: My spirit loved and loves him yet, Like some poor girl whose heart is set On one whose rank exceeds her own. . . . At night she weeps, “How vain am I! How should he love a thing so low?”

Here the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” compares his thoughts of Hallam to a lower-class girl pining for a man of higher rank. In life, although Tennyson admired Hallam as his superior, their supposed difference in worth did not unbalance their friendship. The poet seems more concerned, now that death has separated them, that Hallam’s even more superior status as a resident of the afterlife will prevent him from looking back and remembering his friend still on earth.

I see thee sitting crown’d with good, A central warmth diffusing bliss In glance and smile, and clasp and kiss, On all the branches of thy blood; Thy blood, my friend, and partly mine; For now the day was drawing on, When thou should’st link thy life with one Of mine own house, and boys of thine Had babbled “Uncle” on my knee[.]

The poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” pictures what Hallam’s future would have been like if he had lived: He would be surrounded by loving family. His children would include relatives of the poet himself because Hallam was engaged to Tennyson’s sister. Thus, the poet mourns not only his friend but his friend’s unborn children. The poet enjoys picturing Hallam’s long and fruitful life until reality breaks in and destroys “[t]he low beginnings of content.”

Up that long walk of limes I past To see the rooms in which he dwelt. . . . Where once we held debate, a band Of youthful friends, on mind and art . . . And last the master-bowman, he, Would cleave the mark. A willing ear We lent him. Who, but hung to hear The rapt oration flowing free From point to point, with power and grace[.]

In “In Memoriam A. H. H.,” the poet describes revisiting Hallam’s old college rooms, which helps him recall debates the two enjoyed there with friends. The poet asserts that Hallam was the best orator and debater of the group, so talented that instead of continuing to argue with him, his friends just enjoyed listening to him speak. Readers cannot know whether this memory is accurate or if, in traditional elegiac style, the poet burnishes Hallam’s talents.

[W]e saw The God within him light his face, And seem to lift the form, and glow In azure orbits heavenly-wise; And over those ethereal eyes The bar of Michael Angelo?

Here the poet gives the only physical description of Hallam in “In Memoriam A. H. H.” Hallam had blue eyes and a “prominent ridge of bone over the eyes,” a facial feature supposedly shared by Michelangelo. Hallam used these very words to describe this facial feature, so here, the poet is quoting Hallam, even as he describes watching Hallam orate. Perhaps remembering Hallam’s style of speaking put one of Hallam’s quotes into his mind, and thus, the words found their way into the poem.

You tell me, doubt is Devil-born. I know not: one indeed I knew In many a subtle question versed, Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first, But ever strove to make it true: Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds, At last he beat the music out. . . . He fought his doubts and gather’d strength . . . To find a stronger faith his own[.]

With these lines, the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” contradicts an unnamed critic of religious doubt. He asserts that Hallam experienced times of doubt but adds that Hallam used his intellect and morality to find a “stronger faith.” Although at times doubtful, Hallam was always good, and once he worked out the basis of his faith intellectually, his faith became stronger than had he merely accepted rules unthinkingly. In these lines, the poet reveals a deep and intimate understanding of Hallam’s thought processes, highlighting the nature of their friendship.

Heart-affluence in discursive talk From household fountains never dry; The critic clearness of an eye That saw thro’ all the Muses walk; Seraphic intellect and force To seize and throw the doubts of man; Impassion’d logic, which outran The hearer in its fiery course[.]

With these lines the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” describes Hallam’s talents. He could talk about any subject convincingly with intelligence and knowledge. An elegy traditionally describes the object of mourning in the most positive light possible, and throughout this poem, the poet focuses on Hallam’s brilliance. As Hallam died young, his potential remained unfulfilled. As such, the poet may feel a greater need to let readers know of all of Hallam’s capabilities, of what he could have achieved had he not departed so soon.

And manhood fused with female grace In such a sort, a child would twine A trustful hand, unask’d, in thine, And find his comfort in thy face[.]

The poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” describes Hallam’s gentle nature, to which children felt attracted and trusted. Hallam’s facial expression would assure the children that he was trustworthy and kind and gentle. The poet does not shy away from describing Hallam’s virtue as a “female” one, women being the recognized experts in child-rearing and the domestic sphere in Victorian times. The specificity of the description of Hallam’s way with children suggests that the poet often witnessed such an interaction.

Not being less but more than all The gentleness he seem’d to be, Best seem’d the thing he was, and join’d Each office in the social hour To noble manners, as the flower And native growth of noble mind . . . And thus he bore without abuse The grand old name of gentleman[.]

The poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” insists that Hallam truly lived as a gentleman, unlike many men who claim the title but whose behavior or manner reveals the nature of a “churl.” Hallam behaved like a gentleman and was a gentleman by status, thus redeeming the title from its “ignoble use” by so many undeserving of the title. Readers might infer that abuse in these lines most likely means “misuse.” The poet, no radical, esteems this traditional term of address.

For can I doubt, who knew thee keen In intellect, with force and skill To strive, to fashion, to fulfill— I doubt not what thou wouldst have been: A life in civic action warm, A soul on highest mission sent, A potent voice of Parliament, A pillar steadfast in the storm[.]

Here, the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” imagines what Hallam’s career would have been like had he lived. The poet envisions Hallam in Parliament—he has told readers elsewhere in the poem about Hallam’s excellent oration and debating abilities—and suggests that he would be not only a member but a forceful and important voice, a potential “lever to uplift the earth.” The poet’s regret for Hallam’s loss appears to be not only for himself but for society as a whole.