Tennyson’s Poetry

by: Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Poet, “In Memoriam A. H. H.”

I sing to him that rests below, And, since the grasses round me wave, I take the grasses of the grave, And make them pipes whereon to blow. The traveler hears me now and then, And sometimes harshly will he speak . . . Behold, ye speak an idle thing: Ye never knew the sacred dust: I do but sing because I must[.]

In a pastoral metaphor traditional to an elegy, the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” describes the act of writing this poem, actually a collection of poems written over several years. The poet turns his friend’s death and his feelings about his friend into music, or poetry, in order to commune with his deceased friend. The poet then imagines critics suggesting that such effort seems maudlin, self-indulgent, and unimportant. But he remains unmoved by the criticism and declares that he “sing[s]” or writes because he must.

This year I slept and woke with pain, I almost wish’d no more to wake, And that my hold on life would break Before I heard those bells again: But they my troubled spirit rule, For they controll’d me when a boy; They bring me sorrow touched with joy, The merry, merry bells of Yule.

Although depressed and sometimes not wanting to go on, nevertheless, the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” explains that he is reminded of joyful times past by the Christmas Eve church bells. The family will observe Christmas in the traditional ways but, sadly, with an ever-present sense that someone beloved is missing—the poet’s friend, Hallam. Christmas is clearly important to the poet and his family: The three Christmases after Hallam’s death are each described in the poem, providing a sort of narrative structure that might otherwise not be obvious.

With weary steps I loiter on, Tho’ always under alter’d skies The purple from the distance dies, My prospect and horizon gone. No joy the blowing season gives, The herald melodies of spring, But in the songs I love to sing A doubtful gleam of solace lives.

About six months have passed since Hallam’s death, and the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” still mourns. Instead of living actively, he “loiters” through his days, having nothing to look forward to. Normally, spring makes him happy, but not this year. The poet does, however, find a small amount of consolation in the act of creating these poems. He imagines them pleasing Hallam’s spirit, but of course the act of expressing his feelings is the true source of his comfort.

Do we indeed desire the dead Should still be near us at our side? Is there no baseness we would hide? No inner vileness that we dread? Shall he for whose applause I strove, I had such reverence for his blame, See with clear eye some hidden shame And I be lessen’d in his love?

In contradiction to many other verses in the poem, here the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” questions the appeal of having Hallam’s spirit nearby. The poet worries that if Hallam were present, Hallam’s spirit would know his secret faults or sins. However, readers learn in the following lines that the poet decides that he wrongs “the grave with fears untrue,” being sure that Hallam’s spirit would be “like God” and “make allowance for us all.” The poet, optimistically, assumes that because god understands and forgives all sins, his departed friend would, too.

At one dear knee we proffer’d vows, One lesson from one book we learn’d, Ere childhood’s flaxen ringlet turn’d To black and brown on kindred brows. And so my wealth resembles thine, But he was rich where I was poor, And he supplied my want the more As his unlikeness fitted mine.

Elsewhere in “In Memoriam A. H. H.,” the poet stated that his love for Hallam exceeded that for his own brothers, and here he explains why. The poet and his brothers, having been raised by the same people and in the same way, seem similar. But Hallam, being very different and in many ways superior to the poet, satisfied the poet’s needs in a way that the poet’s brothers never could. The brothers were simply too like the poet, and the poet needed something he found in his dear friend, Hallam. Clearly, Hallam inspired change and growth and brought great peace and joy into the poet’s life.

My heart, tho’ widow’d, may not rest Quite in the love of what is gone, But seeks to beat in time with one That warms another living breast. Ah, take the imperfect gift I bring, Knowing the primrose yet is dear, The primrose of the later year, And not unlike to that of Spring.

The poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” addresses one section to an unnamed friend, perhaps his brother-in-law Edmund Lushington. In these lines the poet reveals that he seeks a similar friendship to that which he had with Hallam in a new, living person. He compares his love to a fall rose, not quite as good as a spring one but still “dear.” The poet imagines Hallam blessing this new friendship, which may explain why he considers this section part of Hallam’s elegy.

Whereat those maidens with one mind Bewail’d their lot; I did them wrong: “We served thee here,” they said, “so long, And wilt thou leave us now behind?” So rapt I was, they could not win An answer from my lips, but he Replying, “Enter likewise ye And go with us:” they enter’d in.

The poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” describes a comforting dream he experienced on the eve of moving away from the home he grew up in. In the dream, the poet speaks with the Muses. Hallam comes on a ship to collect him. The poet almost leaves the Muses behind, but Hallam insists that they come on board, too. The poet may have feared losing his writing ability because he was leaving his childhood home. In the dream, Hallam assures him that his creative inspiration and ability will continue.

While I, thy nearest, sat apart, And felt thy triumph was as mine; And loved them more, that they were thine, The graceful tact, the Christian art; Nor mine the sweetness or the skill, But mine the love that will not tire, And, born of love, the vague desire That spurs an imitative will.

Here, the poet of “In Memoriam A. H. H.” explains that he admired his friend Hallam without being jealous of Hallam’s superior talents. Instead, he appreciated Hallam’s skills all the more because they belonged to the person he loved. Admiring these talents inspired the poet to be more like Hallam. The poet seems to attribute to Hallam whatever talents the poet himself subsequently displays, thus making Hallam in some sense responsible for the existence of his own elegy.