(Summary and analysis will focus on selected excerpts.)



The poem begins as a tribute to and invocation of the “Strong Son of God.” Since man, never having seen God’s face, has no proof of His existence, he can only reach God through faith. The poet attributes the sun and moon (“these orbs or light and shade”) to God, and acknowledges Him as the creator of life and death in both man and animals. Man cannot understand why he was created, but he must believe that he was not made simply to die.

The Son of God seems both human and divine. Man has control of his own will, but this is only so that he might exert himself to do God’s will. All of man’s constructed systems of religion and philosophy seem solid but are merely temporal, in comparison to the eternal God; and yet while man can have knowledge of these systems, he cannot have knowledge of God. The speaker expresses the hope that “knowledge [will] grow from more to more,” but this should also be accompanied by a reverence for that which we cannot know.

The speaker asks that God help foolish people to see His light. He repeatedly asks for God to forgive his grief for “thy [God’s] creature, whom I found so fair.” The speaker has faith that this departed fair friend lives on in God, and asks God to make his friend wise.


Here the speaker states that he feels no jealousy for the man who is captured and does not know what it means to feel true rage, or for the bird that is born with in a cage and has never spent time outside in the “summer woods.” Likewise, he feels no envy for beasts that have no sense of the passage of time and no conscience to check their behavior. He also does not envy those who have never felt pain (“the heart that never plighted troth”) or those who complacently enjoy a leisure that they do not rightfully deserve. Even when he is in the greatest pain, he still realizes that “ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”


After having asserted in Section LV that Nature cares only for the survival of species (“so careful of the type”) and not for the survival of individual lives, the speaker now questions whether Nature even cares for the species. He quotes a personified, feminine Nature asserting that she does not attend to the survival of the species, but arbitrarily bestows life or death on all creatures. For Nature, the notion of the “spirit” does not refer to any divine, unearthly element, but rather to the simple act of breathing.

The poet questions whether Man, who prays and trusts in God’s love in spite of the evidence of Nature’s brutality (“Nature, red in tooth and claw”), will eventually be reduced to dust or end up preserved like fossils in rock: “And he, shall he, Man...Be blown about the desert dust, Or sealed within the iron hills?” The thought of this evokes a notion of the human condition as monstrous, and more terrifying to contemplate than the fate of prehistoric “dragons of the prime.” The speaker declares that life is futile and longs for his departed friend’s voice to soothe him and mitigate the effect of Nature’s callousness.


“In Memoriam” consists of 131 smaller poems of varying length. Each short poem is comprised of isometric stanzas. The stanzas are iambic tetrameter quatrains with the rhyme scheme ABBA, a form that has since become known as the “In Memoriam Stanza.” (Of course, Tennyson did not invent the form—it appears in earlier works such as Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle”—but he did produce an enduring and memorable example of it.) With the ABBA rhyme scheme, the poem resolves itself in each quatrain; it cannot propel itself forward: each stanza seems complete, closed. Thus to move from one stanza to the next is a motion that does not come automatically to us by virtue of the rhyme scheme; rather, we must will it ourselves; this force of will symbolizes the poet’s difficulty in moving on after the loss of his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam.


Tennyson wrote “In Memoriam” after he learned that his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a fever at the age of 22. Hallam was not only the poet’s closest friend and confidante, but also the fiance of his sister. After learning of Hallam’s death, Tennyson was overwhelmed with doubts about the meaning of life and the significance of man’s existence. He composed the short poems that comprise “In Memoriam” over the course of seventeen years (1833-1849) with no intention of weaving them together, though he ultimately published them as a single lengthy poem in 1850.

T.S. Eliot called this poem “the most unapproachable of all his [Tennyson’s] poems,” and indeed, the sheer length of this work encumbers one’s ability to read and study it. Moreover, the poem contains no single unifying theme, and its ideas do not unfold in any particular order. It is loosely organized around three Christmas sections (28, 78, and 104), each of which marks another year that the poet must endure after the loss of Hallam. The climax of the poem is generally considered to be Section 95, which is based on a mystical trance Tennyson had in which he communed with the dead spirit of Hallam late at night on the lawn at his home at Somersby.

“In Memoriam” was intended as an elegy, or a poem in memory and praise of one who has died. As such, it contains all of the elements of a traditional pastoral elegy such as Milton’s “Lycidas,” including ceremonial mourning for the dead, praise of his virtues, and consolation for his loss. Moreover, all statements by the speaker can be understood as personal statements by the poet himself. Like most elegies, the “In Memoriam” poem begins with expressions of sorrow and grief, followed by the poet’s recollection of a happy past spent with the individual he is now mourning. These fond recollections lead the poet to question the powers in the universe that could allow a good person to die, which gives way to more general reflections on the meaning of life. Eventually, the poet’s attitude shifts from grief to resignation. Finally, in the climax, he realizes that his friend is not lost forever but survives in another, higher form. The poem closes with a celebration of this transcendent survival.

“In Memoriam” ends with a an epithalamion, or wedding poem, celebrating the marriage of Tennyson’s sister Cecilia to Edmund Lushington in 1842. The poet suggests that their marriage will lead to the birth of a child who will serve as a closer link between Tennyson’s generation and the “crowning race.” This birth also represents new life after the death of Hallam, and hints at a greater, cosmic purpose, which Tennyson vaguely describes as “One far-off divine event / To which the whole creation moves.”

Not just an elegy and an epithalamion, the poem is also a deeply philosophical reflection on religion, science, and the promise of immortality. Tennyson was deeply troubled by the proliferation of scientific knowledge about the origins of life and human progress: while he was writing this poem, Sir Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology, which undermined the biblical creation story, and Robert Chambers published his early evolutionary tract, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. In “In Memoriam,” Tennyson insisted that we hold fast to our faith in a higher power in spite of our inability to prove God’s existence: “Believing where we cannot prove.” He reflects early evolutionary theories in his faith that man, through a process lasting millions of years, is developing into something greater. In the end, Tennyson replaces the doctrine of the immortality of the soul with the immortality of mankind through evolution, thereby achieving a synthesis between his profound religious faith and the new scientific ideas of his day.