A Critical Analysis of Tension’s In Memorial A. H. H.
During the Victorian Period, long held and comfortable religious beliefs
fell under great scrutiny. An early blow to these beliefs came from the
Utilitarian, followers of Jeremy Bantam, in the form of a test by reason of many
of the long-standing institutions of England, including the church. When seen
through the eyes of reason, religion became “merely an outmoded superstition”
(Ford ; Christ 896). If this were not enough for the faithful to contend with,
the torch of doubt was soon passed to the scientists. Geologists were
publishing the results of their studies which concluded that the Earth was far
older than the biblical accounts would have it (Ford ; Christ 897). Astronomers
were extending humanity’s knowledge of stellar distances, and Natural Historians
such as Charles Darwin were swiftly building theories of evolution that defied
the Old Testament version of creation (Ford & Christ 897). God seemed to be
dissolving before a panicked England’s very eyes, replaced by the vision of a
cold, mechanistic universe that cared little for our existence.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson was painfully aware of the implications of such a
universe, and he struggled with his own doubts about the existence of God. We
glimpse much of his struggles in the poem In Memorial A. H. H., written in
memory of his deceased friend, Arthur Hallam. The poem seemed to be cathartic
for Tennyson, for through its writing he not only found an outlet for his grief
over Hallam’s death, but also managed to regain the faith which seemed at times
to have abandoned him. Tennyson regained and firmly reestablished his faith
through the formation of the idea that God is reconciled with the mechanistic
universe through a divine plan of evolution, with Hallam as the potential link
to a greater race of humans yet to come.
In the first of many lyric units, Tennyson’s faith in God and Jesus
seems strong. He speaks of “Believing where we cannot prove” (l. 4), and is
sure that God “wilt not leave us in the dust” (l. 9). The increasing threat
posed to religion by science does not worry Tension here, as he believes that
our increasing knowledge of the universe can be reconciled with faith, saying:
“Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before” (1. 25-28).
He does anticipate doubt, though, as he asks in advance for God’s forgiveness
for the “Confusions of a wasted youth” (l. 42). Tennyson here foresees the
difficulties inherent in reconciling God with the cold universe slowly emerging
for the notes of scientists.
In order to deal with the tasks set before him, Tennyson must first
boldly face the possibility of a world without God. In stanza number three,
Sorrow, personified as a woman, whispers these disconcerting possibilities to a
grief-ridden Tennyson, saying, “And all the phantom, Nature, stands-… / A
hollow form with empty hands” (3.9, 12). He questions whether he should ”
embrace” or “crush” Sorrow with all her uncomfortable suggestions.
Tennyson goes on to face an even worse possibility than a lonely
universe, that being the possibility of an existence without meaning. In this
view, human life is not eternal, and everything returns to dust forever. God is
like “some wild poet, when he works / Without a conscience or an aim” (34.7-8).
Why even consider such a God, Tennyson asks, and why not end life all the sooner
if this vision of God is true (34.9-12)? He answers himself in the next poem,
however, as he banishes such a possibility on the evidence that love could never
exist in such a reality. What we consider to be love would actually be only be
a two-dimensional sense of “fellowship,” such as animals must feel, out of
boredom or crude sensuality (35.21-24)
The many poems which follow fluctuate between faith and doubt. In
poem fifty-four Tennyson consoles himself with the thought:
“That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hat made the pile complete” (54.5-9).
Line nine of poem fifty-four definitely assumes a plan for God’s creation,
humanity, and an end goal. In the next two poems, however, he returns to the
doubts which a scientific reading of nature inspires, and reminds himself that
though nature is “So careful of the type” (55.7), she is yet “careless of the
single life” (55.8). This notion of survival of the fittest is extremely
disconcerting to Tennyson. He notices in poem fifty-six the even more alarming
fact that many species have passed into oblivion, and that humans could very
well follow in their footsteps. This is the mechanistic “Nature, red in tooth
and claw,” (56.15) whose existence seemed beyond a care of human lives and human
needs. No longer were men God’s chosen and beloved, but, on the contrary, they
seemed no more noble than the countless scores of other life which had roamed
the planet and passed into extinction. Tennyson writes:
“O life as futile, then as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil” (56.25-28).
He feels, here, all too well the possibility of our own cosmic insignificance.
The one hope that remains for Tennyson lives in the thought that
evolution might actually be God’s divine plan for humanity. If we have, in fact,
developed to our present state from a lower form, then who is to say that
development has ceased? Might we not be evolving ever closer to God’s image and
divinity itself, leaving behind the “Satyr-shape” (35.22) and ape-like visage of
our ancestors? The fact that we love, as Tennyson mentioned before, separates
us from animals. To support this idea, Tennyson delves into his relationship
with Arthur Hallam, a figure linking humanity’s present condition to the
superior race yet to come. In poem sixty-four, Tennyson speaks of Hallam,
describing him with the words:
“And moving up from high to higher,
Becomes on Fortune’s crowning slope
The pillar of a people’s hope,
The center of a world’s desire” (64.13-16).
In subsequent sections, he speaks of the divinity present in Hallam, seeming to
compare him at times even to Jesus, as in poem eighty-four, where he writes, “I
see thee sitting crowned with good” (84.5), and, later, in unit eighty-seven, ”
…we saw / The God within him light his face, / And seem to lift the form, and
glow / In azure orbits heavenly-wise’ (87.35-37). Hallam, Tennyson suggests,
would have been a link not only between the present race and that which is to
come, but also between a world in turmoil and the God who will restore it to
peace. This notion of the division between chaotic nature and an ordered
divinity is metaphorically expressed through images of the spirit leaving the
body (47.6-7), the body, of course, being the physical entity prone to sickness
and weariness, and the spirit as the transcendent aspect which shall someday be
reunited with those in Heaven (47.9-16).
He speaks of the coming of the “thousand years of peace” (106.28),
presumably when the higher race is realized and all institutions have been
reformed for the “common love of good” (106.24). It is not yet time, though,
for this race to find fruition. He speaks of Hallam as “The herald of a higher
race” (118.14), suggesting that his friend was merely a glimpse of what is yet
to come. Humanity must yet “Move upward, working out the beast, And let the ape
and tiger die” (118.27-28). In other words, a nature now brutal and cold,
careless of life, will someday become, “High nature amorous of the good”
(109.10-11). These words suggest a slow process, not to be accomplished in the
life of merely one man, no matter how great he may be. Tennyson seems comforted
by the contemplation of the golden age to come, though, saying, “And all is well,
though faith and form / Be sundered in the night of fear” (127.1-2). Through
his contemplation, Tennyson seems to have renewed his faith that nature has not
been abandoned by God, though science would have us believe it so.
Finally, after addressing these doubts raised by science, Tennyson turns
his sights to the Utilitarian attack on religion. In poem 124, he explains that
one cannot come to God through reason, but must fell divinity. He writes:
“I found Him not in world or sun,
Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye,
Nor through the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun” (124.4-7).
Instead, Tennyson rediscovers his faith through the emotion, saying “I have felt”
(124.16). This statement harkens back to the passages in which Tennyson speaks
of love as the convincing factor that we are not alone, for without God, love
would be an excessive and unnecessary dimension, and thus would have no reason
to exist at all in a mechanistic universe.. His love for Hallam, and the hope
that they will someday meet again, is thus the tie which holds Tennyson to his
faith. Through Hallam, whom Tennyson says, “O’erlook’st the tumult for afar”
(127.19), he knows “all is well” (127.20).
With the epilogue, the private, intellectual wars of In Memoriam
conclude peacefully. Tennyson describes the wedding day of his sister and
suggests that the child resulting from the union will be yet “a closer link /
Betwixt us and the crowning race…No longer half-akin to brute” (127-28, 133).
He reminds us yet again that Hallum “Appeared ere the times were ripe” (139),
and thus merely anticipated that “far-off divine event, / To which the whole
creation moves” (143-44).
Ford, George H. and Carol T. Christ. “The Victorian Age”. The Norton
Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton and
Co., 1993. (pps. 891-910).
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. In Memoriam A. H. H.. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W.
W. Norton and Co., 1993. (pps. 1084-1133).