A Book of Answers XI: Alfred Tennyson And Arthur Henry Hallam

In Memoriam is not only one of the great poems of the language; it is a sort of miracle in the richness and variety its author was able to draw from a single theme and in the way it holds and increases interest without anything much in the way of narrative and only the simplest dramatic structure. It is also remarkable in the way Tennyson manages to sustain the level and tone of so many lyrics and so many variations on the theme of grief and loss. But I cannot help feeling that it is a little too long and that as it proceeds one can feel the author a little too consciously searching for new aspects of grief and loss to embroider and new images and ideas to extend aspects already treated. At section 60 he sails perilously close to the merely sentimental when he compares his love for his friend to that of a poor village girl for “one whose rank exceeds her own”. This “girly” metaphor recurs in section 97, where Tennyson pictures his spirit as the loving but ignorant wife of an intellectual man whose interests she cannot share. In spite of all Tennyson’s superb management of the verse, the result is disastrously comic. Unfortunately the picture he draws is only too true: he seems deliberately to have hampered his own intellectual development by trying to devote himself to Hallam’s youthful ideas. Hallam was by all accounts a youth of remarkable charm and great promise, but his published remains do not reveal a particularly original or unusual mind. On the other hand he seems to have had a good deal of common sense and good judgement for his age. He died at twenty-two.

Tennyson, in the later sections of the work, more and more often reverts to the idea that Hallam’s spirit is close to him and communicating unseen with his. I have taken the next step of having him actually appear to give Alfred a little friendly advice.

I am glad he took it, even if it was never proffered. He is a peerless poet, after all.

Alfred Tennyson To Arthur Henry Hallam (In Memoriam XCVII)

My love has talk’d with rocks and trees;
He finds on misty mountain-ground
His own vast shadow glory-crown’d;
He sees himself in all he sees.

Two partners of a married life—
I look’d on these and thought of thee
In vastness and in mystery,
And of my spirit as of a wife.

These two—they dwelt with eye on eye,
Their hearts of old have beat in tune,
Their meetings made December June,
Their every parting was to die.

Their love has never past away;
The days she never can forget
Are earnest that he loves her yet,
Whate’er the faithless people say.

Her life is lone, he sits apart,
He loves her yet, she will not weep,
Tho’ rapt in matters dark and deep
He seems to slight her simple heart.

He thrids the labyrinth of the mind,
He reads the secret of the star,
He seems so near and yet so far,
He looks so cold: she thinks him kind.

She keeps the gift of years before,
A wither’d violet is her bliss:
She knows not what his greatness is,
For that, for all, she loves him more.

For him she plays, to him she sings
Of early faith and plighted vows;
She knows but matters of the house,
And he, he knows a thousand things.

Her faith is fixt and cannot move,
She darkly feels him great and wise,
She dwells on him with faithful eyes,
“I cannot understand: I love.”

Arthur Henry Hallam To Alfred Tennyson

Forgive me, friend, if I find fault;
I grant your In Memoriam
A noble tribute, yet I am
Compelled at last to cry a halt.

Two partners of a married lot?
No, Alfred, this will never do!
Perforce I must appear to view,
Whether I startle you or not,

To say: the more your poem grows,
The more you ply your handkerchief,
The less you will inspire belief
In such prolonged and varied woes.

I trust I shall not make you cross
If I remark: you seem to be
Moved more by ingenuity
Than by irreparable loss.

Two years of moaning at the bar;
Two years you held the grave in fee;
Now this preposterous simile
Demonstrates you have gone too far.

Alfred, you cannot be my bride!
Not, though in this world or the next,
In female lineaments trans-sexed,
In petticoats transmogrified.

And was there any need to set
Yourself so low that in my house
You gave my spirit to espouse
So witless a domestic pet?

Alfred, you are not such an ass!
Or have you grazed the graveyard plot
So obstinately long that what
I feared indeed has come to pass?

That, having sworn to dedicate
Yourself to my ideas, a kind
Of suttee of your “widowed mind”
Has now become its constant state?

I was a likely lad, I own,
But has it not occurred to you,
The views I formed at twenty-two
I must by now have quite outgrown,

While yours to those green precepts bound
Must now be stultified for life,
Doomed, not unlike a Chinese wife,
On crippled feet to hobble round?

Come now, renounce this morbid task
To be the slave of death, at most
The ghostly consort of a ghost;
Put off the foolish girlish mask;

Make me no more your guiding star
Nor shine with my reflected light:
Blaze forth, my friend, in your own right
The peerless poet that you are!

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