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Zayd Hayani
Ms. Sonni
English II
16.3.2011
Death has a reputation of being a destroyer of lives. In the case of Lord Alfred Tennyson, his
surroundings of death and depression led him to creating beautiful poetry. The several unrelated deaths of
Alfred’s Tennyson family and friends throughout his early life sculpted the dramatic mood shifts in the
poem In Memoriam. This poem is an elegy of the death of his dearest friend, Hallam (“Alfred, Lord Tennyson”
621). Despite the depressed and melancholic tone at the beginning of the poem, there is an eminent shift of
mood that reflects Tennyson’s changed attitude in his personal life. The Victorian Era also played a part in the
creation of Tennyson’s work. Victorian England was a turbulent time where factors such as the Crimean War,
the Industrial Revolution, and political turmoil impacted the average citizen’s life (Evans). Tennyson also
impacted the style of Victorian Poetry and became acquaintances with Queen Victoria herself (“Tennyson as
Poet”). His works included monologues, plays, poems, and prescriptive works. The traumatic events in Lord
Alfred Tennyson’s life directly correlate to the shift of mood throughout the poem In Memoriam.
Nothing better describes the life Lord Alfred Tennyson than a seemingly endless night followed by
dawn. Tennyson was born on August 6, 1809 in Somersby, England to a large family. His family consisted of
eight sons and four daughters, and Alfred’s father, Reverend George Clayton Tennyson, was a successful
businessman. Tennyson began his poetry career early and started writing pieces when he was 12. He
attended Cambridge University for a few years before dropping out due to the death of his father in 1831.
Prior to the death, however, Tennyson joined a discussion group named the Apostles, where he met his
valued friend, Hallam. Tennyson then published intermittent, criticized works such as “The Palace of Art,”
until the death of Hallam sent him spiraling into depression. (“Alfred Tennyson”) Alfred didn’t publish
anything for ten years, but then broke from the shell of depression and regret he built for himself and
released masterpieces such as The Princess and Ulysses (“Tennyson as Poet”). He also fell in love with and
married Mary Sellwood (“Alfred Tennyson”). Tennyson later was honored with the title Poet Laureate, the
official government appointed poet, under Queen Elizabeth in 1850, the same year that he published In
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Memoriam. A journalist for the London Journal named James Hunt claimed that Tennyson was “entitled to it
above any other man in the kingdom”. Because of this privilege, Lord Tennyson became engaged in the life of
Queen Elizabeth, often travelling to Buckingham Palace and reading to her aloud. (“Tennyson as Poet”) He
also read some of his works in public for all to hear, a kind of “soapbox” style of expression (“Alfred, Lord
Tennyson” 621).
In Memoriam is the fruit of Tennyson’s dark labor. After ten years of focusing entirely on his
literature in isolation, Tennyson emerges as a new man with a new outlook on life. He publishes In Memoriam
eight years after his emergence back into the career of literature. In Memoriam is an elegy based on the
memory of Hallam, Tennyson’s best friend. (“Alfred Tennyson”) The poem is a carefully crafted, extensive
piece of literature where form is very important. The poem begins with Tennyson’s melancholic and dark
tone expressing his depression and loneliness. After the 130th canto, the mood of the poem shifts to a more
content, loving attitude. This shift represents a change in the way Alfred views the death of his friend. By the
end of the work, Tennyson feels love towards his deceased companion; “[His] love is a vaster passion now”
(Tennyson 130.10). The shift of tone in In Memoriam corresponds to the coping of Tennyson’s grief of losing a
loved one.
Through several of his powerful works, Tennyson conveys his inner emotional turmoil. Because
Tennyson is surrounded by death in many parts of his life, a sense of emptiness is shown in In Memoriam. The
trauma of Alfred losing his father causes Tennyson to spiral into a state of solidarity and loneliness. The guilt
and remorse that Alfred experiences is seen clearly in the first half of In Memoriam. He feels as though he is in
a “Dark house, by which once more [he] stand[s] / Here in the long unlovely street” (Tennyson 7.1-2). The
street in this line represents his own life. The heavy and morbid tone of his poems intensifies as he walks
down the “street” and overcomes these “dark houses,” or traumatic obstacles in his life. In this poem, he seeks
for a hand to help him, but to no avail. At this point in his life, Lord Alfred Tennyson feels as though he is
useless. This internal turmoil causes him to detach himself from the community that he so rapidly destroyed.
The darkness of the first half of this poem is attributed to this seclusion. As Tennyson realizes that the world
has no joy, no satisfaction, and nothing to offer him, the tone of In Memoriam grows gloomy and foreboding.
There is a turning point in the mood of the poem, however. After verse 106, the poem begins to shift
(Tennyson 106.1-32). It begins to have a more positive and accepting atmosphere. Almost every line in the
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verse starts with the word “Ring”, such as “Ring out the old, ring in the new” (Tennyson 106.5). “Ring”,
meaning “Bring”, signifies the change in attitude of the author. He is showing that now after his 10 years
seclusion, he is a new man. He is finally breaking out of his own shell and taking on the world with a new
perspective. The mood of the poem from this point on is vastly different. Tennyson, instead of talking about
dark houses, now talks about running waters and the rising sun. This is because Tennyson has accepted
Hallam’s death and uses it to build his new life. He describes his love for Hallam as “mixed with God and
Nature” (Tennyson 130.11). Tennyson is now more in touch with religion. He recognizes his whole situation
as a step in finding his faith. He wants to “Ring in the Christ to be” (Tennyson 106.32) and forget the “the
faithless coldness of the times” (Tennyson 106.18). This switch is a refreshing change that relates to any
reader’s struggles. The process of grieving and coping that is represented in this poem can relate to anybody’s
life. Queen Victoria even used In Memoriam along with the bible to cope with the death of her husband
(“Alfred Tennyson”). Tennyson uses outlets such as searching for faith and loving unconditionally, dead or
alive, in order to manage and overcome his depression. In this way, Tennyson’s simple elegy is transformed
into a universal account on how to cope with loss in any situation.
Lord Tennyson not only wrote about morbid topics, but also he touched on the role of women and
religion. Tennyson’s poetry was clearly impacted by the inclusion of the woman he loved in his life. In 1850,
Tennyson was at the peak of his career. Not only did he marry the love of his life, Emily Sellwood, but he also
was appointed Poet Laureate and published In Memoriam. Tennyson’s stance on the duties of a woman is best
described as “conflicting.” He believed that it was the responsibility of a woman to carry on her nurturing
duties, but also to be concerned about beauty and sexuality. (“Alfred Tennyson”) It seems as though Tennyson
respects women and has a soft, unbiased perspective on their function in society. Likewise, Tennyson’s stance
on religion is not clearly stated. Although Victorian England was officially Christian, Tennyson’s faith is vague
(“Tennyson and Religion”). He does bring up the concept of God and Christ in several of his works, but he
never references Catholicism or Protestantism. Due to all of the emotional turmoil in his life at the time,
Tennyson may have lost track of organized religion. Tennyson’s views on both women and faith are askew in
many aspects, but stick to the core ideas of his being, goodness and change.
Tennyson’s works reflect both his inner struggles and the shared mood of the Victorian age. The
Victorian Era was a time when England was in the heat of the Industrial Revolution. The lifestyle of most
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working families was not ideal. The working conditions in factories were dirty, dangerous, and degrading.
Although Tennyson was not a factory worker, the collective mood of England may have affected his lifestyle.
Life expectancy averaged at 48 years old, which is why Tennyson felt as though his world was closing in on
him. (Evans) This short expectancy may have also have been related to the fact that Tennyson started writing
at such a young age. He wrote his first work, a 6,000-line epic, at age 12 (“Alfred Tennyson”). There was a lot
of political turmoil in England at the time, as well. The political system was becoming increasingly
representative and democratic (Evans). This shift of political oversight may have promoted Alfred Tennyson’s
blooming ideas and led him to becoming the English Poet Laureate (“Tennyson as Poet”). Also, the
government was not very repressive and censored as it has been in the past. This allowed Tennyson to be free
with his thoughts and, for instance, read his poems aloud to the public.The main event, however, that
impacted Tennyson’s writing was the Crimean war. Tennyson views the Crimean war as a gruesome, terrible
event. His poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is based on the war and depicts the bloody defeat of the
British soldiers in a narrow valley. Lord Tennyson uses the term “Valley of Death” to describe this
battleground (Kishlansky, Geary, and O’Brien 707). Tennyson also reflects upon the war in his fictional
narrative, Maud and Other Poems. In this work, a character named Maud goes to fight in Crimea due to the
notion that the violence of war will compensate for the accidental manslaughter of his love’s brother. (“Alfred
Tennyson”) The Crimean War brought with it nationalism. This patriotism is seen in Tennyson’s “Queen
Mary”, “Harold”, and “Becket.” These plays were written after Tennyson had established a relationship with
Queen Victoria and been bestowed Poet Laureate. The historic and nostalgic nature of these plays written in
Tennyson’s older years show a side of him that is patriotic and noble. This is not the depressed Alfred
Tennyson that was rejected by his own self.
Having a deeply intense writing style, emotional past, and rugged physique, Lord Alfred Tennyson
has been described by many as the model for all Victorian Romantic poets (“Alfred, Lord Tennyson” 620-21).
He let his flaws and misfortunes drive him towards success. Working with a past littered with death, isolation,
and depression, Tennyson produced poems that let the reader explore his soul. In Memoriam showcases the
universal coping process that must be used in order to live life fully after a traumatic event and “Ring in the
love of truth and right” (Tennyson 106.23). The political turmoil in 19th century England correlated with the
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inner turmoil of Tennyson’s life. Tennyson truly let his internal anguish, pride, depression, and recovery
bleed on the pages from which he constructed In Memoriam.
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Works Cited
“Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” Adventures in English Literature. Pegasus ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. 620621. Print.
“Alfred Tennyson.” Gale Biography in Context. N.p., 12 Dec. 1998. Web. 15 Feb. 2011. <http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/
bic1/ReferenceDetailsPage/
ReferenceDetailsWindow?displayGroupName=Reference&prodId=BIC1&action=e&windowstate=normal&cat
Id=&documentId=GALE%7CK1631006435&mode=view&userGroupName=dari14134&jsid=a8b53ae8d62a7
ea5def3bdf6e2db9717>.
Evans, Eric. “Overview: Victorian Britain, 1837 - 1901.” BBC History. N.p., 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.
<http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/overview_victorians_01.shtml>.
Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary, and Patricia O’Brien. “Building Nations: The Politics of Unification.” Civilization in the
West. Ed. Janet Lanphier. 6th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2006. 707. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred. “In Memoriam.” Adventures in English Literature. By Jovanovich. Pegasus ed. Orlando: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1989. 633-635. Print.
“Tennyson and Religion.” Cambridge Authors. N.p., 2011. Web. 13 Mar. 2011. <http:/http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/
cambridgeauthors/tennyson-and-religion>.
“Tennyson as Poet Laureate.” Cambridge Authors. N.p., 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/
cambridgeauthors/tennyson-as-poet-laureate>.
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