hen Tennyson came to write In Memoriam, one of the most experimental and yet most influential poems of the century, he already had refined his characteristic basic poetic structure and needed a theme that would permit him to apply his gifts to a major form. Arthur Henry Hallam's death in 1833 provided Tennyson with one by forcing him to question his faith in nature, God, and poetry. In Memoriam reveals that Tennyson, who found that brief lyrics best embodied the transitory emotions that buffeted him after his loss, rejected conventional elegy and narrative because both falsify the experience of grief and recovery by mechanically driving the reader through too unified — and hence too simplified — a version of these experiences. Creating a poetry of fragments, Tennyson leads the reader of In Memoriam from grief and despair through doubt to hope and faith, but at each step stubborn, contrary emotions intrude, and one encounters doubt in the midst of faith, pain in the midst of resolution. Instead of the elegaic plot of Lycidas, Adonais, and Thyrsis, In Memoriam offers 133 fragments interlaced by dozens of images and motifs and informed by an equal number of minor and major resolutions, the most famous of which is section 95's representation of Tennyson's climactic, if wonderfully ambiguous, mystical experience of contact with Hallam's spirit. In addition, individual sections, like 7 and 119 or 28, 78, and 104 variously resonate with one another.
One of the central resolutions of In Memoriam involves the poet's plays upon the word type, which in the poem means either "biological species" or "divinely intended prefiguration of Christ." Typology (or typological symbolism) is a Christian form of biblical interpretation that proceeds on the assumption that God placed anticipations of Christ in the laws, events, and people of the Old Testament. Typology, which had enormous influence on medieval Europe, seventeenth- century England, and Victorian Britain, provided literature and art with an imaginatively rich iconography and particular conceptions of reality and time.
According to this way of understanding the Bible, Samson, who sacrificed his life for God's people, partially anticipates Christ, who repeats the action, endowing it with a deeper, more complete, more spiritual significance. Similarly, the scapegoat and the animals sacrificed in the Temple at Jerusalem, both of which atoned for man's sins, and Aaron, God's priest, are types.
Tennyson closes his elegy with the now calm assurance that Hallam "was a noble type / Appearing ere the times were ripe." In Memoriam resolves the crisis of faith precipitated by Hallam's death by presenting him doubly as a type, because he foreshadowed both the second appearance of Christ and the coming higher race of human beings. In making this characteristically Victorian — that is, characteristically idiosyncratic — use of biblical typology, Tennyson ³solves" the problem raised earlier in the poem where type means ³biological species." The central sections 54 through 56, which dramatize his groping for consolation, show how the poet's doubts raised increasingly appalling specters. He thus begins section 54 with trust that when God's plan is understood, all will see that not one life is ³cast as rubbish to the void," but even as he tries to assert this hopeful view, his doubts wear away his confidence. Retreating, he tries in the next section to find consolation in the fact that although nature may be careless of the individual life, she is nonetheless "careful of the type." In response to this last desperate hope that nature preserves the species if not the individual, section 56 immediately replies: “So careful of the type?" but no. / From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone / She cries, "A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go." Thus, his friend's death, which first made the poet realize the emotional reality of loss, soon forced him to realize the possibility that not only he himself but also the entire human species could die out. But, as the final sections of the poem make clear, Tennyson can accept the possibilty that man will become extinct because he has come to believe that such extinction would occur only when God was ready to replace man with a higher, more spiritual descendant. At the close of the poem, then, theological type replaces biological type, or rather encompasses it, because faith reveals that God's eternal plan includes purposeful biological development.
Tennyson, the real, once-existing man with his actual beliefs and fears, cannot be extrapolated from within the poem's individual sections, for each presents Tennyson only at a particular moment. In Memoriam thus fulfills Paul Valéry's definition of poetry as a machine that reproduces an emotion. Tennyson makes us re-experience an idealized version of his own separate experiences — and thereby become ready to accept the entirely subjective truths of religious belief.
Last modified 20 February 2010