Decorative Initial T he use of illustrative language is important for any poet. Alfred Lord Tennyson, through his choice of words, not only paints vivid pictures and narrates his stories but also subtly expresses important emotions. In "The Holy Grail," Tennyson links the appearance of blinding light to the experience of strong emotional revelations, most notably when Galahad sits in Merlin's chair and the Holy Grail appears to him in a beam of light "seven times more clear than day"

In In Memoriam, Tennyson again uses imagery to not only progress his narrative, but also to express the emotions associated with each of the scenes he illustrates.

From section II

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
     That name the under-lying dead,
     Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

The seasons bring the flower again,
     And bring the firstling to the flock;
    &; in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.

O, not for thee the glow, the bloom,
     Who changest not in any gale,
     Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
     Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
     I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

Here, the yew tree stands above graves. The roots of the tree intermingle with the bones of the deceased. Tennyson has the tree perform the function of a head stone when he describes the tree's roots as cradling the "dreamless head" of the "under-lying dead." But he uses the tree as an emotional indicator when he describes it as "sullen" and "stubborn." We can picture the speaker standing before the tree that is growing over the bones of his deceased friend, but we can also feel the mournful emotions associated with the situation and the passing of time as illustrated through various images in the second and third stanzas.

In section 95, Tennyson again uses a tree to frame his scene and evoke the appropriate emotion. As the speaker is left alone outside a home after a gathering or party, his mind wanders back to the painful memory of his lost friend. Tennyson uses the passing of the breeze through a sycamore tree to illustrate the wave of emotion passing through the speaker;

Till now the doubtful dusk reveal'd
     The knolls once more where, couch'd at ease,
     The white kine glimmer'd, and the trees
Laid their dark arms about the field:

And suck'd from out the distant gloom
     A breeze began to tremble o'er
     The large leaves of the sycamore,
And fluctuate all the still perfume,

And gathering freshlier overhead,
     Rock'd the full-foliaged elms, and swung
     The heavy-folded rose, and flung
The lilies to and fro, and said

'The dawn, the dawn,' and died away;
     And East and West, without a breath,
     Mixt their dim lights, like life and death,
To broaden into boundless day.

The sycamore tree and the speaker are both initially calm; the tree with its arms "laid� about the field" and the speaker sitting in the dark. But slowly the breeze builds just as the emotion of memory builds in the speaker's mind. Words like "distant," "tremble," "fluctuate," "and gather" evoke the sense of ominous and building tension. Then phrases like "swung the heavy-folded rose," and "flung the lilies to and fro" explain the crashing of the breeze and emotion through the scene. (Simply reading the passage does the imagery more justice than my explanation).

Since poems are far more concise than prose, each word of a poem is important. Because of this, poets must make their words not only bring a scene to life in their readers' minds, but also evoke emotion and tell a story. Tennyson nearly masters this.

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Last modified 3 February 2009