uestions of genre matter about In Memoriam because we tend to read according to certain definite genre rules, taking, for instance, something we recognize as satire very differently from something we categorize as a love poem, a tragedy, or an epic. Tennyson's great experimental poem reconceives the traditional elegy, which it blends with other genres, including ordinary lyric, epic, dream vision, landscape meditations, dramatic monologues, and so on. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines elegy, which comes from the Greek elegeia, "lament," as a "lyric, usually formal in tone and diction, suggested either by the death of an actual person or by the poet's contemplation of the tragic aspects of life. In either case, the emotion, originally expressed as a lament, finds consolation in the contemplation of some permanent principle."

Many of the most famous elegies in English, including Milton's "Lycidas" (1637), Shelley's "Adonais" (1821), and Arnold's "Thyrsis" (1867) participate in the tradition of the pastoral idyll or ecologue, which dates back to Greek Moschus's "Lament for Bion" and the first idyll of Theocritus by way of Vergil's enormously influential Ecologues. This genre, whose action unfolds in an idealized country setting populated by shepherds and shepherdesses, employs particularly elevated formal diction and follows a ritualized progression. Pastoral elegy contains, for example, an announcement of a death, a mourning procession by denizens of the woodland, who may include shepherdesses and nymphs, a complaint to nature, until a final ritualistic resolution occurs. By alluding to pastoral elegies, In Memoriam in some sense aligns itself with this genre at the same time that its very different form and method challenges it.

One sign of Tennyson's combination of radically untraditional and traditional appears in the style — or rather styles — of In Memoriam, for unlike its predecessors, this poem varies from section to section as it embodies or alludes to a range of genres. Consequently, some of the sections employ plain style with simple, everyday diction, whereas others, which draw upon Spenser and Keats, emphasize lush, sensuous language. Similarly, the poem also manipulates its simple stanzaic form (abba) with astonishing virtuosity, sections sometimes consisting of only one or two long sentences whereas other sections use very short sentences. Some sections adapt the style and diction of sonnets, others resemble pastorals, yet others take the form of dialogues, and so on.

Throughout, Tennyson weaves his extremely varied styles and allusions to various genres together with chains of images and motifs, which in Tennysonian manner combine the simple and the complex: in isolation, most images, like most of the sections in which they appear, seem fairly simple and straightforward, but their participation in a network of repeated and often contrasted images makes almost every one of them resonate with additional meaning and complexity.

Last modified 20 February 2010