Tennyson's In Memoriam, A.H.H.: Overview of 'In Memoriam' Stanzas

Tennyson's In Memoriam, A.H.H.:  Overview of 'In Memoriam' Stanzas
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  • 0:05 In Memoriam A.H.H.
  • 5:46 From Start to Finish
  • 10:00 Critical Controversy
  • 11:01 Legacy
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 'In Memoriam, A.H.H.' stands as one of the finest examples of elegy in the English language. Watch our lesson to learn all about this masterpiece, including its possible contradictions!

In Memoriam A.H.H.

'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all. You probably think that's Shakespeare, because Shakespeare's a pretty safe guess when things are prettily written and recognizable, but it's actually not true in this case. This is a case where guessing Shakespeare would be wrong. This is from Alfred Tennyson's poem In Memoriam A.H.H., so that's debunked right there - it's like Mythbusters: EPA.

Given the usual context that that quote might turn up in, you might think that it's about a romantic relationship gone awry, but it's actually not. So, myth #2 debunked. The 'A.H.H.' in the title is actually Tennyson's dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died of a brain hemorrhage in 1833, which was very sad. You might still think that they had a romance gone awry in some way, but no, they were just friends.

Hallam was Tennyson's closest companion, and it really hit Tennyson hard when Hallam died. It took him a while to get over it. As a result, he's writing this poem, In Memoriam A.H.H., and it took him 17 years - he's adding to it gradually as he goes along, and he eventually completes it in 1849. He's working on it basically from Hallam's death and then finally publishes it in 1849.

In a lot of ways, you can look at In Memoriam as being sort of loosely organized, as if it's a bunch of different small poems strung together. In Memoriam does really focus on Tennyson's search for solace and a way to find hope after the death of his friend. It's really personal (because it's part of his process towards fixing himself), but it also reflects a lot of the questions about religion that were milling around in Victorian society, particularly because Victorian people were almost like us - well, not really, but in the 1800s, 1850s or so, you're getting a lot of science. You're getting people having more accurate ideas about the age of the Earth and of evolution - Darwin is working at this time. So people start wondering about how much you can trust religion, how you can reconcile these things.

The poem was written in memory of Arthur Henry Hallam.
Arthur Henry Hallam

This comes up a lot, in the context of death and God's relationship to that, in this poem. It's a major preoccupation, even among some of the more personal reflections. There's a handy word that people use to describe things like this - it's called theodicy (not The Odyssey), which is an attempt to reconcile how a fair god can let bad things happen. In this case, how can God let a really cool young man die?

Including prologue and epilogue, In Memorium is broken down into 133 cantos, which are just little mini-poems, essentially. As we mentioned earlier, the cantos all take on different subjects kind of united by Hallam's death. The poem is primarily held together by its structure. Each canto is built up of different stanzas, and each stanza is composed in iambic tetrameter - you might have heard of iambic pentameter - tetrameter is just four units, four iambs per line instead of five. It's a little bit shorter. Each foot, or iamb, is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, and each stanza follows an ABBA rhyme structure. So the first and last lines rhyme and the two inner lines rhyme. Actually, because of this poem, this stanza form is now called the 'In Memoriam Stanza' - that's a fun fact.

We can take a look at a sample canto - this is Canto 5, which has 3 stanzas - just to see how this works in practice:

I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel:

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,

A use in measured language lies;

The sad mechanic exercise,

Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

And words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,

Like coarsest clothes against the cold;

But that large grief which these enfold

Is given in outline and no more.

So you can hear the rhythm, right? I SOMEtimes HOLD it HALF a SIN - that's four feet of 'da-DUMs,' so that's the iambic tetrameter - and the rhyme, you've got 'sin' and then 'within' in the last line, and then 'feel' and 'reveal' in the inner two. More importantly, you can see that, among the many things Tennyson talks about in this poem, one of the key themes, and what he addresses here, is that he's really struggling with language's ability to express his grief. He's saying that he feels guilty trying to express it because language isn't adequate.

He turns, in the latter two stanzas, to actually saying that, while language might not be adequate, it has a kind of healing power. The attempt to write this poem and work through his feelings in this way - he's wrapping himself over with the weeds. They're not necessarily comforting - he calls them the coarsest clothes - but it's doing something. It might not be expressing the grief, but it is doing something. That's an example of one of the many things he talks about in this poem.

In Memoriam from Start to Finish

Now we're going to go through the general progression of the cantos. They're written at different times and cover different subjects, but we can break them down into the general flow of the content of the poem. The prologue, which some people thought was probably written last, begins by addressing Jesus (as all good things that struggle with religion probably do). The narrator is actually seeking forgiveness for any doubt in God that may be expressed in the ensuing poem. That's good, because there's going to be a ton of doubt. Doubt is all over this thing, so I guess it's good that he asks forgiveness ahead of time. Who knows?

The First Quarter (Cantos 1-29)

The first quarter of the poem - 29 cantos - closely examines Tennyson's own grief. These are typically pretty personal reflections dealing with topics like burial and his own survivor's guilt - we saw a little bit of that in Canto 5, the one read above. Among these first cantos is the famous line I quoted at the beginning about loving and losing. That's in Canto 27. This is, again, the more personal part of the progression.

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