Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Tennyson was crushed by the death of his dear friend Arthur Hallam at the age of 22 in 1833. Hallam was his best friend and his sister's fiance. Dedicated to Hallam, In Memoriam A.H.H. is a lengthy poem cycle of 132 individual poems which he wrote over the course of 17 years. It is a stunning exploration of life, grief, loss, man's place in the universe, and the implications of the then new sciences like geology, astronomy, and paleontology on the meaning of life. It is also responsible for introducing a number of famous phrases, now cliches a century later, into the English language, like "better to have loved and lost" and "ring out the old, ring in the new".

Since this is quite a long poem, I may not even node the whole thing, but I'll probably get around to it eventually. I will start seemingly at random by noding the best and most famous sections first, because, well, I feel like it. Suggested starting places are In Memoriam 27 and In Memoriam 54

My thoughts on this poem

The poem was summed up well by a friend:

He died
It was a bugger.

The poem is of course about more than just death but it can be a depressing read - Tennyson was a depressed sort of person. He had two brothers: one was an opium addict and the other went nuts. His father also went crazy I think. Tennyson was susceptible to wild mood swings, and he was generally extremely emotioanal. This emotion really comes across in his poems.

In Memoriam's full title is 'In Memoriam A.H.H.' with the initials standing for Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam was Tennyson's close friend at Cambridge (Trinity College), and they were both members of the Apostles. Many have speculated on the nature of their friendship, yet it was unlikely they were homosexual - the alleged sexual imagery in the poem simply reveals a very close friendship. In fact in one section Tennyson uses the analogy of a father losing his son, a mother losing her son or a woman losing her boyfriend.

The poem some great lines, one of which is the phrase "'Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all." The phrase comes from section 27. Also, Queen Victoria found great solace in the poem after the death of her husband and made Tennyson the Poet Laureate.

It is difficult to consider In Memoriam as a single poem, in that its different sections are linked only in their structure: their themes vary, and can be said to converge only at specific points. Yet despite this, the fragmented structure itself reflects Tennyson’s incoherent mental state, consisting of antithetical ideas.

It would be unfeasible to hope for a perfectly cohesive poem when the poem itself is about doubt and uncertainty. T.S. Eliot (who taught at my school, if anyone cares) called In Memoriam, “a long poem made by putting together lyrics, which have only the unity and continuity of a diary of a man confessing himself.” The petrarchan quatrains are indeed simple, but Tennyson manages to vary the language and style in such a way that his entire range of emotions is expressed easily.

I feel that the uniform nature of the stanzas (quatrains are used throughout the poem) reveals two things: Tennyson’s difficulty in expressing his grief, and society’s scorn at his sense of loss. These ideas manifest themselves in Section 21, when he describes the writing of the poem as taking “the grasses of the grave,” and making “them pipes whereon to blow.” Society responds by ridiculing him, saying, “this fellow would make weakness weak,/ And melt the waxen hearts of men.”

The context?

Victorian society at the time was a restrictive and image-conscious: going through a period of cultural upheaval, it had little time for seemingly pointless eulogies. By forcing his emotions into a rigidly structured four-line pattern, Tennyson is commenting on the difficulty of revealing oneself to a hostile and indifferent public who require decorum and protocol.

The structural rigidity also expresses Tennyson’s effort to express an intense emotion with mere words. This concern is voiced outright in section 5, where he writes, “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.” So Tennyson must grapple not only with his themes but also with language itself, which he has begun to doubt following Hallam’s death. This distrust in his own words is a symptom of his insecurities.

Tennyson’s crisis of faith cannot be solely attributed to Hallam’s death: Victorian society was entering a period where Darwinism challenged conventional beliefs, and the death of his friend was, in one sense, simply verification for Tennyson that his beliefs were not necessarily watertight. In section 54 Tennyson says cynically, “Oh yet we trust that somehow good/ Will be the final goal of ill.” This sense of desperation, shown in the onomatopoeic exclamation that opens the stanza, slowly fades by section 55 when the underlying doubt emerges and Tennyson seems to accept that death is inevitable.

Yet despite this acceptance of death, he still hopes for a higher being of some sort. He writes, “I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,/ Ands gather dust and chaff, and call/ To what I feel is Lord of all,/ And faintly trust the larger hope.” The use of the word “grope” suggests that Tennyson feels unable to see God’s pattern, but acknowledges its presence – that is, he convinces himself that good does indeed come out of ill, and the poem’s focus changes.

What does it all mean?

Tennyson, instead of faltering where he “firmly trod,” and questioning God’s existence, tries to understand the manner in which this “larger hope” operates. Is the hope nature? Is it an omnipotent God? The juxtaposition of two stanzas – one discussing God, the other Nature – reveals Tennyson’s despair: the only way in which he can understand the force that took away his friend is to personify it, and in the process, bring it down to his level. “Are God and Nature then at strife?” he asks in section 55, and this desire to attribute death to a force seems to represent a desire for order and structure in his life: Tennyson cannot bear the thought that in this world people die for no reason, alone, left as “desert dust.”

Section 64 is composed of a single question, and this tone simply reflects his continuing uncertainty, but the most interesting aspect of this section is his portrayal of Hallam as a successful man who throwing off social barriers (he “grapples with his evil star” – the astrological image suggesting a rejection of divine providence), becomes the “pillar of a people’s hope.”

This characterization is revealing because, like section 55, it again shows Tennyson’s underlying desire for a higher power: his description of Hallam’s ascent to success seems to reveal his desperate hope for Heaven, and his conditional optimism.

Taking Victorian social mobility as an image, Tennyson uses this section as a reassurance to himself, although the contradictory nature of images shows the confusion within his mind – at points, Tennyson seems to seek solace in the hope that man controls himself, and is no slave to destiny. At other times, however, he is frightened by this loneliness, and tries to comfort himself by weaving images that suggest man’s ultimate insignificance. This ambiguity is clearest in section 64, where these ideas mingle to form a passage, which like Tennyson’s world, is disjointed and inconsistent.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

“In Flanders fields, the poppies grow,
Between the crosses, row by row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

- John McCrae

This is the fire of a devil gone mad.

That is what you tell yourself as you watch, with eyes gone numb from bitter shock, the leap of flames over a corpse of steel, and the black of smoke; as you hear, firsthand, the terror of anguished screams that number one, a dozen, several, amidst the crack of shattered glass, the crunch of tumbling girders, of marble floors and concrete floors, of people and of people trapped, crying for help that will not come; and the shrieks, and the wails and the cries of an infinite multitude choke you with their pain, blind you with their fear, as a horror of hells come close together, mixed and intermixed with the roar of an inferno claiming conquest and dominion –

And then the sudden relinquishment of sound and all sound; a cessation of hope, and all hope of hope: a silence so deep you cannot hear the towers as they plunge, collapse and fall apart, crumbling to rubble and ruin, as far below the fires blaze to black man’s last testament to greatness, with all the rage, all the hate, all the fury, of an Atlas come to raze Olympus – while all the while you stand there and shake your head in numb disbelief, as you watch the crowning jewel of an empire sicken and fall to decay in a matter of seconds, burnt, in the minds of those who perpetrated this, long before this ever happened: in ashes long before it burst into flame.

The date is September 11, 2001, and you have just borne witness to the bloodiest stain in the memory of man.

I would be the first to agree that revisiting the scene of the most terrible massacre of our time is not the best way to begin an article on ‘peace’. But, then, how else could I possibly begin? Peace, of all of man’s abstract notions, is probably the only one that is defined purely by the absence of its opposite. To begin any other way is to attempt to imply that good is independent of the notion of bad, love from the brand of hate, courage and valour from the reality of fear and cowardice, when in truth not one of these can survive without the other. Just as truth is distinguished only by the absence of lies, so too is peace true warmth only as long as war is cold.

It is fitting, then, to begin by describing war as a prelude to peace: as an acknowledgment of the many lives that have been lain to rest, buried, cremated, and left to rot in every war that man has claimed will root out peace from where it hides; an acknowledgment of the many starving and the poor, the orphans, the handicaps, the mothers without daughters formed anew in the wake of war; an acknowledgment of man’s insistence on violence as a method of peace, and of hate as an act of love for a God, a country, a people. To deny or diminish these facts, to erase conflict and expunge the memory of war from our minds in the name of seeking peace – to claim anything other than this saddest of all truths in man’s violent, often cyclical history: that war lies at the heart of the dichotomy of love and hate – is to impress upon the dead the insult of victim to causes out of our hands, and to question every right, we have to call ourselves human; not least because, by doing so, we overlook just how far man’s brutality exceeds his nobility,, but because we become, in that instant, incapable of preventing the germ of war seeding in our hearts. Our only defense against the sins of the past becoming the crimes of the present is our memory – to lose that is to make, upon the same page of history, every scratch, tear, blot and bloodstain that will, at once and eventually, be the coffins of our civilizations.

I remember Bangkok. I remember, with a clarity more disturbing than most, the sight of skyscrapers longing to scrape the sun; the chatter of a busy street; the gusts of air that marked the passing of a nearby car; the vision of a home built on stilts, on rivers and in cities; of commerce, trade and inimitable success. If I remember the people, I remember them as they seemed to me then: as a nation of happy, contented people, immune to hate or dislike, eager to smile, and laugh, and be, in every sense, the Land of Smiles. There was, within the confines of that vast, sprawling city, more camaraderie, more love, more manners than any place I have ever known – if I am proud of anything at all, I am proudest of the fact that I grew up there, spending ten glorious years among a people that were surely the most peaceful in the world. Even as I came to accept India, my homeland, for what it was, I could not help remembering, with a rueful smile, Bangkok, which I will always consider as my first home, if not my current one.

So, you see, when the riots broke out an year ago, I couldn’t believe it.

The pain of watching your home ransacked and set ablaze by strangers you once knew is no less diminished when you hear of it a thousand miles away – you suffer all the more because you know that you can do nothing to stop the madness that has infected the world. Gone: the mall where I once spent a portion of my youth looking for bargains, torn to pieces by passing rioters, leaving behind only a marble statue of the Buddha that stood outside it, as some ironic cosmic joke. Gone: the street along which I was once driven to school - nothing now except a pile of rusted metal, and mangled, broken homes. Gone: a section of the city I once lived in drowned in a tide of blood and charred bodies. Gone: every shred of the world I had once known, and loved, and cherished.

I do not know how to tell you what I felt then: how to put in words the savage anger that hit me then, that had me shaking from head to toe, or the misery that swamped me in its embrace, as I beheld before my eyes, war in a city I had thought least likely to wage it – the sadness of being proven wrong, again and again and again, about the nature of man at his deepest, his most fundamental, most primal self. I remember thinking one and only one question: what creature could be more terrible, when he has, at once, the kind face of an angel - and beneath it, all the while, the arms of Judas himself?

In less than a century, man has moved from tribal wars almost to the brink of extinction. If he now craves peace, it is probably because the alternative is to invite total self-annihilation, fueled by the streaking of nuclear warheads across azure skies; the deployment of submarines beneath oceans meant to sty blue forever; beneath clouds that will, for a moment, stream mush-room like over the cities, the valleys, the rivers of the world – and then quietly disperse, over the graveyard of a ruined world.

Yet none of this – this counting of people lost and lives wrecked, this toll of fortunes vanished and futures destroyed, this portrait of the world set on the edge of a cliff, this incipient pessimism that may, inadvertently, have seeped in through my words – should mean that peace in its own right is not an ideal worth striving for. Peace, in its way, is freedom: freedom from the chains of hatred that pull men so often to the gutters, that transform the most ardent pacifists into war-hardened soldiers; the freedom to look beyond a malicious word, or a pack of harsh truths, and forgive, with all your heart, the bruising soul that said it; to see men as they are, unadorned by fine clothes and finer stuff, and accept them, moreover, for what they are, rather than rejecting them for what they are not. If war is the sin of hurting another, peace must be the miracle of forgiving your attacker.

And peace, like all great triumphs, comes only when things are done differently: when men like Nelson Mandela stand up to the world and state, not with shame but proudly, not with disgust but joy, that they will not take out the excesses of the past on their tormentors - that they will raise, not the fist of violence, but the hand of friendship, against their oppressors. Peace begins from the moment people take to love, that easiest and hardest of all emotions to feel; from the moment a child learns, not the ricochet of bullets in an empty classroom, but the joy that must come eventually to those who read; from the moment a young Albert Einstein refuses to join the military; and from the moment a young Anne Frank is given a home, a pen and a diary to write in. That is peace – no more, and certainly no less.

Alexander the Great’s father, the King of Mycenae, once announced to his courtiers that he would, by the setting of the sun on the day, eliminate forever an old childhood enemy of his. They had quarreled, at one point or another, and had come to take a dislike to each other’s habits and affectations; in all the time since, they had not spoken, so great was the enmity that now existed between them. He summoned to his court this enemy, and bade him retreat with His Majesty to an old side-room, forbidden to all but the bearers of the most urgent news.

The courtiers whispered amongst themselves – they talked of knives, of poison, of bare-fisted fighting in that side- room; of a king determined to vanquish forever an enemy, and an unarmed, defenceless man made to bleed on a cold stone floor. Rumours fled from ear to ear of what terrible things must await that man across the doorway: what devilish devices must, even now, be crippling him in their embrace, what tortures the king had, in his own time, seen fit to devise. And they waited for the king to reappear.

Suddenly, the doors flew open: the King of Mycenae strode out, and beside him, laughing at his every joke, one arm around His Majesty’s shoulder – to the surprise of the courtiersthe enemy followed suit, hale and hearty, no worse for the ordeal he must have undergone. No scratch, no bruise, no sign of violence existed on his face. Behind them, the courtiers could discern, through the narrow doorway, only a table and two cups of ambrosia, in that little side-room they had just vacated.

The two enemies parted, each expressing the desire to linger for a little while longer; but finally the visitor left, albeit reluctantly, and promising to return soon. One of the courtiers approached the king and said: “My lord, this man appears to still be alive, and, more, no worse for wear. Why did you spare him so?

And the King of Mycenae, bearing the smile that only true companionship could bring, replied:

“Did I not tell you that I would vanquish my enemy today? Behold! For he is my enemy no longer; I have turned him into a friend.”

In such small ways is peace defined.

This is an article I wrote for my school magazine, on the rather ambiguous topic of ' peace' . What eventually resulted, after eighteen sleepless hours, a lot of coffee, and random, disorganised musings of a mostly abstract nature, was this.

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