An Act of Remembering: Control and Mourning in Tennyson’s In Memoriam
Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a poem of substantial length that he wrote in mourning of his best friend Arthur Henry Hallum, has withstood the test of time into the 21st century as a celebrated work that explores how humans work through trauma upon being presented with sudden loss. Tennyson experienced the various stages of this very trauma while writing In Memoriam, capturing his spirit’s struggle in the moments and then years afterwards. In the work, Tennyson often depicts himself as having little control over this mourning process, though it can be argued that he is desperate for this sense of control and authority in his loss. In analyzing passages from the poem, along with the consultation of Sigmund Freud’s exploration of trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we find that Tennyson’s work here is in itself an attempt to exercise control over his mourning.
Early in the poem, we see that Tennyson feels as if he has very little control over this situation and his mourning that has come as a result of it. This process that he has been thrown into after the loss of his best friend bewilders him, and he expresses a feeling of a lack of autonomy over his life. Tennyson, without his friend Arthur, is all but lost at sea. He makes this clear to us in section IV, when he presents himself as a man sitting within a boat that he cannot command. “To sleep I give my powers away ;/” he writes, “My will is bondsman to the dark ;/I sit within a helmless bark,/And with my heart I muse and say” (IV, i, 1-4). He expresses that he is lacking a helm in his boat, and in his life. Without such a thing, there is no way to guide the direction in which he moves, no way to control what he feels or what he thinks. This is what his mourning has done to him, and what life feels like within it. Especially in his sleep, as he says here, when he is likely thrown into dreams where his beloved friend is still with him, and then upon waking up he finds that nothing has changed – that he is still alone. What little power or control that he does have in waking life, he surrenders in the nighttime. In the prologue too, we find Tennyson thinking of his loss and his life in terms of the vast history of the universe, evoking a sense of smallness and the inability to make a difference, or to do something that “matters”. He writes, “Our little systems have their day ;/They have their day and cease to be :/They are but broken lights of thee,/And thou, O Lord, art more than they” (Prologue, v, 17-20). He speaks of lifetimes in terms of “systems”, and attempts to grasp that it is now his best friend Arthur who ceases to be. In the grand sense of things, he knows that he has very little control in the direction of the universe, or in mankind in general. Of his lost friend’s sudden death, and the mourning process that comes as a result of it, he has little control altogether. What’s done is now done, and Tennyson struggles to come to terms with the permanence of the loss. For further insight into how the writer is feeling here, we can turn to Irene Hsiao’s article, “Calculating Loss in Tennyson’s in Memoriam”. In discussing possible titles for the piece, she explores what they must have meant to Tennyson, and what the chosen title ultimately implies. He considered titling the poem both “Fragments of an Elegy”, and “The Way of the Soul”; one is too incomplete and shattered, and the latter is too definite and authoritative in its nature (Hsiao). She explains that the title that he settles on “… was the title given by his fiancée, Emily Sellwood, and it must have provided the solution Tennyson could not bring himself to acknowledge, that his work was a supreme act of remembering and not a resurrection” (174). What is suggested here is that Tennyson, with In Memoriam, was chasing after the impossible and attempting to bring back something already long gone – trying to gain control, and to resurrect. This act of remembering is still soothing at times and does its job well, but it cannot give Tennyson the authority over his mourning that he desires.
In turning to Sigmund Freud’s essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we can better understand Tennyson’s aspirations of controlling the mourning process, as Freud writes that this is an inherent trait to humans. While spending time nearby a toddler, Freud is able to observe a “game” that the young child invents himself and then plays compulsively whenever he is left on his own. This game, Freud interprets, is the re-enactment, and assertion of control, over his mother’s leaving of him for hours at a time. Freud writes that: The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied around it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor… What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skilfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive ‘o-o-o-o’ (gone). He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful ‘da’ (there). This, then, was the complete game – disappearance and return. (9) Applying this to in Memoriam, the writing of the poem in itself seems to resemble this child’s game. It is a fantasy of control, except for Tennyson there is no pleasurable return – the loss is permanent. The writing is simply all he can do to ease his mind. This notion is displayed well in section XI, when the mourning author writes “Calm and deep peace in this wide air,/These leaves that redden to the fall ;/And in my heart, if calm at all,/If any calm, a calm despair” (XI, iv, 13-16). He seems aware that he must find some peace inside of his despair, as there is little to no escaping it. Stephen A. Black’s article “Eugene O’Neill in Mourning” aids us in understanding the emotions at work in this process post-loss, conveniently analyzing another writer. Speaking of Eugene O’Neill’s obsession with his parents in his writing after their passing, Black prophetically writes “To let the dead be gone one must have ceased to need them” (17). Here lies Tennyson’s issue, and we cannot help but sympathize with him. He still needs his best friend; their time together was not enough for him, resulting in the poet’s craving of Arthur’s presence. In Memoriam was originally published 17 years after Arthur Henry Hallum’s death, meaning that Tennyson experienced the process and moved through the different stages of mourning while writing the long poem. It can be said that this was an attempt to control his feelings of loss, and even to re-experience the trauma in different ways, resembling the Fort, Da (gone, there) of the earlier observed child’s game. He is not alone in this, as Black further explains that O’Neill possessed similar desires and habits: “Most commentators since the 1950s have notice that O’Neill remained preoccupied with his parental family throughout his writing career” (17). This writing of these human characters that have already passed away is very well an act of resurrection for the writers. In this they gain the control over loss, trauma, and mourning that they are unable to experience in their day-to-day lives.
It is clear that Alfred Tennyson ached for some control over the process of mourning following the death of his best friend Arthur Henry Hallum. In writing In Memoriam, he immortalized his companion and gave us brilliant insights into the way that humans deal with loss. Tennyson’s words and account of this era in his life breathe far beyond either of the men’s time spent in this world, and in reading them we acknowledge their passions. Whether or not Tennyson found control, we are left hoping that he found his peace.
Black, Stephen A. “Eugene O’Neill in Mourning.” Biography, vol. 11, no. 1, 1988, pp. 16-34. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23539316. Accessed 10 October 2018.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1920. Online. http://xenopraxis.net/readings/freud_beyondthepleasureprinciple.pdf
Hsiao, Irene. “Calculating Loss in Tennyson’s in Memoriam.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 47, no. 1, 2009, pp. 173-196’. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40347430. Accessed 8 October 2018.
Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. 1849, online. https://archive.org/
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Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a poem of substantial length that he wrote in mourning of his best friend Arthur Henry Hallum, has withstood the test of time into the 21st […]