The Act of Writing in Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ and Thackeray’s ‘Going to See a Man Hanged’?
Winston Churchill said that ‘the truth is incontrovertible’. This statement construes ‘truth’ as an absolute concept, where there is only one truth, and anything else is by definition a non-truth. Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Thackeray’s ‘Going to see a Man Hanged’ are certainly diverse in their genres; Tennyson’s words are a profound ode to a lost friend, whereas Thackeray’s article is a satirically disgusting account of a public event. Yet, both their acts of writing seek a truth, and not the absolute definition that Churchill specifies. Thackeray’s truth is based on presenting an accurate account of an event; it is literally telling the truth of what he sees before him, translating sight to word with little creative interpretation. Tennyson differs from this. His writing is not based on what he sees, but the grief he feels, and his truth is in being able to aptly express this when there seems no words fit to shape his emotions. Yet, another writer may express the same grief differently, or may indeed react differently to publicly viewing a man hanged. Therefore, perhaps the truth can only be incontrovertible to the person who expresses it. It is a truth specific to them, yet may not exist as a universal, absolute truth.
By creating a poem that resonates grief, Tennyson is simultaneously liberated and restricted through the use of words in In Memorium. They exist as a medium of confession, yet he also struggles to find the words that will allow him to truly express the extent of his mourning. T. S. Eliot commented that In Memoriam was ‘a concentrated diary of a man confessing himself.’ And it is extremely interesting to consider this ode as a ‘diary’. It positions the readership as almost voyeuristic, as if we are peeping in to a private account. This notion is furthered by partially religious language; Tennyson must ‘[confess] himself’ as if to a priest, as if through admitting emotion, he is also admitting to a sin. This perhaps exists as a slight awareness of the social conditions of a Victorian England, where it was arguably considered less masculine to express weakness through feeling. Yet, this idea of the ‘diary’ is also limited. Instead of studying what is written, it is almost more important to consider what has not been written, what Tennyson has not confessed. He struggles so to define his grief through words that it is a less of ‘confession’ of how he truly feels, and more an exploration of his unanswered agony. Tennyson describes how powerless words currently seem to him: ‘A use in measured language lies/ The sad mechanic exercise.’ This truly expresses Tennyson’s frustration; words, and writing are no longer enough for him. Language has the ability to create entire worlds out of merely imagination, yet now it is ‘measured’. Perhaps this suggests that words, in reality, have a pre-conceived mould and only a certain emotion can be expressed through each. For example, the word ‘sad’ cannot reach the depths of Tennyson’s damage. However, this idea of ‘[measure]’ could also arguably be a momentary relief. As a word is limited in it’s expression of emotion, a complete lack of control is not possible, and it presents well-needed boundaries on grief that may have previously not existed. In Tennyson’s struggle to use words as a vessel of expression, there is also a subsequent questioning: once Tennyson has shaped these meaningful words in to a poem, can the reader then understand the full extent of his pain? If so, this presents a separation of understanding between author and reader. And this is a motif that is repeated throughout the poem’s form. Tennyson experiences a ‘mechanic exercise’ through a monotonous life without his beloved friend, yet is also mechanic in his repeated quatrains of tetrameter. Tennyson uses the same rhythm and structure throughout, using merely different words. Thereby, he repeats the same patterns of grief until he hopes they will come to represent something different. In Memorium therefore arguably refuses to exist as a ‘confession’; there are simply no words capable to warrant this label. His odes remain simply ‘just words’ (Tennyson, p.102).
In comparison, Thackeray’s ‘Going to See a Man Hanged’ uses the act of writing to record, not explore emotion. Words are used to organise reactions, not explore their emotional meaning. Yet, even this simple act of writing can be interpreted, and Thackeray interrupts the narrative to insert something similar to a disclaimer. He makes a claim to the truth, in it’s definition of being an accurate record of events:
At least, such was the effect the gallows first produced upon the writer, who is trying to set down all his feelings as they occurred, and not exaggerate them at all… (Thackeray, p. 151)
Arguably, the most important, and noticeable, literary technique is the shift in narrative person. The account is written in first person, yet here Thackeray shifts the narrative perspective to the third person. It is almost reminiscent of a witness in a court, swearing on a bible that he will tell nothing but the truth, exaggerating the importance that he does record the truth. In almost direct antipathy to Tennyson’s exploration of each individual emotion, Thackeray’s focus is more on identifying each, and the order in which they are experienced. Perhaps this suggests that there is a set way to react to such an event, and Thackeray attempts to emulate this emotional process. Yet, this process of accurately representing the order of reaction can only ever be an attempt. He claims to write down ‘all his feelings as they occurred’, yet the act of writing, despite the tense, will always approach events and feelings are retrospective. The short moment between experiencing these emotions and recording them deems them already a memory, perhaps suggesting that any act of writing cannot wholly be the ‘truth’ of what happened, or what a person experienced. Furthermore, Thackeray makes a subtle, but important, distinction between his genre and poems such as In Memorium. The narrator claims he will not ‘exaggerate’ his feelings, perhaps suggesting that other genres do exaggerate them, to a fanciful effect. This splits his genre from fiction, and makes it a more realistic piece, as it once again claims his account is the truth. To conclude, Thackeray’s narrator seems so focused upon the truth of the events and their order that he temporarily interrupts the narration. This disclaimer almost suggests the opposite. Not only does Thackeray’s claim to truth suggest that he is, in fact, untruthful, but it seems superfluous. He claims to translate the events to paper as soon as they happen, yet pauses to speak directly to the readership. Therefore, not only does Thackeray’s factual truth differ from Tennyson’s emotive, but it is still a feat that, despite claims, is difficult to achieve.
As previously explored, words in Tennyson’s In Memorium become wholly inadequate to describe such a grief. In a manner, Thackeray adopts the same stance; language becomes a secondary medium compared to sight. The concept of witnessing is incredibly important in ‘Going to See a Man a Hanged’. The first person narrative acts as the witness, then relays the scene for the readers to also act as witnesses. However, this proves difficult, and it is undeniable that such a sight will cause more of an impact when seen, rather than read. A particular moment emphasises this, when the narrator begins to feel the psychological effects of seeing a man publicly die. He ‘had the man’s face continually before [his] eyes’ (Thackeray, p. 158). This type of reaction can obviously only stem from one who directly witnessed the event; the reader can imagine his horror, but can never experience it to this potent extent. His utter revulsion is emphasised by a sense that the image will never recede –it is ‘continually’ in his mind’s eye –and that he is almost being punished for standing witness to such an abhorrence. Therefore, whilst the narrator witnesses and records the event first hand, the reader can never full be aligned with the narrative. They are forced to interpret an intense emotional experience second hand, not feel it. Yet, Thackeray refuses to directly admit the inadequacy of language as Tennyson does. Instead, he substitutes language with words from other scenarios; he uses metaphors, arguably a step away from any realism he previously claims. For example, the event is described as ‘butchery’ (Thackeray, p.158), a particularly primitive and gruesome manner in describing bloodshed. The man who has been hanged is reduced to a pig, strung up on show for the crowd to judge. Another technique used by Thackeray is to forgo words altogether. Between two passages, he has inserted a symbol of the gallows. This symbol allows a break in the narration; the narrator has stopped recording, as the reader stops reading. The gallows have a universal meaning, and it is this knowledge of what they are used for that creates such a bleakness. Fundamentally, it is only a block drawing of a wooden structure. Yet, it has a possibility to take away life, and this is almost terrifying to consider in an account where thus far the only images constructed have been imaginary. Therefore, when the appropriate language becomes insufficient, Thackeray merely borrows words from different scenarios, or refuses to use them at all. And this is such a powerful technique; it depends almost as much on what is not said than what is.
As it has been previously explored, both Thackeray and Tennyson express –albeit in different manners –that the act of writing is inadequate in translating either their inner workings or outer sights. Yet, it is arguable that it is not words that are insufficient, but perhaps the expectations of the narrator. Thackeray states that he wishes to present both clarity and truth, yet consequently expects the reader to feel as acutely as he does, despite the fact they are witnessing through words, not sight. Similarly, no words can describe the grief Tennyson feels in In Memorium. Yet, the only way they could fulfil this would be if they offered not only explanation but also absolution. It is as if Tennyson almost expects the act of writing to heal his woe, to fill the gap left by Hallam. Both writers aim for impossibilities, and this creates a constant tension between the imaginative power of language, and the bleak reality that writing is merely putting ink to paper.
Killham, John, ed., Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson (Great Britain: Routledge Ltd, 1960)
Tennyson, Alfred, In Memoriam, Maud and other poems, ed. by John D. Jump (London: J.M Dent & Sons Ltd, 1974)
Thackeray, William Makepiece, ‘Going to See A Man Hanged’, Fraser’s magazine for town and country, 128 (1830-1869) 150-158
Welsh, Alexander, ed., Thackeray: A Collection of Critical Essays (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1968)
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