The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 3. In Memoriam
The quality which such art, with all its wonderful elaboration, lacks is that last secret of a great style which Dante indicates when he defines the dolce still nuovo—for what is true of love is true of any other adequate theme—
In Memoriam is not altogether free from the faults of Tennysonian diction, phrasing such as “eaves of weary eyes” or
The construction of the poem in separate sections, some of which are linked together in groups by continuity of theme, was that which gave freest scope to Tennyson’s genius, allowing him to make of each section the expression of a single, intense mood. But the claim for In Memoriam, that it is not merely a collection of poems of varying degrees of beauty but a great poem, rests on the degree of success with which Tennyson has woven these together into a poem portraying the progress of the human spirit from sorrow to joy, not by the loss of love or the mere dulling of grief, but by the merging of the passion for the individual friend, removed but still living, into the larger love of God and of his fellow-men. If the present generation does not estimate In Memoriam quite so highly as its first readers, it is because time, which has a way of making clear the interval between a poet’s intention and his achievement, the expressed purpose of a Paradise Lost and its final effect, has shown that Tennyson failed to make this central experience, this great transition, imaginatively convincing and impressive. It is not in the vague philosophy, with a dash of semi-mystical experience, in which is veiled the simple process by which the heart grows reconciled to loss and life renews her spell, nor in the finished and illuminated style in which all this is clothed—it is not here that the reader of to-day finds the true Tennyson, the poet with his own unique and splendid gifts, but in the sombre moods and the lovely landscapes of individual sections. “Old Yew, which graspest at the stones,” “Dark house, by which once more I stand,” “Calm is the morn without a sound,” “To-night the winds begin to rise,” “With trembling fingers did we weave”—sections such as these, or the passionate sequence beginning “Oh yet we trust that somehow good,” and later, lovelier flights as “When on my bed the moonlight falls,” “I cannot see the features right,” “Witch-elms that counterchange the floor,” “By night we linger’d on the lawn,” “Unwatch’d, the garden bough shall sway,” “Sad Hesper o’er the buried sun”—these are likely to be dear to lovers of English poetry by their expression of mood in picture and music, long after the philosophy of In Memoriam has been forgotten. It is not the mystical experience of the ninety-fifth section which haunts the memory, but the beauty of the sunrise that follows when
To the theme of the most agitated sections of the poem, those whose theme is not removal of the friend by death from the sight and touch of those that loved him, but the more terrible doubt as to a life after death, the poet was to recur again, to fight more than one “weird battle of the west,” before he faced the final issue with courage and resignation and hope.