Tennyson

In Memoriam A.H.H. is both in structural and functional terms a vast network of tensions. It is a long poem, addressing itself to the death of Tennyson's friend Hallam and maintaining this single event as the correlative for lyrical explorations of the meaning of life, death, love, art and all manner of permutations on the relationship between subjective existence and the events that control and determine this condition. Its consistent thematic and structural motif is that of unrealised possibility. It is about Tennyson and Hallam, but the latter no longer exists; it is an attempt to mediate in language the true essence of their lives, but it returns continuously to the speaker's awareness that such a task is beyond the powers of language. We have already considered the inherent paradoxes of the Romantic programme— essentially the more a poet attempts to transcend the refractory nature of the medium the more its arbitrary impersonal density becomes the subject of the discourse—and In Memoriam is the archetypal post-Romantic poem. It is as much about poetry as it is about Tennyson and Hallam.

David Lodge (1977) has pondered Jakobson's thesis that the dichotomy between the syntagmatic-metonymic and the paradigmatic-metaphoric poles of language is 'of primal significance and consequence for all verbal behaviour and for human behaviour in general' (80-1): in short, the long-sought methodological link between the communicative and behavioural elements of human life. Lodge drew up two columns of communicative and existential categories beginning with the monoliths of metaphor and metonymy, and the following is a revision of this diagram. It is also the key to our understanding of In Memoriam and other manifestations of nineteenth-century post-Romanticism.

Metaphor Paradigm

Metonymy Syntagm

Selection

Poetic Function

Romanticism

Lyric

Poetry

Text

Combination

Referential Function

Realism

Epic

Prose

Context

In Memoriam engages with each of these oppositions, and more significantly it foregrounds their distinction of being at the heart of the tragic nature of human existence.

The poem returns continuously to specific and deictic references to Tennyson's and Hallam's lives: see, for example, section VII on the 'Dark house', 'the long unlovely street', 'the door', 'the drizzling rain'; section IX on the 'fair ship', 'the Italian shore', 'Arthur's loved remains'. These references to an extra-textual series of events and experiences anchor the poem to the syntactic-realist-epiccontextual pole, and we should be aware that during the period of the poem's composition (1830s-1850s), the novel had gained acceptance as a respectable literary genre whose structure was determined more by the events outside the narrative than by any intrinsic textual formula. But, perhaps as an implicit disengagement from this cultural circumstance, Tennyson foregrounds the localising effect of the lyric, the most intense and self-consciously poetic genre. Milton's Paradise Lost and Wordsworth's The Prelude had trod an uncertain path between the extra-textual demands of narrative and autobiography and the ability of poetry to draw events into isolated moments and processes of linguistic mediation. Both had deployed blank verse, the most prominent pre-modernist means of reconciling local intensity with narrative, but Tennyson's poem is comprised of stanzas (iambic octosyllables, rhyming a bb a). Each of these causes an uneasy tension between any broader pattern of narrative or cohesive structure and single units of lyrical intensity. A number of critics (A.C.Bradley in particular) have attempted to impose a structural pattern upon the poem's 131 sections (each consisting of a variable number of stanzas) but it is possible to enter the poem at any point, read a section at random and not sense that an injustice has been done to any broader pattern of narrative cohesion. Again we should note that the tension between syntagm and paradigm, progress and focus, epic and lyric is invoked but not reconciled.

Within each section of the poem there is a persistent and meticulous distinction between contiguity-combination and similarity-selection. In the prologue the opening lines of each stanza preserve the deictic circuit of human being addressing both God and the reader: the first four foreground the addresser-addressee relationship with attributive adjectives, Thine are.', Thou wilt.', Thou seemest.', and the section closes with direct transitive verb phrases, 'Forgive what.', 'Forgive my.', 'Forgive these.'. But within each stanza this pattern of extra-textual continuity is counterpointed against more personal, metaphoric patterns.

Thine are these orbs of light and shade; Thou madest Life in man and brute; Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot Is on the skull which thou hast made.

The opening lines maintain a continuous point of contact between text and context—the speaker invokes conventional perceptions of God—while the internal structure of each stanza allows the speaking presence to integrate extra-linguistic projection with subjective intensity—Thine' (i.e. God's) 'orbs of light and shade' (the planets) is literal, while 'thy foot.on the skull' is figurative. This pattern of opening lines as referential and stanzas as intensively poetic, textual registers, operates throughout the poem. It is almost as though Tennyson is torn between the discursive referential structure of prose (each section as a means of positioning writer, reader and subject in the manner of a journal or diary) and the ability of poetry (the stanza) to both enclose this referential functional and shift the register of images away from the combinative, verifiable continuum toward the more speculative, metaphoric realm.

Section V is in effect the metatextual manifesto for the poem's uneasy sense of division. In stanzas 1 and 4 Tennyson foregrounds in the opening lines the personal pronoun 'I' but his subject is poetry, and each stanza gradually encloses the specific referential image of a speaker within the poetic function.

In 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.

The first line positions the poet as the controlling presense—words are like clothes (weeds), superficial—but this sense of control drifts into a far more speculative, uncertain pattern: clothes/

words both protect the user against the cold (pre-linguistic facts, death?), but they also 'enfold' this same feeling of pain. This paradox is given a self-consciously mimetic edge: in the first two lines the referential function is literally 'enfolded' in an alliterative pattern.

In the preceding stanza Tennyson writes:

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,

A use in measured language lies;

The sad mechanic exercise,

Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

This is a candid summary of the post-Romantic condition. The speaker is fully aware of the heroic failure of the first generation of Romanticism: measured language, the poetic function, is an enclosed self-referential state detached, in this case mercifully detached, from the 'pain' of unmediated existence. In section XXI he addresses the same theme; the opening line of the first stanza foregrounds the paradox: 'I sing to him that rests below'. His addressee is, in every sense, non-existent. And he invents three sceptical interlocuters to tax him 'harshly' with the question of poetic relevance: what use is a continuous return to 'sorrow's barren song' in an age when 'the people', 'the civil power', 'Science' should hold the attention of anyone concerned with the condition and future of humanity? (Tennyson was no doubt aware of phenomena such as the Chartist Movement, the Reform Bill, the European Revolutions of the 1840s, the Crimean War, the socio-political effects of the industrial revolution.)

In Memoriam is important. It could be interpreted as an elegy upon the death of poetry, not as an art form but as a discourse whose relationship with non-poetic and pre-linguistic continua could be direct and influential. The two columns of structural and functional conditions that Jakobson and Lodge offer as an analytical tool were for the Victorian poet a dismaying and unresolvable separation between the poetic and the non-poetic. The enclosed, self-referential world had been offered by the metaphysicals as an alternative to the harsh, contingent realities of non-poetic discourse and the prelinguistic continuum—the right-hand column was confidently subordinated to the left. For the Victorians the two were continually at odds with one another. T.S.Eliot has charged the post-metaphysical tradition of English poetry with a 'dissociation of sensibility', an inability or unwillingness to synthesise in poetic language the disparate, and in rational terms, unrelated elements of our linguistic and pre-

linguistic experience. His point, as Tennyson demonstrates, is valid. The addresser of In Memoriam is both the self-consciously ineffectual poet lamenting the very real departure of his friend, and the linguistic craftsman able to construct worlds of metrical and metaphoric self-reference safely detached from this 'other' reality.

Three centuries of writing had created an uneasy collection of structural and functional conditions: the metaphysicals had created purely poetic worlds cohabited by addresser and addressee (left-hand column); the Augustans had subdued poetic self-reference to a structured idiom which the addresser would command and manipulate (a shift to the right); the Romantics had attempted to transcend the structural and functional conditions of self-reference and transparency (a merger of left and right).

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