Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hallam died aged 22 in 1833. In 1850 Tennyson published “In Memoriam AHH” which contained poems written over the intervening years, now brought together in one long work. My daughter Eleanor died almost three years ago. I intend to make a pilgrimage through Tennyson’s work, hoping to understand more about the poem and myself.
IN MEMORIAM AHH
Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;
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.
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.
Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou.
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.
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.
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.
Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster. We are fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear:
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.
Forgive what seem’d my sin in me;
What seem’d my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.
This prologue assumes the completion and publication of the whole poem, and the faith that issues from its argument. Its wording is bold although its concepts are largely commonplace. It indicates that Tennyson saw the publication of his grieving as permission to move on, although, as I see it, the argument of the poem is far from conventional, and the ‘peace’ at which he arrives is no achieved destination, but rather a poise on the pilgrim’s road.
I say the concepts are conventional but the characterisation from the outset of Christ as the strong son of God is not some kind of muscular Christianity, but rather a wholesome imagination of the “one who was dead and behold, is alive forevermore” (Revelation 3) Tennyson emphasises that we know this one only through faith, affirming a reformation doctrine because, as we will see in the poem, science had questioned the kind of Biblical knowledge that had previously comforted believers.
I am with Tennyson here, not because I utterly reject the historicity of the Bible, but because its historical evidence has to be won from narratives formulated by faith. The factuality of science and scientific study is important to me, as it was to Tennyson, not least because they expose the ambiguous relationship of all historical narrative to facts. The Bible, no less than the imperialist history of the British Empire, must be exposed to analysis that reveals the motives of its composition.
This difficulty in accepting the Bible as fact may be why Tennyson presents a son of God who is not much distinguished from other persons of the Christian trinity: the son creates “man” for example; and the same undistinguished deity creates death as well as life: “Thou madest Death and lo thy foot/ is on the skull which Thou hast made.” That’s an astonishing and disturbing image of God, and yet the acceptance of this doubleness in the deity is central to the new faith which Tennyson has formed by the end of the poem. He ultimately recognises that the same capacity to feel which fuels his grief for Arthur is what enables his faith in God. He feels the frailty of humanity in face of the universe and of what God must be: “ we are fools and slight/ we mock thee when we do not fear/ but help thy foolish ones to bear/ help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.”
These lovely words express also something of my own faith, but in my case I had already arrived at a stripped – down faith, before the death of my daughter. Indeed, we shared such a faith. My grief did not so much lead me to question my faith as to rebel in anger against her absence and to seek desperately for some contact with her, to pierce through the veil of death to some renewed conversation. In turn this led to imaginative conversations with her, in which I was fully engaged and of which I kept a record. Of course I knew these were at least partly my own construction; they issued however in her telling me to let her go, which eventually I did. Tennyson’s acceptance that his dear friend is with God and not with him is likewise after a refusal in which he replayed scenes from the history of their friendship.
His prayer,”In thy wisdom make me wise,” is the fruit of having completed his poem and his grieving. At its beginning on the other hand, he was, like me, not seeking wisdom but his loved one.