Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam: A Reading Guide

February 28, 2013

Author: Anna Barton
Edition: First
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Pages: 216
Price: £60.00 and £18.99
ISBN: 9780748641352 and 41345

Anyone faced with the task of reading - or, indeed, teaching - Tennyson’s In Memoriam will be forever grateful to Anna Barton for her expert tour of the poetic equivalent of a stately home. This book is part of a series called Reading Guides to Long Poems whose intention is “to make contemporary readers aware of the importance of the long poem in our literary and national heritage”. This is an ambitious undertaking, given that many students dislike poetry. If they shy away from a sonnet, how will they react to an epic? Pretty well, I would say, if all the guides in the series are as good as this one.

The final chapter will be plundered shamelessly for the goodies it has to offer

A short introduction is followed by a chapter on the making of In Memoriam and its place in literary history. Then comes the poem, followed by a map of its different sections. There is also an impressive selection of reviews and commentary, all enlivened by some excellent close reading before a final chapter, “Teaching the text”, which will be plundered shamelessly for the goodies it has to offer.

A lament for the death of Tennyson’s close friend Arthur Hallam at the age of 22, In Memoriam was the most complete expression of the Victorian cult of mourning. Queen Victoria famously said that, next to the Bible, it was her greatest comfort after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. The poem also registered seismic shifts in science and biblical scholarship, suggesting that the Earth was much older than had previously been believed and humans could very well be risen apes rather than fallen angels.

How do we read such a huge, sprawling poem? As a whole or a series of fragments? As an outpouring of private grief or a public pronouncement on the state of culture? And where does it actually begin? The Prologue? But that was written after the poem was finished. What about Section IX, the first part to be composed? But the poem does not start there. In Memoriam seems to move in a linear fashion yet repeatedly returns on itself, making little progress. And then there’s the whole question of which genre it belongs to. Epic, elegy, ballad or pastoral?

We can see in In Memoriam the birth pangs of Modernism. Its constant references to the limitations of language and its failure to find consolation in either nature or religion point towards abstraction, experimentation and a faith in the redemptive powers of myth. But Barton resists locating the value of In Memoriam in its anticipation of future artistic developments. Its power lies in its scope, its moments of intensity and, above all, its response to loss. The Victorians faced up to death while we have banished it. And that’s our loss.

Who is it for?
Anyone studying or interested in poetry, especially that of the Victorians.

Presentation:
Very well organised; lots of information and easy to read.

Would you recommend it?
Indubitably.

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