The defining poem of the Victorian age
In Memoriam A.H.H. was written over a period of 17 years, from 1833 to 1850. Over the course of 133 cantos, it explores Alfred Lord Tennyson’s profound grief at the death of his close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. This bereavement provided the jolt Tennyson needed in order to look beyond his own morbid sensitivity, and to address instead the more universal theme of grief and loss. The poem, although still profoundly private, perfectly captured wider Victorian pieties about the consolations of religion, the acceptable response to the death of a loved one, and the doubts being raised at the time in works such as Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) concerning evolution and the scientific erosion of divinity. As the poet T S Eliot later observed, ‘It happens now and then that a poet by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own which is quite remote from that of his generation.’
In Memoriam and Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. In the years following, In Memoriam became increasingly seen as providing a model for public behaviour during the long period of the Queen Victoria's mourning. The queen herself kept a copy of the poem by her bedside after Albert’s death and noted in her journal entry for Sunday 5 January 1862 that she was ‘Much soothed and pleased with Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Only those who have suffered as I do can understand these beautiful poems’.
The importance of In Memoriam in Tennyson’s career as a poet
Tennyson’s career as a poet is often divided into two major phases. His early poems addressed personal and introspective themes. For example, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, first published in 1833 and again in a revised form in 1842, explored the idea of withdrawing from the world and living in isolation. In his later work, by contrast, Tennyson looked to wider international events, publishing ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’ in 1852 and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in 1854. The dividing line between the early personal work and the later more public poems falls in 1850 – the year in which he was made Poet Laureate and, more crucially, the year in which he published In Memoriam.