In Memoriam A.H.H.: composition and reception

'In Memoriam A.H.H.': composition and reception

'In Memoriam A.H.H.', a tribute to Tennyson’s beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, was a defining poem of the Victorian period. Dr Stephanie Forward explores Tennyson’s composition process, and considers how the poem was received during Tennyson’s lifetime and into the 20th century.

But I remain’d, whose hopes were dim,
Whose life, whose thoughts were little worth,
To wander on a darken’d earth,
Where all things round me breathed of him (stanza 85).

Arthur Hallam

Alfred Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam in 1829, when they were both students at Trinity College, Cambridge. Young Tennyson’s home life had not been happy and he did not relish his time at university either. He was prone to depression, but friendship with the gifted and charismatic Hallam meant a great deal to him. Their relationship was cemented further when Hallam fell in love with one of the poet’s sisters, Emilia (known in the family as Emily), and they were engaged in 1832.

Notebook of Arthur Henry Hallam

A poem addressed to Tennyson written by Arthur Henry Hallam, June 1831.

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Notebook of Arthur Henry Hallam

Arthur Henry Hallam’s wrote a series of sonnets to Emily Tennyson after his visit to the Tennyson’s Lincolnshire home in 1830.

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In a letter to another of his friends, William Ewart Gladstone, Hallam wrote: ‘I consider Tennyson as promising fair to be the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of our century’ (letter 14 Sept 1829). He praised his first volume of poetry in a critical essay, ‘On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson’ (published in the Englishman's Magazine, August 1831). One of Tennyson’s early works was Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind Not in Unity with Itself, in which the poet revealed a sense of inner division. Hallam’s enthusiastic support and faith in his writing gave him the resolve to persevere.

A second book, Poems, came out in 1833. Then, on 1 October Tennyson received the devastating news of his friend’s sudden death. Hallam’s uncle, Henry Elton, wrote: ‘He died at Vienna on his return from Buda, by Apoplexy, and I believe his Remains come by Sea from Trieste’.[1]

A paper heart and memorial transcript from the Arthur Henry Hallam papers

A paper heart and memorial transcript from the Arthur Henry Hallam papers [folio: 70r]

Memorial inscription for Arthur Henry Hallam, written by his family, estimated 1835.

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Tennyson was asked to contribute to a memorial volume, but at the time of Hallam’s death he felt unequal to the task. He told Hallam’s father: ‘I hope to be able at a future period to concentrate whatever powers I may possess on the construction of some tribute to those high speculative endowments and comprehensive sympathies which I ever loved to contemplate …’ (letter to Henry Hallam, 14 February, 1834). Grief prompted Tennyson to write some fine poetry, and to revise his earlier efforts, although he did not publish another collection as such until 1842.

In Memoriam A.H.H.

Tennyson wrote the separate poems that became In Memoriam over a long period of time, as he recalled phases of the friendship. Indeed, the earliest section dates from 6 October 1833. The title was suggested by Tennyson’s fiancé, Emily Sellwood. He had also considered calling it ‘Fragments of an Elegy’ or ‘The Way of the Soul’.

A trial edition of In Memoriam A.H.H. was printed privately in March 1850, 16 and a half years after Hallam’s death. Two months later it was published, anonymously; however, many readers and reviewers knew who had written it. In September 1850 Charles Kingsley identified the poet, and declared that In Memoriam was ‘the noblest Christian poem which England has produced for two centuries’.[2]

In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson

In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson [page: title page]

The title page from the first edition of In Memoriam A.H.H., 1850.

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There are 131 lyrics, of varying length, enclosed within a Prologue and an Epilogue. It was not Tennyson’s original intention to weave together the separate poems, or to publish them, but eventually they were arranged into a coherent whole. Three main sections are divided by verses about Christmas: 30, 78 and 100. Intense sorrow after Hallam’s death triggered a series of meditations about the deeper questions of existence: about mortality and what follows death; about the ramifications of challenges to traditional faith, and ways of coping when the outlook is bleak.

The papers of Arthur Henry Hallam, including manuscript versions of Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H.

The papers of Arthur Henry Hallam, including manuscript versions of Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A.H.H.' [folio: 58r]

Early drafts of a Christmas verse from In Memoriam written out in an unknown hand and collected by the Hallam family, dated 1833.

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In Memoriam has received much critical attention. Pastoral aspects have been identified, and as a whole the work is often classed as an elegy because it contains elements traditionally associated with that genre. The initial response to bereavement is a stunned sense of loss and grief, with lamentation for the dead person. This is followed by recollection of their fine qualities. Gradually a sense of acquiescence emerges, leading eventually to a more serene state and to solace for the loss.

In the Prologue the speaker invokes the ‘Strong Son of God’, acknowledging that man must have been created for a reason. We cannot comprehend the meaning of life; hence the agony experienced at times of bereavement. Nevertheless we can reach towards God through faith: ‘Believing where we cannot prove’. At times the speaker finds it hard to understand why his friend had to die; but he claims that, ultimately, ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all’ (27). There are highs and lows: specific occasions, such as anniversaries, can bring a recurrence of despair. At the end there is, again, trust in God’s plan: mankind will evolve; understanding will be attained; matters may seem hopeless now, but the conclusion expresses hope for future generations. The Epilogue is an epithalamion (also known as an epithalamium): a poem or song in honour of a bride and groom. It refers to the marriage of another of Tennyson’s sisters, Cecilia, to Edmund Lushington in 1842, and the speaker imagines how their child will link their generation with the ‘crowning race’. This hints at a cosmic purpose for mankind, and provides an optimistic ending to the work as a whole.

Rhythm and rhyme

The sections that Tennyson wrote first were 9, 27,30, 31, and 85. At this stage he seems to have been experimenting. Manuscript fragments show that some of the stanzas were written with four lines, with the rhyme pattern abab, and others with five. The metre was iambic tetrameter. In the final version the stanzas are isometric, i.e. composed of lines of uniform length, and quatrains of iambic tetrameter follow the rhyme scheme abba. Interestingly Tennyson later confessed: ‘I believed myself the originator of the metre, until after In Memoriam came out, when some one told me that Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sidney had used it.’

The very precise form is eminently suitable for the subject matter. Although the speaker’s attitude shifts at different points in the poem, the stanza form itself does not vary. The reader or listener is not automatically propelled towards the next stanza; on the contrary, there is a sense of being held back. This actually serves to unite the sections, and also to highlight the intensity and loss. As the speaker says in lyric 5:

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

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 poem’s impact

Tennyson’s poem was greatly loved by his contemporaries. It offered hope and reassurance. Most famously, Queen Victoria found solace in the poem after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. She told the poet: ‘Next to the Bible In Memoriam is my comfort.’[3] Elsewhere, George Eliot once observed: ‘Whatever was the immediate prompting of In Memoriam, whatever the form under which the author represented his aim to himself, the deepest significance of the poem is the sanctification of human love as a religion’.[4]

Early in the 20th century Tennyson’s popularity wavered and declined. In his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), W B Yeats observed that young poets revolted against ‘irrelevant descriptions of nature, the scientific and moral discursiveness of In Memoriam…’.[5] However, in the same year T S Eliot wrote an introduction to an edition of Tennyson’s poems and quoted three stanzas from In Memoriam:

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day. (7)

Eliot hailed this as ‘great poetry, economical of words, a universal emotion related to a particular place’. The lyrics ‘have only the unity and continuity of a diary, the concentrated diary of a man confessing himself.’ Eliot added: ‘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.’[6]

In Tennyson’s own discussions about the poem he attempted to explain its appeal. His son, Hallam, penned a Memoir of his father, in which he reported the poet saying:

It must be remembered that this is a poem, not an actual biography …The different moods of sorrow as in a drama are dramatically given, and my conviction that fear, doubts, and suffering will find answer and relief only through Faith in a God of Love. “I” is not always the author speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking through him.[7]

Tennyson further commented:

It is rather the cry of the whole human race than mine. In the poem altogether private grief swells out into thought of, and hope for, the whole world. It begins with a funeral and ends with a marriage – begins with death and ends in promise of a new life – a sort of Divine Comedy, cheerful at the close. It is a very impersonal poem as well as personal. There is more about myself in Ulysses, which was written under the sense of loss and all that had gone by, but that still life must be fought out to the end. It was more written with the feeling of his loss upon me than many poems in In Memoriam.[8]

Tennyson’s personal observations are revealing; nevertheless, down through the decades, many readers have treasured In Memoriam as a source of consolation.


[1] Cited in Jack Kolb, The Letters of Arthur Henry Hallam (Ohio State University Press, 1981).

[2] Cited in Laurence W Mazzeno, Alfred Tennyson: The Critical Legacy (New York: Camden House, 2004), p. 16.

[3] Cited in John D Rosenberg, Elegy for an Age: The Presence of the Past in Victorian Literature (London: Anthem Press, 2005), p. 51.

[4] Westminster Review, October 1855, p. 191.

[5] William Butler Yeats, Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (Oxford University Press, 1936).

[6] Cited in James E. Miller, T S Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons (Pennsylvania University Press, 1977), p. 4.

[7] Hallam Tennyson, Tennyson: A Memoir (London, 1897).

[8] James Knowles, ‘Remarks of Tennyson’ in ‘A Personal Reminiscence’, The Nineteenth Century, XXXIII (January, 1893).

  • Stephanie Forward
  • Dr Stephanie Forward is a lecturer, specializing in English Literature. She has been involved in two important collaborative projects between the Open University and the BBC: The Big Read, and the television series The Romantics, and was a contributor to the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians site and to the 20th century site. Stephanie has an extensive publications record. She also edited the anthology Dreams, Visions and Realities; co-edited (with Ann Heilmann) Sex, Social Purity and Sarah Grand, and penned the script for the C.D. Blenheim Palace: The Churchills and their Palace.

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