A Journal of Poetry and Kindred Prose

This Old Book

Ginny Kaczmarek

is a poet and critic with an MFA from the University of New Orleans.

Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Oxford American, Measure, Rattle, Literary Mama, and others.

Awards for her work include a New Orleans Literary Institute KARES grant and an Academy of American Poets Andrea Saunders Gereighty Poetry Award.

She lives in New Orleans with her husband and son, who loves his blue umbrella.

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“A Grief, Then Changed to Something Else”

In Memoriam as Ars Poetica
by Ginny Kaczmarek

What would a twenty-first century feminist want from a stodgy Victorian male poet? In my case, a map for my grief. After a friend’s death, I turned to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam for insight, revelation, and comfort. Published in 1850, In Memoriam is a book-length collection of linked poems written after the sudden death of Tennyson’s closest friend and confidante. Although it took seventeen years to write, the book’s events span three years, from the speaker’s initial shock to eventual acceptance, while exploring the depths of memory, faith, and the meaning of existence in the midst of personal—and social—upheaval. Throughout, Tennyson builds an argument for the value and importance of poetry in a society moving away from organized religion. As Tennyson’s language eased my pain, I rediscovered my own faith in the medium that sustains me in moments of crisis and calm: poetry.

In order to make his point, Tennyson carefully balances familiarity with a sense of modernity. In Memoriam consists of 131 smaller poems of varying length, referred to as numbered lyrics, that adhere to what has been termed an “envelope” form: four-line iambic tetrameter stanzas in an abba cddc rhyme scheme. The regularity of the iambic tetrameter form provides a basis for the poem’s “wild and wandering cries,” and the abba rhyme scheme reflects the push and pull of the speaker’s emotional maelstrom. The predictability—even stuffiness—of the form creates a solid scaffolding for Tennyson to present his modernist theories about spirituality and the struggle to convey experience through art.

Throughout In Memoriam, Tennyson argues that poetry should be an instrument of knowledge, not only historical and philosophical, but spiritual. The argument moves through stages of self-doubt, external criticism, self-affirmation, external affirmation, and finally the conclusion that poetry is as necessary for life as spiritual belief. Tennyson allows the reader to grow through these stages with him. In the Prelude of In Memoriam, the speaker offers a disclaimer:

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.

Although these lines are addressed to the son of God, they work as a warning and an apology to the poem’s reader. By calling the poem “wild and wandering cries” that might “fail in truth,” the speaker admits that the poem might not fit the reader’s expectations of what a poem ought to be, at least not at first. These introductory lines prepare the reader for the bumpy ride ahead. Tennyson’s next step is to reach the audience where they already live. Tennyson deals with the reader’s doubt in regard to the poem (and poetry in general) in lyric V:

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.

The speaker excuses himself for relieving his grief through “the sad mechanic exercise,” expressing doubt about poetry’s usefulness, especially in the face of personal crisis. In this way, Tennyson gives himself leeway in the reader’s mind. The reader is allowed to continue to believe that the role of poetry in Victorian society is as amusement or distraction, nothing more.

But soon, the speaker begins to question faith in religion, using his grief as a springboard. In lyric XXXVII, Tennyson recognizes that his readers might not want a poet to take on matters of theology, but he excuses himself by saying that the elegy form requires him to address matters of life and death, faith and doubt, arguing that the writer of an elegy is just trying “To lull with song an aching heart, / And render human love his dues.” Tennyson gently asserts that the realm of spirituality is the poet’s realm. Because the poet sings from love and “Of comfort clasp’d in truth reveal’d,” he argues that he should be allowed to continue singing.

In lyric LXIX, the speaker takes on the role of the martyr, describing the response of those who criticize him as one who “loves to make parade of pain”:

I met with scoffs, I met with scorns
    From youth and babe and hoary hairs:
    They call’d me in the public squares
The fool that wears a crown of thorns.

Tennyson uses the poet-as-Christ imagery to suggest the link between a spiritual prophet and a poet at a time when Christianity was losing its societal hold. Tennyson believed that poetry could become the medium through which people attained spiritual faith, if they were willing to believe—and not scorn—its practitioners.

Being a visionary outsider is not enough, however. Tennyson argues that poetry needs to last beyond the poet in order to become integral to society. In lyric LXXVII, the speaker begins by bemoaning the transitory nature of poetry, saying that modern rhyme doesn’t have much hope in today’s society because there’s so much emphasis on the present. The poem is likely to become recycled refuse: “May bind a book, may line a box, / May serve to curl a maiden’s locks.” But it might also be picked up by someone in the future:

A man upon a stall may find,
    And, passing, turn the page that tells
    A grief, then changed to something else
Sung by a long-forgotten mind.

A thousand years hence, a passing reader discovers “a grief, then changed to something else,” that is, to art. And whether the poet’s mind is “long-forgotten” or not, the poem “shall ring with music all the same” because the poet has tapped into truths that transcend time.

In lyric XCV, the speaker describes the experience of being touched by someone else’s words:

So word by word, and line by line,
    The dead man touch’d me from the past,
    And all at once it seem’d at last
The living soul was flash’d on mine,

And mine in this was wound, and whirl’d
    About empyreal heights of thought,
    And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world.

Through the written word, the speaker has a spiritual experience, validating his belief in the power of language. Throughout In Memoriam, Tennyson makes the case that a poet explores his or her own experience, not necessarily out of selfishness and self-absorption, but as a way to convey universal experience, to connect with other human beings beyond the confines of space, time, and even death.

In addition to its powerful exploration of the stages of grief, In Memoriam is a successful argument for the validity of poetry in the modern age. By using poetic conventions that readers would be familiar with while addressing modern themes, Tennyson created a poem that spoke to Victorian readers about the role of poetry, leading them toward a realization about the link between poetry and spirituality. But the universal themes of the poem allow it to transcend its time. It reaches this reader a hundred and fifty years later, who finds that despite the differences in time, culture, and expectations, In Memoriam “shall ring with music all the same.”