Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam at Cambridge in 1829 and the two became inseparable friends and part of a coterie of men considered likely to be future leaders. Due to their close friendship, Tennyson invited Hallam to his childhood home at Somersby, where Hallam met Tennyson's younger sister Emily. They were engaged to be married (at first, Tennyson's father forbade their seeing each other until Hallam turned twenty-one so in 1832 they renewed their engagement vows). Things seemed in place when Hallam came to London to study law upon his graduation. Unfortunately, Hallam would die of apoplexy in Vienna while on a tour of the Continent with his father in the summer of 1833. Tennyson received the news via a letter in October of 1833. Broken-hearted, Tennyson began writing a number of poems which indirectly dealt with death (including "Ulysses," "Tithonus," and "Morte d'Arthur"), and also began drafting a lyric beginning with "Fair ship, that from the Italian shore" which later became Canto IX of In Memoriam.
The rest of In Memoriam, however, would be composed piecemeal over the next seventeen years. In the early part of 1850, Tennyson reluctantly allowed the work to be privately distributed amongst some friends. When he eventually published it, he left off his own name, although everyone knew he was the poet and knew it to be about Hallam. In Memoriam was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, and Tennyson's fame and laureateship followed close behind In Memoriam's success.
Tennyson's In Memoriam: A.H.H. Obit MDCCCXXXIII is written in envelope rhyme and iambic tetrameter, and divided into 131 cantos plus a prologue and epilogue. The abba rhyme has the effect of an envelope, wrapping back in on itself, or secure clasping (an image which recurs often in the poem). Tetrameter conveys sing-songy, personal, simple, and even playful effects (much as in the case of nursery rhymes, also often in tetrameter). This combination of rhyme and meter later came to be known as the "In Memoriam Stanza."
Somewhat unexpectedly, the prologue begins not with any mention of Hallam, but with the poet's general crisis of faith: "Strong Son of God, immortal Love, / Whom we, that have not seen they face, / By faith, and faith alone, embrace, / Believing where we cannot prove." In the prologue, the struggle for faith ends in asking for forgiveness about his doubt.
In general terms, the poem is structured by the passing of three Christmases following Arthur's death. The first section up until the first Christmas goes through a number of different stages, in which the poem muses on a great number of things, including the nature of grief, sorrow, sleep, and poetry, to name just a few. In Canto IX, the poet makes his first mention of Arthur by name, in describing how the "fair ship" would bring his remains home. The poet continues to muse on his grief a few more times, comparing it to the rise and fall of waves, and musing how even if politics or science might say that wallowing in grief in such times is a waste and idle, he feels that he must sing his sorrow. Near the end of this first section before the first Christmas, the poet also questions whether the idyllic nature of his memories is in fact accurate. The first Christmas is somber, "At our old pastimes in the hall, / We gambol'd, making vain pretence / Of gladness, with an awful sense / Of one mute Shadow watching all." A bit of hope is salvaged, however, as together those left behind muse on life after death. The poet thinks of Lazarus, who had life after death but none know the mystery of his resurrection.
The poet continues to muses on life and death, as well as the nature of faith. Specifically, in the canto following the ones on Lazarus, he imagines a brother and sister, in which the poet chides the brother for deeming the sister's faith less valid because it is based on form and less on the struggles of reason. Soon the poet is interrupted by Urania, who essentially tells him that it is not his place to speak on religious matters. The poem then elucidates some of his fears about the dead watching him in life, and how they might see all of his sins and shortcomings. Like God though, he hopes that they will make allowances (Canto LI). The poet launches into notions of eternal life and reaches a low point with respect to his belief in anything beyond the material contingencies of earthly life. Famously, the poet complains that Nature was "So careful of the type" and not the individual, questioning, "Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation's final law--/ Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shrieked against his creed." He is unable to reach any answers, and he concludes Canto LVI, pessimistically, "O life as futile, then, as frail!"..."What hope of answer, or redress? / Behind the veil, behind the veil." Subsequently, the poet discusses sorrow as his bride, then his struggle with the gulf between the earthly and spiritual ream which Arthur might now inhabit (focusing on the metaphor that he feels as if one who was unable to marry someone of a higher social status--an allusion to his sister Emily?), the tragedy of one such as Arthur dying young since he could have become (politically) famous, and the inability of "modern rhyme" to accrue any lasting fame (though, he concludes, "To breathe my loss is more than fame / To utter love more sweet than praise." The second Christmas falls, and this time, sorrow has waned, and instead of falling "sadly," Christmas eve this time around falls "calmly."
In the next section, the poet continues to reflect on what could have been--how Arthur could have married Tennyson's sister, Emily, and how he himself would have been an uncle doting on their children. At one point he feels solace that Arthur might yet remain an influence in his life and his actions: "Whatever way my days decline, / I felt and feel, tho' left alone, / His being working in mine own, / The footsteps of his life in mine." The poet launches into memories of Cambridge when revisiting the place, idealizing their time there: "Where once we held debate, a band / Of youthful friends, on mind and art." He continues to oscillate on whether the dead continue to have an effect or not; he imagines Arthur's old letters touching him from the grave: "So word by word, and line by line, / The dead man touch'd me from the past." But soon he doubts again. This yet again becomes an issue of faith; in Canto XCVI, the poet encounters an unnamed "you" (thought to be his wife, Emily Sellwood), sparring with her notion that "doubt is Devil-born," contending that doubt, for Arthur, strengthened faith: "He fought his doubts and gather'd strength, / He would not make his judgment blind." The poet develops a rather strange metaphor to try to explain his love for Arthur, who is now of a realm that is incomprehensible to him--like a wife who is more limited in understanding than her husband in the ways of the world, the poet says, "I cannot understand: I love." Shortly before the third Christmas, Tennyson leaves his childhood home at Somersby for High Beech (north of London), and leaving these surroundings feels in a measure like Arthur dying again. In the new place, the third Christmas "strangely falls" because he hears bells that he is unfamiliar with. This seems, for the moment, a boon--following this description of a "strange" Christmas, is a canto wherein the bells "ring out" all bad things (falsity, grief, dying causes, feud of the rich and poor, want, care, pride, disease, etc).
This final section of the poem begins on a less hopeful note, but gradually moves towards more optimism. The poet sings Arthur's praises and mourns his wasted potential, but soon finds that his desire for afterlife communion has surpassed desire come out of loss: "Less yearning for the friendship fled, / Than some strong bond which is to be." The remainder of the poem concerns itself with the nature of time, and evolution, the poet putting forth the view in Canto CXVIII that evolution is willful, and man in an individual life can aspire push the race forward. The poet's conception of evolution applies here more to the soul rather than to the body. This sense for progress lifts the poem to a much more optimistic level. Furthermore, just prior to the epilogue, the poet feels the power of love, which somehow reconciles between God, Nature, and human life: "Tho mix'd with God and Nature thou, / I seem to love thee more and more."
The epilogue is a marriage lay which describes Tennyson's sister Cecilia and Edmund Lushington's wedding. Of Arthur, the poet writes, "Regret is dead, but love is more." He imagines Arthur to yet be present ("Nor count me all to blame if I / Conjecture of a stiller guest, / Perchance, perchance, among the rest, / And, tho' in silence, wishing joy") but his presence adds joy. Finally, as the poet happily thinks on the child that his sister and Lushington will have, he thinks on Arthur as one who was so much an improvement on the race of man that he was before his time, a "noble type" / Appearing ere the times were ripe."
The formal unit of the In Memoriam stanza might be, in miniature, a way of understanding some of the primary features of the poem as a whole. As mentioned above, tetrameter imparts a kind of spontaneous, personal effect much as with a ballad or nursery rhyme. Additionally, tetrameter as a kind of truncated meter (the more usual pentameter being a "complete" line) imparts a kind a sense of incompletion--as Erik Gray remarks,"Tennyson emphasizes the brokenness of the tetrameter stanza, the way that each line falls short of his emotion, as he insists throughout the poem." The poet's understanding of God, Nature, faith, and existence in sustaining this early loss might be analogized as such, always falling short, broken, and fragmented.
Yet, the fragmentation of the poet's thoughts and feelings throughout the poem are far from conveying hopelessness or total incoherence. Instead, I suggest that the "movement" of these fragments might be understood as coming in waves; at times the poet grieves and doubts, at other points he feels that sorrow has made him wiser and has faith. The envelope rhyme scheme follows a kind of wave pattern, cresting on the "b" rhyme and falling back to the "a." Gray interprets the abba rhyme scheme as somewhat paradoxical with respect to whether its effects are optimistic or pessimistic. "In one sense, the abba stanza conveys a sense of fulfillment: it begins with one rhyme sound, which is then temporarily lost as we move on to the couplet in the middle; but in the end the initial rhyme returns, clinching the stanza and seeming to redeem or justify the open-endedness of the beginning." However, in another sense, "[t]he same rhyme scheme also conveys the opposite sense, a feeling of not looking forward but of falling back." As Gray indicates, the meaning of Tennyson's stanzas convey both senses of envelope rhyme.
The alternation between optimism and pessimism also suggests oscillation or undulation of waves, and while I suggest that the fragments of In Memoriam move as waves do, these waves seem ultimately productive in the same way as Tennyson's understanding of evolution tends to be. Drawing from Lyell's theories of geological gradualism, the poet envisions changes in the human soul to work analogously (slowly, but continuously) and that over time, the human race might reach a more perfect type. The poet's waves of faith and doubt slow the ultimate movement towards faith, but importantly the poem indeed ends on a note of faith (as well as an image of gradual, evolutionary perfection). Arthur Hallam is a "noble type" before his time, and all of creation moves according to the one, unalterable law of God.