There is a long story behind the making of one of the great poems of 19th century - ‘In Memoriam A.H.H’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It’s an unusual story of love, friendship, devotion and suffering. The Poet Laureate of the Victorian age took 17 (1833-1849) long years to accomplish it and the end product was a profound lyrical statement on search for hope in grief as well as the most important and deeply-felt concerns of Victorian society.
The original title of the poem was ‘The Way of the Soul’, written in angst by Tennyson after losing his dear friend Arthur Hallam. Such was the bonding between the two creative souls that their love transcended death and got immortalized in verses.
The story began when Arthur Hallam and Alfred Tennyson met in April 1829 at Cambridge University as youngsters. They took to each other instantly and forged an unbreakable bond. Study reveals that they had participated in a university poetry contest, the theme for which was ‘Timbuctoo’. Tennyson won the Chancellor’s Medallion as a prize but Hallam, a genial young man, was not jealous. He applauded his acquaintance and even joked that he had helped Tennyson while creating the poem. That was the beginning of a memorable friendship.
The two scholars were quite popular in the college but found principal delight in each other. They would recite and discuss poetry and philosophy for hours on end under the night sky on the Somersby lawns. Hallam and Tennyson had not only similar taste but also disposition. They were subjected to fits of depression, and helped each other to overcome it.
Inflamed by Spanish politics, they dreamt of bringing a revolution and actually journeyed to the Pyrenees to deliver money and messages to a revolutionary. The task was risky but the two friends enjoyed the area. Years later, a grief-stricken Tennyson would write a poem reflecting on how he had walked and enjoyed the daring undertaking with Hallam in Cauterets.
As a tribute to their loving friendship, Hallam and Tennyson wanted to publish a book of poems together. But Henry Hallam, Hallam’s father, put a stop to it as it was based on Anna Wintour, an older English woman he had met and fallen for in Italy. Troubled by Henry Hallam’s vehement disapproval, the friends dropped the idea.
Tennyson was ecstatic when Hallam became engaged to his younger sister Emily. But their fathers disapproved of the alliance and Henry Hallam forbade Arthur from visiting Tennyson’s place until he turned twenty-one. Soon after, Tennyson’s father died in March 1831, and he was obliged to return home from university, leaving Hallam behind. Little did they know that great suffering was in store for them!
However, they met again and took a trip down the Rhine at Tennyson’s insistence. It is difficult to say when their last meeting took place but scholars reveal that it is around April of 1833 in London. On October 1, Tennyson learned through a letter that Hallam had died of fever unexpectedly on September 15th.
When Hallam died at age twenty-two, Tennyson had turned twenty-four. He lived to be eighty-three, lead a fulsome and successful life, but he never forgot his friend.
Initially, the tragic death was devastating for the sensitive Tennyson. It took him years to get reconciled with the fact that his friend had left him. He wanted to die too and put an end to the torture he was going through. And amidst this turmoil the poem ‘In Memoriam’ was born as a tribute to his ‘near-perfect’ friend.
‘In Memoriam’ is elegiac in nature, with profound philosophical reflections and ends as an epithalamion (wedding poem). Although the poem, which consists of 131 smaller poems of varying length, doesn’t appear to be in sync, but critics believe that the poem is meant to be chronological in terms of the progression of Tennyson`s grief. The passage of time in the poem is marked by the three descriptions of Christmas at different points in the poem, and the poem ends with a description of the marriage of Tennyson`s sister.
While composing ‘In Memoriam’, Tennyson had no intention of weaving the poems together, though he ultimately published them as a single lengthy poem in 1850.
It is said that the work was a great favourite of Queen Victoria, who found it a source of solace after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. "Next to the Bible, In Memoriam is my comfort," she had commented.
Till date, the poem offers solace to those who are in doubt and in search of hope and the ingenious work has stood the test of time. What better tribute to a beloved friend?
“I hold it true, whate`er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
`Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."
(Remembering Alfred Lord Tennyson on his birthday - 6th August, 1809)