Hallam, Tennyson, Homosexuality and the Critics

Article excerpt

In his introduction to Byron and Greek Love, Louis Crompton identifies a "central issue confronting gay studies"--"the friendship problem":

If a novel, poem, or essay describes or expresses ardent feelings for a member of the same sex, when are we to interpret these as homosexual and when are we to regard them merely as reflections of what is usually called romantic friendship? ... In Byron's day there was a popular cult of romantic friendship to which Byron as a boy had wholeheartedly responded. Many of his early poems were certainly inspired by it. But he also went beyond this by falling in love with boys and (at least during part of his early life) by becoming a homosexual lover in the physical sense (6).

Crompton persuasively argues that the tendency of some contemporary "interpreters" to refuse to "find a homosexual meaning in poetry unless conclusive biographical evidence has been forthcoming" (6-7) may be unnecessarily strict, given the general prejudice against homosexuality. His evidence of Byron's homosexuality (perhaps a component of a bisexuality) is irrefutable.

Yet Crompton also argues for a careful evaluation of the relationships between members of the same sex in historical periods other than our own, and opposes an unduly inclusive definition of homosexuality:

How, in reading the poems or letters or fiction of the past, are we to distinguish between romantic friendship and homosexual love? Both may speak with intense devotion, both reflect strong passion. Can we ever be sure the feeling has or has not an erotic side to it? Modern "scientific" psychology is not always useful. By extending the term homosexual to include all affective relations between men or between women, Freud has obfuscated rather than clarified the issue. Usually friendship does not have an erotic basis. Occasionally it does, and in the latter case the relationship belongs to gay history. (72-73)

Few relationships between men in the nineteenth century have been more subject to sexual speculation than that between Alfred Tennyson and his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Yet, were it not for Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H., perhaps only a Freudian critic would have posited a homosexual connection between the two men. By far the longest, most discursive and complex elegy in English, In Memoriam is also the most personal. In no other memorial does the poet recount in such detail so many incidents from the dead man's life. For no elegy in English, at least, celebrates a closer relationship. Beyond the circumstances of their acquaintance, for example, little can be made of Milton's personal relationship to Edward King; Shelley and Keats barely knew one another; and though Arnold's and Clough's friendship endured longer, "Thyrsis" mostly commemorates their estrangement. "Ave Atque Vale" is perhaps the extreme example of separation of poet and subject: Swinburne never met Baudelaire and knew only his poetry; his elegy was premature, written in response to a false account of the French poet's death (Lang 519). But the subject of In Memoriam was Tennyson's closest friend during the last four years of Hallam's life. Moreover, had he lived, Hallam--engaged to Tennyson's sister Emily--would surely have become a member of the Tennyson family.

Nor, given the language of In Memoriam, is modern speculation about its sexual genesis surprising. From the "Prologue," which speaks of the poet's grief"for one removed, / Thy creature, whom I found so fair" (37-38) to the "Dear friend" of section 129, who, in his transfigured state, apparently becomes "Mine, mine, for ever, ever mine," Arthur Henry Hallam, to judge by the elegy's expressions, seems to have been the object of Tennyson's intense affection.

The critical reception of In Memoriam offers a brief chronicle of nineteenth- and twentieth-century attitudes towards sexuality. During Tennyson's lifetime, there were few objections to the poem's "intimate" tone. …