Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Calculating Loss in Tennyson's in Memoriam

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Calculating Loss in Tennyson's in Memoriam

Article excerpt

Subtraction and Division

Contemporary attitudes toward recovery from loss have inevitably been influenced by Sigmund Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917). Freud's essay contrasts the work of mourning, whereby the subject detaches itself from the lost object and retrieves its independence, with the condition of melancholia, wherein the subject's refusal to sever the emotional bonds with the lost object results in a confused, diffuse identity. The problem with the successful mourning conceived by "Mourning and Melancholia" is that it permits no salutary fragmentation--the fragmented ego is considered ill, broken, discontinuous with the present. In The Ego and the Id (1923), Freud revises his rigid distinction between melancholia and mourning, admitting that the work of mourning is rarely ever completed and that identification with the lost object, previously considered the cause of melancholia, is actually a necessary stage in development of the ego. (1) In fact, he suggests, "It may be that this identification is the sole condition under which the id can give up its objects" (p. 19), implying that the self is constructed out of a progression of losses and substitutions. The post-mourning intact ego is therefore a conceptual rather than an observed phenomenon. So while "Mourning and Melancholia" has bequeathed to us the influential ideal of a healthy ego as one that is whole, in fact the ego's work of mourning is necessarily unfinished. As Freud himself came to understand, the ego's associations reach further with each experience; a fragmented ego is one that goes on living. The symptoms of melancholia are not its afflictions but its techniques.

Tennyson considered calling his sequence mourning Arthur Hallam "Fragments of an Elegy" or "The Way of the Soul." "Fragments of an Elegy" implies something unfinished, shattered, the shards of something unpieceable, yet it is also within sight of a cognizable whole: the elegy. In contrast, "The Way of the Soul" is too complete, suggesting a narrative, a journey arriving at its proper destination. It allegorizes loss, altering it into a trial for the soul, an event whose interpretation converts the historical occasion into a discrete meaning: a lesson. (2) At last, Tennyson chose neither of these titles. "In Memoriam: A.H.H." was the title given by his fiancee, Emily Sellwood, and it must have provided the solution Tennyson could not bring himself to acknowledge, that his work was a supreme act of remembering and not a resurrection. The title renders the name as initials, a trace or fragment that may possess all the import of a proper name for those who knew Arthur Henry Hallam, yet must remain, for readers who do not, as opaque as any symbol invoked to represent him.

Unlike many other generic categories of poetry, the elegy is not a formal structure. It has no prescribed pattern of lines and rhymes and stresses, the fulfillment of which would signal its completion. The elegy instead operates on a supralinguistic level, responding not to an inventory of letters and numbers, but to the author's sense of having come to an end. In keeping with the informal classification of the elegy, nearly every reader of In Memoriam is confronted with the difficulty of assessing its genre. Confusion begins with the eye: uneven groupings of regular stanzas, numeric order masquerading as unreadable letters. Tennyson's own words on the writing of In Memoriam are as follows:

   The sections were written at many different places, and as the
   phases of our intercourse came to my memory and suggested them. I
   did not write them with any view of weaving them into a whole, or
   for publication, until I found that I had written so many. 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. … 
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