Mourning at the Mother's Breast: On Death and Weaning in Tennyson's in Memoriam

By Harris, Kurt | PSYART, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Mourning at the Mother's Breast: On Death and Weaning in Tennyson's in Memoriam


Harris, Kurt, PSYART


In Section 44 of Tennyson's In Memoriam, the poem's speaker evokes the image of an infant at the mother's breast, an image that is the key to an understanding of the link the poem makes between language and touch. The speaker's recognition of the inadequacy of language to fill the void of the lost loved object (Arthur) leads him to question the nature of the subject/object split. Employing the theories of Winnicott, Klein, Kristeva, and Abraham and Torok, this essay argues that the text produced by the speaker, who calls forth the universal foundational lost object (the mother) in semiotic (maternal and poetic) language, serves as a mediating object between the mourning, infantilized speaker and his empathetic, maternalized ideal reader.

keywords:Tennyson,

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_harris01.shtml

O wheresoever those may be,

Betwixt the slumber of the poles,

To-day they count as kindred souls;

They know me not, but mourn with me. (99.17-20)

Most readers of Victorian poetry know that Alfred Tennyson's writing of In Memoriam A. H. H. was inspired by the profound, unexpected loss of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. This poetic, public mourning of a private man sold 60,000 copies within several months of its initial publication, which is evidence that many Victorian readers, who knew neither Tennyson nor Hallam personally, could identify with the speaker expressing Tennyson's loss (Marshall 98). Despite the occasional cultural and linguistic obstacle that necessitates a scholar's footnote, many readers today can still identify with In Memoriam's speaker. Why? Why was this long, unconventional poem so popular when it was published, and why do we still read it today? What are the processes by which signifying systems, such as those embodied in Tennyson's poem, call forth strong emotions in audience members who have little or no apparent connection with the texts' grief-stricken characters?

In my attempt to address these questions, I will argue that the text produced by the poem's speaker calls forth the universal foundational lost object (the mother) in a sometimes cryptic, almost pre-symbolic language and thereby serves as a mediating object between the mourning, infantilized speaker and his empathetic, maternalized ideal reader. While I rely in this essay on the theories of psychoanalysts-in particular, D. W. Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Julia Kristeva, and Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok-my aim is not to psychoanalyze Tennyson the man. I wish, rather, to shed light on an underappreciated pattern in one of his most popular poems. Specifically, my object is to bring to light Tennyson's pre-Freudian object relations theory, a theory that lies at the center of his epic expression of grief, In Memoriam.

W. David Shaw describes In Memoriam as a "psychotherapist's report," while he notes T. S. Eliot's description of the poem as "entries in a diary" (132). I consider In Memoriam in a similar light, as a type of stream-of-consciousness text revealing the contents of a subject's psyche; however, I want to avoid implying that the poem is-to borrow the title of Shaw's chapter on In Memoriam-the "Autobiography of a Mourner." Despite its obvious basis in verifiable historical events, Tennyson's apparent inaccuracies regarding the return of Hallam's body to England and the burial place itself indicates that he was not attempting to represent entirely the facts and that, by extension, he was not attempting to represent entirely his own grieving process.

Darrel Mansell chides Tennyson for his "errors," arguing that "Tennyson's In Memoriam gets wrong some simple and obvious facts and that "In Memoriam could be expected to have such details right. It is after all a poem of hagiographic reverence for its subject [. . .]" Moreover, Mansell implies that Tennyson's intent was to misrepresent, by purposely avoiding, the historical truth: "I contend," writes Mansell, "that he scrupulously avoided knowing the facts [. …

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