TWO of the great seminal poems of the English nineteenth century appeared within weeks of each other in 1850--The Prelude and In Memoriam--the one a long-awaited landmark of what literary historians have called the Age of Wordsworth, the other an eloquent witness, likewise long in preparation, to the new Age of Tennyson. At the end of that same year, largely on the strength of his elegy, Tennyson was called to succeed Wordsworth as poet laureate, an office he regarded with some misgiving, for he disliked all public ceremony and most verse written for state occasions. Yet recognizing the prestige Wordsworth had given the post, he agreed without much delay to accept "This laurel greener from the brows / Of him that uttered nothing base." He was, in other words, humbly proud to assume the mantle of the Romantic master--and indeed to reify that metaphor, for on his presentation to the queen he wore the same too-small court dress that the great, gaunt Wordsworth had borrowed in 1843 for his own installation as laureate.
The Prelude and In Memoriam differ greatly in form and purpose, yet each stands as a public record--a reflection of the essential concerns, hopes, and fears of the society from which it arose. And each is also an intensely personal confession. If In Memoriam A. H. H., as its full title announces, was designed as a tribute to Arthur Henry Hallam, its focus turns quickly to Alfred Tennyson, the depth of his bereavement, and the process by which he recovers assent to life in a world of doubt and denial. The Prelude of 1850, clearly labeled "An Autobiographical Poem," is even more directly subjective as it recounts--though with calculated