Monday, September 04, 2006

Seeing the Stages of Loss in In Memoriam

Part one of my masters thesis...


Finding the Stages of Loss in Tennyson’s In Memoriam

This thesis explains the stages of loss in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam using the outline of human emotions in response to grieving as developed by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Through her studies of terminally ill patients, Kubler-Ross identified five stages of accepting death in her book On Death and Dying, specifically, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This work was furthered for the griever specifically in the book On Grief and Grieving. These stages compare to Tennyson’s acceptance of the death of his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.

Defining the Five Stages of Loss
And the Relationship of Hallam and Tennyson

In Memoriam is the work that gave Tennyson the laureateship of Britain after the death of William Wordsworth in 1850 (Gray xiii). Although his name was batted around because of several pieces such as “Ulysses” and “Morte d’Arthur,” it may have been secured when admirer Prince Albert finished In Memoriam and told his wife Queen Victoria about the work (Gray xiii).
It has been universally praised as a masterpiece since its first publication. First of all, it was able to capture the public without publisher’s advertisements and “without its author’s name on the title page” (Shannon 111). It was immediately given praise and appreciation by many of the magazines and critics of the time. It holds some of the greatest expressions of all-time, often quoted and become part of our culture without even knowing where the original came from.
T.S. Eliot even says that with this piece “Tennyson finds full expression” (Eliot 135). He realized that this long poem made a whole, that it was “made by putting together lyrics” (136). He made the first commentary that struck a chord of being a diary, “a diary of which we have to read every word” (136).
The poem has been acclaimed as one of the greatest elegies ever written. The elegy is a poetical form that was originally dictated by its meter in Greek and Latin. Later, the idea of the elegy turned solely to that of a serious lament for a friend or public figure. Milton’s 1637 poem “Lycidas” was the first of these modern elegies not entirely dictated by meter but by its subject, followed with the famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray in 1751. Others include Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” in 1865 and W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” in 1939. Hass comments that “Though In Memoriam does not compile pastoral elegy’s usual concentration of motifs, the poem nevertheless attains literary excellence even as it departs from a unified elegiac form” (673).
Its structure is superb. Much has been said about the rhyme scheme, its diction, and its repeated word choices. There has been much discussion about Tennyson’s inner struggles with then-current scientific theory and religious beliefs in the poem. The poem has been divided into stages before. Hallam, Lord Tennyson, the son of the author of In Memoriam, put together a three-volume set in 1897 called Alfred Lord Tennyson, A Memoir. It is through this work that we get much of what the author himself thought of his own poetry. Tennyson himself divides the poem into three sections, separated by three Christmas holidays. Hallam quotes his father writing about the inner structure of the poem: “’After the death of A.H.H., the divisions of the poem are made by First Xmas Eve (Section XXVIII.), Second Xmas (LXXVIII.), Third Xmas Eve (CIV. And CV. etc.)” (Tennyson, Hallam 106). The poet himself noted some natural stages of division of the poem.
In 1901, A.C. Bradley wrote on the structure of In Memoriam in A Commentary on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Bradley notes the distinction put forward by the author saying that the natural divisions are those of the “Christmas-tide sections” (Bradley 122). He goes even further to set aside a good list of the poems and the natural internal chronology of the seasons within the poem. These divisions are necessary and true because, as Bradley notes, “that each of the 131 sections is, in a sense, a poem complete in itself and accordingly felt to be the expression of the thought of one particular time” (123-4). Bradley continually talks of the poems in “groups which have one subject” (124) and that the progress of the poem is “developed through a series of stages” (124). He clearly elucidates emotions that have transpired by certain sections of the poem, most notably how “the passing away of this bitterness has been already clearly observable before section LXXXV. is reached” (125). He divides the poem even further than the author into four stages, yet they still revolve around the Christmas holiday. In these four sections, he lists marked characteristics and emotions which comprise the sections. This is a catalyst for further research into the divisions of In Memoriam.
I believe that the poem is unconsciously divided into the five stages of the acceptance of death as put forth more than one hundred years later by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., in her book On Death and Dying in 1969. This book itself has been the subject for numerous psychological studies. In it, Kubler-Ross lists how terminally ill patients go through five distinct stages of the acceptance of their own death. These stages are Denial and isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Further studies have used these stages to show the acceptance of the death of loved ones. “Counselors discovered that the five stages of dying that she identified…also applied to other difficult and catastrophic life crises” (
The need for this research corresponds with the recent death of Kubler-Ross in 2004 and her posthumously published book On Grief and Grieving in 2005. She uses the same stages of loss to find the meaning of grief. Notably, this book furthers her own research into the stages of loss and their application to areas outside of terminally ill patients. Therefore, the original premise given the use of On Death and Dying is extremely valid.
Tennyson’s stages in the poem make a correlation to these five stages of death. This is fascinating simply because of the possibility of equating a work published in 1850 with modern psychological study. Amazingly, what Kubler-Ross found in the facets of terminally ill patients and the grieving, Tennyson went through as he wrote this poem In Memoriam in the seventeen years after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam in 1832. In a way, Tennyson was one of the first case studies of Kubler-Ross’ theory. With Tennyson’s work, though, we have a complete seventeen year mourning period, remembering that T.S. Eliot called it a “diary” and many others think it is perhaps one of the most personal works in English literature.

No comments: