In Memoriam A.H.H.

"In Memoriam A.H.H." is a poem by the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, completed in 1849. It is a requiem for the poet's beloved Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in Vienna in 1833, aged 22. It contains some of Tennyson's most accomplished lyrical work, and is an unusually sustained exercise in lyric verse. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest poems of the 19th century.[1]

In Memoriam
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Title page of 1st edition (1850)
CountryUnited Kingdom
Genre(s)Requiem, Elegy
Pages90 pages

The original title of the poem was "The Way of the Soul", and this might give an idea of how the poem is an account of all Tennyson's thoughts and emotions as he grieves over the death of a close friend. He views the cruelty of nature and mortality in light of materialist science and faith. Owing to its length and its arguable breadth of focus, the poem might not be thought an elegy or a dirge in the strictest formal sense.


The poem is not arranged exactly in the order in which it was written. The prologue, for example, is thought to have been one of the last things written. The earliest material is thought to be that which begins "Fair ship, that from the Italian shore | Saileth the placid ocean-plains" and imagines the return of Hallam's body from Italy. Critics believe, however, that the poem as a whole is meant to be chronological in terms of the progression of Tennyson's grief. The passage of time is marked by the three descriptions of Christmas at different points in the poem, and the poem ends with a description of the marriage of Tennyson's sister.

"In Memoriam" is written in four-line ABBA stanzas of iambic tetrameter, and such stanzas are now called In Memoriam Stanzas. Though not metrically unusual, given the length of the work, the metre creates a tonal effect that often divides readers – is it the natural sound of mourning and grief, or merely monotonous? The poem is divided into 133 cantos (including the prologue and epilogue), and in contrast to its constant and regulated metrical form, encompasses many different subjects: profound spiritual experiences, nostalgic reminiscence, philosophical speculation, Romantic fantasizing and even occasional verse. The death of Hallam, and Tennyson's attempts to cope with this, remain the strand that ties all these together.


The most frequently quoted lines in the poem are perhaps

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

This stanza is to be found in Canto 27. The last two lines are usually taken as offering a meditation on the dissolution of a romantic relationship. However, the lines originally referred to the death of the poet's beloved friend. They are reminiscent of a line from William Congreve's popular 1700 play, The Way of the World: "'tis better to be left than never to have been loved."

Another much-quoted phrase from the poem is "nature, red in tooth and claw," found in Canto 56, referring to humanity:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

Also, the following are found in Canto 54

So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.

Also occasionally quoted are these lines from Canto 123

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

This references the recent discovery by geologists of Earth's great age and mutability, a scientific wonder that underlay emerging ideas of nature and evolution.[2]

Nature, red in tooth and claw

Although this phrase "tooth and claw" is commonly ascribed to Tennyson, it already was in use. For example, The Hagerstown Mail in March 1837: "Hereupon, the beasts, enraged at the humbug, fell upon him tooth and claw."[3]

In writing the poem, Tennyson was influenced by the evolutionary ideas of transmutation of species presented in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation which had been published in 1844, and had caused a storm of controversy about the theological implications of impersonal nature functioning without direct divine intervention. An Evangelical focus on unquestioning belief in revealed truth taken from a literal interpretation of the Bible was already coming into conflict with emerging findings of science. Tennyson expressed the difficulties evolutionary ideas raised for faith in "the truths that never can be proved", while still believing the older idea that reason would eventually harmonise science and religion, as there could be no real contradiction.[4] Canto 55 asks:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

Then in Canto 56 Tennyson asks whether Man (Who trusted God was love indeed/ And love Creation's final law—/ Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw/ With ravine, shriek'd against his creed) would also "Be blown about the desert dust, Or seal'd within the iron hills?"

However, at the end of the poem, Tennyson emerges with his Christian faith reaffirmed, progressing from doubt and despair to faith and hope, a dominant theme also seen in his poem "Ulysses".[5]

If e'er when faith had fallen asleep,
I hear a voice 'believe no more'
And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumbled in the Godless deep;
A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason's colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answer'd 'I have felt.'
No, like a child in doubt and fear:
But that blind clamour made me wise;
Then was I as a child that cries,
But, crying knows his father near;

This poem was published a decade before Charles Darwin made his theory public. However, the phrase "Nature, red in tooth and claw" in canto 56 quickly was adopted by others as a phrase that evokes the process of natural selection. It was and is used by both those opposed to and in favour of the theory of evolution.[6][7][8][9]

Queen Victoria and "In Memoriam"

The poem was a great favourite of Queen Victoria, who after the death of Prince Albert wrote that she was "soothed & pleased" by it.[10] In 1862 Victoria requested a meeting with Tennyson because she was so impressed by the poem, and when she met him again in 1883 she told him what a comfort it had been.[11]

Other themes

The British literary scholar Christopher Ricks relates the following lines to Tennyson's childhood home at Somersby Rectory in Somersby, Lincolnshire, particularly the poet's departure after the death of his father.[12]

Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway,
The tender blossom flutter down,
Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away.

Arthur Conan Doyle quotes the lines "Oh yet we trust that somehow good/will be the final goal of ill" and the two stanzas beginning "I falter where I firmly trod" in his novella The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898), where the poem is called "the grandest and the deepest and the most inspired in our language".[13]


  1. Andrew Hass; David Jasper; Elisabeth Jay (2007). The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology. Oxford University Press. p. 607. ISBN 0-19-927197-6.
  2. George P. Landow (2012). "The hills are shadows, and they flow from form to form, and nothing stands". Victorian Web. Retrieved 1 March 2019
  3. Josef L. Altholz, Professor of History, University of Minnesota (1976). "The Warfare of Conscience with Theology". The Mind and Art of Victorian England. Victorian Web. Retrieved 6 November 2007.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. AQA A AS English Literature: Victorian Literature: Student's Book
  5. Charles Darwin-A Short Biography, Sciencesy 2018.
  6. Red in Tooth and Claw, Gary Martin, Phrases, Sayings and Idioms at The Phrase Finder, 1996.
  7. Start of preface to 1976 edition Archived 12 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Excerpt from The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. (2nd Edition 1989) Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. 4. The Evolutionary Implications of Living with the Ice Age, William James Burroughts, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-521-82409-5
  9. 5 January 1862
  10. 7 August 1883
  11. Ricks, Christopher (1989). Tennyson. University of California Press. p. 136. ISBN 9780520067844.
  12. Doyle, Arthur Conan (1905). The Tragedy of the Korosko. Smith, Elder, & Company. p. 330.

Further reading

  • A. C. Bradley, A Commentary on Tennyson's In Memoriam. London, Macmillan and Co. 1901.
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