8

While reading Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H., written in honor of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam, I noticed that Christmas is a recurring theme. In appears several times:

  • Sections XXVIII - XXX, from "The time draws near the birth of Christ" to "The light that shone when hope was born".
  • Section LXXVIII, from "Again at Christmas did we weave" to "And dance and song and hoodman-blind".
  • Sections CIV - CVI, from "The time draws near the birth of Christ" to "Ring in the Christ that is to be".

I then checked Wikipedia, which notes what I had already thought:

The passage of time is marked by the three descriptions of Christmas at different points in the poem

which makes sense, as In Memoriam was written over more than a decade. However, I think there might be more to it than that. For instance, stanza CVII transitions from celebrating Christmas ("the birth of Christ") to discussing the anniversary of Hallam's birth in February ("It is the day when he was born"). It's a little suggestive of a certain parallel - although, granted, it could simply be that Christmas reminded Tennyson of when he celebrated with his friend.

Is there a deeper significance to Tennyson's repeated description of Christmases past and present, beyond simply showing how the years go by without Hallam?

5

It's hard to answer questions about the meaning of a particular event or object in a given work. Such questions seem to rely on a one-to-one allegorical equivalence: a clean shirt means a soul unbesmirched by sin, twilight means approaching death, etc. But literature doesn't make meaning through a system where decoding a given token yields its intended significance.

Perhaps a more fruitful way to think about Christmas in In Memoriam is to ask: How do the repeated occurrences of Christmas work in the poem? What is their effect? When we compare the different representations of Christmas in the poem with each other, what similarities and differences do we see? What might we make of those parallels and contrasts?

Critics generally agree that the three Christmases in In Memoriam serve a structural purpose. Philip Mitchell writes:

It is possible to see the sequence structured around a three year period built around the three Christmas poems; each poem shows a growing sense of hope and resignation as time passes.

In other words, the Christmas poems do more than simply mark the passage of time. They also show how the poet's response to that death moves from despair and denial to acceptance and hope over the years following Hallam's death. This view goes back at least as far as 1883. In a work published that year, Tennyson's In Memoriam: Its purpose and its structure, John F. Genung observed:

It would seem, then, that the poem comprises different cycles of thought, to each of which Christmas, standing at the head, gives significance; and when we compare with one another the cycles thus introduced, we find that all have a similar structure, and that each contributes its part in an advancing and broadening series.

(p. 89)

Genung argues that the first cycle focuses on the past: on memories of good times with Hallam that can never be relived. The second cycle focuses on the present: on the community of friends and on enjoyments that Hallam would have been a part of had he been alive. The final cycle focuses on the future: on the renewal of that community and its evolution into a higher force.

A reading of the three Christmas celebrations does demonstrate an overall trajectory from sorrow to resignation. In the first one, Section XXVIII, Tennyson describes his despair on hearing Christmas bells:

This year I slept and woke with pain,
     I almost wish'd no more to wake,
     And that my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again.

When the poet and his companions do attempt traditional Christmas activities, such as singing carols, those are followed by tears:

Then echo-like our voices rang;
     We sung, tho' every eye was dim,
     A merry song we sang with him
Last year: impetuously we sang:

We ceased: a gentler feeling crept
     Upon us: surely rest is meet:
     "They rest," we said, "their sleep is sweet,"
And silence follow'd, and we wept.

By the next Christmas celebration, Section LXXVIII, the mood has changed. The poet participates in the season's traditional joys again, but this time, those joys do not bring tears. Basically, the poet is all cried out:

     Again our ancient games had place,
     The mimic picture's breathing grace,
And dance and song and hoodman-blind.

Who show'd a token of distress?
     No single tear, no mark of pain:
     O sorrow, then can sorrow wane?
O grief, can grief be changed to less?

O last regret, regret can die!
     No — mixt with all this mystic frame,
     Her deep relations are the same,
But with long use her tears are dry.

The third Christmas, beginning at Section CIV, is different yet again. This time, the poet seeks to keep Christmas ("the night I loved") free of sorrow, while simultaneously abjuring all the traditional forms of celebration:

No more shall wayward grief abuse
     The genial hour with mask and mime;
     For change of place, like growth of time,
Has broke the bond of dying use.

Let cares that petty shadows cast,
     By which our lives are chiefly proved,
     A little spare the night I loved,
And hold it solemn to the past.

But let no footstep beat the floor,
     Nor bowl of wassail mantle warm;
     For who would keep an ancient form
Thro' which the spirit breathes no more?

Be neither song, nor game, nor feast;
     Nor harp be touch'd, nor flute be blown...

The famous New Year poem that immediately follows underscores this commitment to letting go of empty grief as well as empty joys, and to a renewal:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
     The flying cloud, the frosty light:
     The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
     Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
     The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
     For those that here we see no more;

"Let him die" and "let him go" refer to the year, of course; but they equally refer to Hallam. Tennyson is explicitly letting go of the grief of Hallam's death. This is not to say that he has gotten over it. Rather, as the next few poems show, he is determined to honor Hallam's qualities and remember him with joy rather than sorrow.

Structurally, then, the three Christmas celebrations are important milestones in the overall journey of In Memoriam from despair to acceptance, even to joy. The Prologue asks for "a beam in darkness: let it grow"; the Epilogue is an epithalamium for the poet's sister, who was engaged to Hallam at the time of his death, but is now the bride of another. As the joyful Epilogue shows, the poem as a whole shows that the prayer in the Prologue is answered:

     help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

The Christmas sections show the different stages through which "foolish ones" progress as they learn how to cope with sorrow and arrive at the "light".

0

This is very far from a complete analysis, but it is worth pointing out that the poem is addressed to Christ and that it begins and ends with the theme of incarnation.

Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou.

Christ is the author of life and death, but he will not leave us in the dust. Through the incarnation he redeems us (will not leave us in the dust) and becomes the perfect model of manliness.

And again at the end:

A soul shall draw from out the vast
And strike his being into bounds,

And, moved thro' life of lower phase,
Result in man, be born and think,
And act and love, a closer link
Betwixt us and the crowning race

Of those that, eye to eye, shall look
On knowledge, under whose command
Is Earth and Earth's, and in their hand
Is Nature like an open book;

No longer half-akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did,
And hoped, and suffer'd, is but seed
Of what in them is flower and fruit;

It is because of the incarnation that we are kin to Christ and therefore no longer half-akin to brute.

And then:

That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

The divine event to what the whole creation moves is (reasonably) the incarnation.

And Christmas, of course, is the feast of the incarnation.

  • 1
    True enough, but whether Tennyson held Christian beliefs is a matter for debate and cannot be assumed as given. The Christianity of In Memoriam in particular has been disputed since as far back as 1892. – verbose Feb 7 '17 at 18:03
  • His belief may be debatable. That does not change the themes and images of the work itself. A Man for All Season is a profound exploration of Catholic conscience but was written by an agnostic (if memory serves). A work stands apart from the artist. – Mark Baker Feb 7 '17 at 18:10
  • The point is, whether those images and themes are to be interpreted as conventionally Christian. Your answer seems to assume so, and provides no hint that this should not be taken for granted. The links I've provided are specifically about In Memoriam, not generally about Tennyson's personal belief. Also, "all work stands apart from the artist" is itself a debatable proposition. – verbose Feb 7 '17 at 18:17
  • The book I have containing In Memoriam A.H.H. also has a footnote at the beginning of the poem. It contains, among other things, a quote from Tennyson: "'I' is not always the author speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking through him." This jibes with much of what @verbose is saying. – HDE 226868 Feb 7 '17 at 18:27

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