Hallam & Tennyson

On this day in 1833 Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly at the age of twenty-two, while on a trip to Vienna. Although a promising poet and essayist, Hallam is chiefly remembered as the one eulogized in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A. H. H.” The two first met at Cambridge, where they became best friends, and members of the legendary intellectual club, the Apostles. Hallam’s death became an enduring inspiration for Tennyson — sixteen years of meditative poems, these connected as stages in an evolving grief, though Tennyson neither foresaw their unity nor expected to publish them. When gathered together and anonymously printed on June 1, 1850, In Memoriam was overwhelmingly popular — 60,000 copies sold in six months — and soon regarded as a monument not just to Hallam but to the Victorian Age.

Tennyson regarded “In Memoriam” as a response to the challenges of Darwinian science and industrialization. Intended as an expression of “my conviction that fear, doubt and suffering will find answer and relief only through Faith in a God of Love,” the poem concludes with a ringing affirmation of “One God, one law, one element, / And one far-off divine event / To which the whole creation moves.” But some find the poem’s doubts and grief more telling than its faith, or prefer the famous lines on human love:

I envy not the beast that takes

His license in the field of time,

Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,

To whom a conscience never wakes;

Nor, what may count itself as blest,

The heart that never plighted troth

But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;

Nor any want-begotten rest.

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.

For Tennyson, the poem was also about love won. Within two weeks of publication, he and Emily Sellwood married, she and her family now having overcome their own doubts about Tennyson’s religious faith. On their honeymoon they visited Arthur Hallam’s grave, “a kind of consecration” of their vows; in time they would name their first son Hallam.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.