Tennyson’s Impressionistic Language of Wisdom in In Memoriam XCV

April 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Throughout Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the speaker (assumed to be the poet himself) battles with the grief and confusion caused by the untimely death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Over the course of the poem, indeed over the seventeen years it took for Tennyson to complete it, the reader witnesses Tennyson’s personal maturation and growth. As a young man he is seeking concrete knowledge and yearning for impossible physical contact; later, he recognizes the abstract wisdom of uncertainty. Tennyson’s language throughout the poem echoes this development. By the poem’s climax, section XCV, the author is finally able to accept doubt and become comfortable with the abstract and inexplicable.Tennyson’s impressionistic use of language in section XCV of In Memoriam enables him to convey his otherwise inexpressible, trance-like experience. Unlike many of the previous sections of the poem, in which Tennyson explicitly and assuredly states what he feels and what he wants to express, here he uses lyrical language of the lyric to finally embrace uncertainty and the wisdom that comes with it. His poetic techniques and careful use of language transform “matter-moulded forms of speech” (46) into perfectly appropriate “vague words” (45) that convey his supra-rational experience.The style Tennyson adapts and the poetic devices he uses in this section affect the reader on a level that is both sub- and supra-rational. The supra-rational is a concept with which Tennyson had felt intimately familiar since boyhood. He often refers to it as “the Absolute Reality” in his diaries. Instead of experiencing and expressing life as most people do and as he had done previously, in XCV Tennyson removes any rational aspect of the experience, leaving only the high and low extremes – sensation and sublime perception. Alan Sinfield calls this bipolar approach “working on the edge[s] of human experience,” saying that Tennyson tries “to preserve the simultaneity and equality of the impressions which compose [the inexplicable]” (Language 106), that is, the impressions gathered from the sub- and supra-rational. Tennyson must eschew the intellect both to understand and to communicate his trance: it is not needed for experiencing intangible emotion, and it is incapable of anything but detraction from the sublime. It follows that Tennyson, in appealing to these qualities that the reader senses as Platonic forms only – existent but fuzzy, clearly existing in another plane but impossible to understand – uses traditionally nonsensical lingual constructs. Throughout most of the poem Tennyson uses regular language and grammatical structure that appeals at least in part to the intellect. When he feels he is unable to communicate through language, he simply states that fact. In section LIV he calls himself “an infant crying in the night… with no language but a cry” (19-20). At other times he says that “Measured language [is a] sad mechanic exercise” (V.6-7), and that “Truth in closest words shall fail” (XXXVI.6). He repeats this lament so often in the early parts of the poem that Schad goes so far as to call In Memoriam an elegy not only for Hallam, but for the language that Tennyson has lost (171). Since he is rooted in a world of knowledge and a search for the concrete, the young Tennyson feels compelled to quantify and catalogue his inability to communicate. He strives for facts, and hates himself for his doubt. As time passes, Tennyson matures and his ideas evolve. Eventually, aided by the climactic trance of XCV, he realizes that to achieve “the innermost essence of spiritual awareness” (Sinfield, Language 71), he should strive for wisdom, which he recognizes as nonfactual and vague. The ability to do this was something he had always admired in Hallam, whom he calls “bold to dwell / On doubts that drive the coward back, / And keen thro’ wordy snares to track / Suggestion to her inmost cell” (29-32). When Tennyson finally opens himself, and through him the reader, to a “creative fusion allowing the senses to mix and passions to meet without fearful consequences,” he “[recognizes] the value of wisdom as compared to mere knowledge, and [accepts] mystery” (Dunn 145). His new desire for amorphous wisdom merges with the familiar yearning for Hallam, and together they make up his new “vague desire” (LXXX, 1).With Tennyson’s shift to seeking wisdom over knowledge comes a shift from lamenting his inability to express himself to showing that inexpressibility, thus effectively communicating it after all. This shift is what marks section XCV as the climax of In Memoriam. In an analogous, slightly ironic shift, many of Tennyson’s earlier subjunctive verbs begin to change to the indicative mood in XCV (Sinfield, “That Which Is” 251). The subjunctive mood by definition carried with it doubt and uncertainty, even though Tennyson was seeking knowledge and surety at the time. Now the verbs become indicative, showing his newfound comfort and acceptance of the surety of uncertainty.Once Tennyson has come to terms with the uncertainty inherent in wisdom, he is able to fully and impressionistically express his trance. In doing so he merges his soul not only with Hallam’s and the Absolute, but also with the reader, who now fully appreciates the situation and Tennyson’s feelings. It is clear that Tennyson feels united with the entire universe rather than with just Hallam, as he characterizes the trance by saying “The living soul was flash’d on mine” (36), a revision of an earlier manuscript’s “His living soul.” Finally Tennyson “stops worrying about the vagueness of words and the difficulty memory presents to the intellect,” and “we find XCV achieving the imaginative vision that it explores” (Dunn 137).Tennyson’s language in XCV is carefully constructed so as to be as indistinct in form as it is in meaning. He couples imagery with notoriously nonsensical figures of speech to reach the reader’s sub-rational senses through synaesthesia, pathetic fallacy and personification, and repetition. Synaesthesia, a confused, mixed up idea in itself, runs throughout the section, reflecting Tennyson’s mental state. He hears the “fluttering” of the fire in the urn in line eight. Fire is often seen or felt, and perhaps heard crackling, but fluttering flames are never heard. Scent is not smelled in the poem, but seen to move – while simultaneously being described as “still,” while the other-worldly breeze “fluctuates” the perfume of line fifty-six. Numerous senses seem to mingle and meld in the final stanzas of the section, carried along and supernaturally altered by the ethereal breeze. Pathetic fallacy, personification, and projections upon nature of both Tennyson and Hallam are frequent in the poem. The reader gets the sense throughout that the night and the breeze are benevolent, as opposed to earlier nights that had been harsh and hostile. Bats, which often have negative connotations, playfully wheel around in the “fragrant skies” (9), and the “calm” (5) of the evening leaves candles to burn peacefully. Trees lay down their “dark arms” (16, 52). After the trance the pathetic fallacy is quite apparent: the dusk is now “doubtful” (49), the breeze trembles (54), and the breaking day will be “boundless,” like the liberated souls of Hallam and Tennyson now are. Even the lights in the final stanza mix just as Tennyson’s overwhelming senses do. The repetition of the lines “The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees / Laid their dark arms about the field” (15-16; 51-52) mirror the natural power and emotion that continually wash over Tennyson, and the repetition also reflects how the cows and trees have picked up new meaning and carry more magic now that Tennyson has experienced the Absolute.Tennyson uses language to communicate the sublime aspects of his experience through syntax and grammar, polysyndeton, and abstract concepts. The overall arrangement of the words, clauses, and images does a great deal towards imparting the feeling of an encounter with the Absolute. In fact, much of the section consists of a series of images, made up of incomplete sentences. The opening segments have an especially high concentration of these clauses, exemplified by the first stanza’s images and heavy caesuras: “…underfoot the herb was dry; / And genial warmth; and o’er the sky / The silvery haze of summer drawn.” The second stanza continues in similar fashion. This way of conveying the images, with the mind and senses being barraged again and again before they can even fully take in the first impact, allows for a disjointed, yet unified, impression that regular sentences cannot produce. As Shaw puts it, “The strongly marked caesuras at the end of the lines and clauses prepare for a contraction and silencing of thought” as the “grammatical units simultaneously attach to and separate from the units that precede” (75). Though the most pronounced series of such images appears at the beginning, they are found throughout the poem as well. They recur again after Tennyson’s trance has ended – in the final four stanzas, almost every line presents another image. Polysyndeton plays a major role in making this technique work, and XCV is sprinkled with superfluous conjunctions. Sixteen of the lines actually start with the word “and,” and there are there are at least that many instances of the word used internally. This polysyndeton emphasizes the series of images and Tennyson’s inability to directly express his excess of overwhelming emotion. In the closing stanzas, the “ands,” along with many monosyllabic verbs, act as rivets that directly or indirectly join together many paired images. We see couples of trees (the sycamore and the elm), flowers (the roses and the lilies), and the lights from the east and the west, all melded with one another as well as with the supernatural breeze that blows through it all (Shaw 77). Finally, Tennyson uses language to convey the supra-reality by embracing abstract concepts. He is ready to forsake knowledge and to strive for wisdom, and along with wisdom Hallam and the Absolute. This is especially fitting, since Hallam was famed among his friends in part for being such an eloquent speaker. Through his language, Tennyson attempts to take a “step towards the quasi-mystic union… where the spirit of Hallam is ‘mixed with God and Nature’ (XXX)” (Puckett 112).All of the sensations evoked by nature and the Absolute that suffuse Tennyson’s scene, combined with the leaves that bring happy memories of Hallam – whether they are indeed Hallam’s old letters or leaves fallen from a tree is irrelevant – cause a trance in which Tennyson is “…wound, and whirl’d / About empyreal heights of thought” (37-8), and in which he “[comes] upon that which is” (39). “That which is” is best interpreted as Plato’s absolute, and Tennyson’s “Absolute Reality” (Sinfield, “That Which Is” 249). With these lines and images, Tennyson brings into his poem even more than he explicitly shows himself, with the allusions to Plato and Dante’s famous circular Paradise adding more color for the familiar reader. Tennyson’s merger with the universe is completed when he “[catches] / The deep pulsations of the world” (40), and hears “Aeonian music measuring out / The steps of Time – the shocks of Chance – / The blows of Death” (41-3). He has achieved true wisdom, and is suddenly mingling with “the living soul” (36), which is both Hallam’s and “Reality’s.”In section XCV of In Memoriam, Tennyson manages to attain wisdom and doubt and to convey them through language that illustrates uncertainty while bombarding the reader with sub- and supra-rational feeling that is beyond the reach of the intellect and regular sensible speech. This skillful use of language lends credence to the fantastic experience that Tennyson himself, when he tries, can only describe as occurring “strangely… and strange… and strangely” (25-8). Tennyson’s preternatural experience is strikingly clear to him, and he manages to express it through common, earthly words with which he paints a “pictorial vagueness” that “[makes] the mystical real to us” (Sinfield, Language 71).

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