26 pages 52 minutes read

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In Memoriam

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1850

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Literary Context

In Memoriam is a revolutionary repurposing of the elegy, a genre of poetry that dates to Antiquity. Before Tennyson’s take on the genre, elegies were designed to provide a poet the opportunity to expound on death as an abstract, a concept, the poet offering wisdom, strategies that would, in turn, help readers by inspiring them to view death, such a private and painful experience, within a wider context; that is, to give loss a context. The poet approached death impersonally—in John Milton’s Lycidas (1638), before Tennyson’s take considered among the defining elegies in British literature, Milton takes the occasion of the death of a young poet in a tragic shipwreck to fashion an elaborate pastoral centered on a character, a young, dreamy, and doomed shepherd named Lycidas. Elegies seldom spoke of a death too personal—often, as is the case in Walt Whitman’s several elegies after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, elegies addressed the loss of some titanic public figure, a head of state, a general, a poet. The tone of such elegies was heightened and ornate, the rhetoric dressed for public recitation, the poet a helpful conduit of such sorrow.