“Physical Imagery and its Effects in In Memoriam”


Tennyson is well known for his elaborate usage of symbolism to convey his meaning. His masterpiece In Memoriam is filled with many different kinds of this symbolism to help the reader truly understand his stages of grief, doubt, and eventually hope. Some of the most interesting are the many different physical images that he uses throughout. I will be looking at the way he uses such imagery, how it affects the reader, and why I believe Tennyson has chosen to do so.

When searching for physical images, one can find many. So many, in fact, that one could be found on nearly every page of the poem. As said by Felicity Rose, “the sense of loss conveyed in the poem as a whole, and especially in these sections, is intense and physical: a beating heart, a once-clasped hand.” The meanings of the images change as the speaker goes through his various stages. In his “The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry”, E.D.H. Johnson describes the stages in four segments, including unrestrained grief, emotional numbness, hesitant hope, and finally certainty in his religious faith (17). All of the images develop through these stages. The first I will focus on is the image of hands.

The “hand” image plays an important role throughout this piece. In the very beginning parts, we find the “hand” to be an almost painful memory for the speaker. The hand represents the physical body of his deceased friend, Hallam. Since the physical body is no longer present, the speaker longs for the touch of his friend. Such an example is in Section 7, where Tennyson states he is: "waiting for a hand, A hand that can be clasp'd no more". Here, we see how devastating it is for him not to be able to have the physical presence of his loved one. Another example of this is in Section 40: "But thou and I have shaken hands". It still is an ungraspable notion for the speaker that the hand he once shook that belonged to the person he so dearly loved is no more.

We find the “hand” image also being used to convey different ideas as the poem moves along. Often, Tennyson uses this image to speak of his struggles with his faith. In Section 55: “I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope…” Here, Tennyson relates hands to the human means of praying. But, he notes his hands are “lame”, and he must “grope”. Through this metaphor, we understand the struggle Tennyson is having with his religion. Although he is praying, he is saying his faith is hindering him. The death of his friend has brought to mind many questions of doubt of a life beyond.

In the end, we find the hand image as different as the speaker was from the beginning of the poem. For example, there is a great shift in tone in Section 106. Here, he asks to rid all the grief and darkness, and ring in joy and all things new. This tone change also applies to his usage of the hands image. Here, he asks to ring in “the larger heart, the kindlier hand”. It seems that now a hand can symbolize more than a friendship lost. Now, it is symbolizing newness and friendship, as well as hope. The speaker moves on in this moment. As Tatiana Kuzmowycz notes, “This moment of life and vivacity suggests that from every dark tunnel emerges light.”

The image of a heart is also another much used symbol in this poem. This is often used in accordance with the “hand” image to represent pain and grief. For example, in Section 11: “…in my heart, if calm at all, if any calm, a calm despair…” This is a reference to the only peace that he is experiencing is when he is asleep. It is clear here that Tennyson closely relates emotion and pain as coming from the heart, and the heart is the center of human emotions. We see a similar idea in Section 37 when he refers to his “aching heart”. But a heart also is also closely tied to the life force of human beings. It is noted in Section 13, where he speaks of Hallam as the “the human-hearted man I loved.” We also see this when Tennyson speaks of the “pulses” and “beats” in Section 85. It is truly this that separates him from his friend, whose heart no longer beats, and it is this that divides the living from the dead.

The brows and eyes are mentioned numerous times throughout In Memoriam . The eyes are tied into some of the speaker's grief stage. In Section 13, he states: “Mine eyes have leisure for their tears…” It is from eyes that tears flow, which are a physical showing of his pain. Yet it seems Tennyson uses this image the most when he is speaking of higher powers and wisdom. Such is in Section 87: “and over those ethereal eyes…the bar of Michael Angelo.” It is in this section that Tennyson explains how this physical similarity proved the great intellectual potential of his friend. In Turner's book “Tennyson”, he notes how Tennyson claimed Hallam to be a “universal genius” who was a “beacon of light in the darkness of the world” (114). We also find the brow symbolizing wisdom in Section 37 when he speaks of “Urania…with darken'd brow”. Urania was thought to be a great muse of poetry, and was a figure of intellectualism.

The above mentioned are just some of the many physical images within this piece of work. There are many other, less used ones, including the arms, the face, the head, the body, and the feet. All represent similar themes, like grief, the desire for physical touch, emotions, and eventually recovery and a new beginning. But being there are so many, one may ask why Tennyson chose to include these images.

One of the main reasons is to truly represent the magnitude of his loss. As humans, we know one another and ourselves through the physical being. When that is suddenly taken away, much shock and pain often follows. In his book “Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism”, Tucker seems to agree by noting a “mourner's natural craving for visual presence”(393). By using so many of body's parts as images, we are constantly reminded of what he has lost, and what he can see no more. We also find a similar idea Section 129 of the poem. Here, Tennyson reflects on his “strange friend”, a friend, who Timothy Peltason notes, is “a friend from the other side of a border or a great divide” (198). Tennyson seems to want to dwell in the sadness of how no matter how close two people were in life, death will forever divide them.

It is interesting to note that throughout all his grief over the loss of the physical person of Hallam, Tennyson insist early on in Section 13 that he loved Hallam's "Spirit" not his "breathing voice". Considering the intense emphasis on the body and touch, this raises and interesting problem for readers. Did the speaker really love the spirit of Hallam? After all, the spirit may have carried on. But his grief seems strongly centered around the idea of missing Hallam's physical self. This is something he grapples with until nearly the end of the poem, where he put his faith in religion and a world beyond the one we are living in.

Perhaps the most interesting reason, though, may lie in the fundamental differences of material versus spiritual worlds, as well as the double awareness of Victorian poetry. Much of Tennyson's poetry and life contains two opposing extremes. It is my belief that it is this idea of dualism within the world that is the inspiration behind much of Tennyson's choice for images. Some examples can be found in some of his earlier poetry. One such example is his poem, “The Two Voices”. In this poem, Tennyson is dealing with two battling voices in his head, one that sees the good in the world and wants to carry on, and another that is hopeless and wishes to die. Another such example is from his poem “The Lotos-Eaters”. In this poem, the speaker is battling between the ideas of a life of tranquility versus a life of hard work and labor. There are also many such struggles within In Memoriam .

One such example is the idea of faith versus doubt. Much of the poem is an internal argument with himself over religious matters. He is consistently struggling about whether he should believe or whether he shouldn't. Another such example is giving up versus moving on, and life versus death. In the beginning of the poem, Tennyson feels as though a life without Hallam may not be worth living. Yet towards the end, he decides “I will not eat my heart alone”. Also, he is always struggling with the differences between the living and the dead. But perhaps the most fascinating is the constant struggle he has with separating the material, physical world versus the spiritual world. Tennyson grapples with the ideas of the modern world versus the spiritual world he intuitively feels exists.

The situation with which the speaker is dealing with is almost ironic. He is faced with whether he should place his faith in what he can actually touch and feel and see, or with what it is that he cannot see. The physical person is what he loved, yet now is causing the grief. If the physical body deteriorates, how can he place his faith and love in that? Yet, if he isn't certain about a spiritual world beyond the one we are living, how can he put hope into that? His struggle is something that humankind is constantly questioning. Yet in the ending of this poem, we find that he ultimately puts his faith in God. As Tennyson said, “Yes, it is true. There are moments when this flesh is nothing to me, when I feel and know the flesh to be the vision, God and the spiritual to be the only real and true—depend upon it, the spiritual is the real, and it belongs to one more than the hand and the foot” (Johnson 3). Both in the poem and in Tennyson's life, we find his belief in the spiritual overwhelms the physical world around him.

Tennyson has been quoted as saying, “Sometimes as I sit here alone in this great room, I get carried away out of sense and body, and rapt out of mere existence, till the accidental touch or movement of one of my own fingers is like a great shock and blow and brings the body back with a terrible shock”(Johnson 3). I believe it is this ability and belief of Tennyson that drove him to use so much physical imagery. It is clear from this quote alone that he believed that there was much more than the physical body, and there is almost a constant struggle by humans to contain two such different sides.




Johnson, E.D.H. The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry: Sources of the Poetic Imagination in Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold. New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 1952.


Kincaid, James R. Tennyson's Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns . Massachusetts : The Colonial Press Inc., 1975.


Tucker, Herbert F. Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism . Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 1988.


Turner, Paul. Tennyson . Massachusetts : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.


The Victorian Web 25 Nov. 2005 http://www.victorianweb.org/ .

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