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From In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Her eyes are homes of silent prayer,
      Nor other thought her mind admits
      But, he was dead, and there he sits,
And he that brought him back is there.
Then one deep love doth supersede
      All other, when her ardent gaze
      Roves from the living brother's face,
And rests upon the Life indeed.
All subtle thought, all curious fears,
      Borne down by gladness so complete,
      She bows, she bathes the Saviour's feet
With costly spikenard and with tears.
Thrice blest whose lives are faithful prayers,
      Whose loves in higher love endure;
      What souls possess themselves so pure,
Or is there blessedness like theirs?
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week. On November 2, the Church keeps the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed—All Souls. To mark this day of remembrance of the dead, I’ve chosen a poem from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, one of the most celebrated elegies in English. In this poem from In Memoriam, Tennyson imagines the thoughts of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, after Jesus raises her brother from the dead. Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Thank you, Scott.
Alfred Tennyson was born in Somersby, in Lincolnshire, England, in 1809. A poet from a young age, he first won acclaim while a student at Cambridge, where he was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for an early poem. It was also at Cambridge that Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam, another aspiring poet, who became his closest friend. Everything was going well for Tennyson: in 1830, he published a well-reviewed collection of poems; and in 1831, his friend Hallam became engaged to Tennyson’s sister Emilia. But then it all fell apart: his 1833 collection, which included “The Lady of Shalott,” was panned by the press; and on September 13, while on holiday in Austria with his family, Hallam died very suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 22 years old. As one of Hallam’s friends wrote, his death came as “a loud and terrible stroke from the reality of things upon the faery building of our youth.” Tennyson sank into grief and depression. He published nothing for ten years, though he continued to write—especially the lyrics which eventually became In Memoriam A. H. H. (the initials of Arthur Henry Hallam).
In Memoriam consists of 133 cantos or shorter poems in which the poet reflects on his loss and seeks some sort of resolution. There are moments of deep faith and also expressions of doubt. All the poems are written in the same meter and rhyme scheme, which has come to be known as the In Memoriam stanza. Tennyson did not invent it, but it is an appropriate choice—the ABBA rhyme scheme forces us to wait for resolution, reflecting the circuitous process of grief.
In this section of the poem, Tennyson meditates on the miracle of Jesus in raising Lazarus from the dead. In the Gospel of John, the story of the raising of Lazarus is followed by the anointing at Bethany, when Jesus, with his disciples, is having supper with Lazarus and his sisters in their home. During this gathering, Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with costly perfume.
Tennyson beautifully imagines the scene from Mary’s perspective. “Her eyes are homes of silent prayer” as she looks from her brother, who was dead and now lives, to Jesus, the one who brought him back. Without saying anything, Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with “spikenard and with tears.” “One deep love doth supersede / All other,” Tennyson says: she loves her brother, but she loves Christ more—or rather, her love for her brother leads her to Christ. The poem ends by marveling at this faith. “Thrice blest whose lives are faithful prayers,” he says—people like Mary, who pray without words, who go straight to the heart of things, “whose loves in higher love endure”—whose human loves find their origin and their fulfillment in love of Christ. “What souls possess themselves so pure,” Tennyson asks at the end of this short poem, “Or is there blessedness like theirs?”
It’s a wonderful meditation on the Scripture story. I think the way Tennyson concludes this lyric is also significant:  it ends with a question mark. Tennyson wishes for faith like Mary’s, but he always has more questions than answers. Through the poems of In Memoriam, we see the process of Tennyson’s grief, as he moves from the first raw stages of grief to peace and hope. We also see the way this grief shatters his faith, and puts it back together again. Grief forces him to reckon with death, to acknowledge his doubts, and ultimately to return to God, with a faith that is less sure of itself, perhaps, but deeper and more authentic than before.
As he writes in another poem:
I falter where I firmly trod,
      And falling with my weight of cares
      Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
      And gather dust and chaff, and call
      To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.





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