Skip to main content

Tennyson: Times of Mourning, Hallowed Spaces

A little belated, but last week I had two very good seminars on Tennyson's In Memoriam. I suppose it is testament to the slow, sad richness of this text that whilst every discussion of it tends to hit some predictable beats, it is also an endlessly reinventable text. (See, for instance, a blog from a 2014 seminar here.) You never get bored teaching it - or at least I don't.

One thing I very much liked was a discussion of cyclical time in the text. To some extent I set this up by deliberately picking out the two anniversary stanzas (LXXII and XCIX) as objects for a class exercise, but I think even before this we were broaching the idea that the poet shapes his grief into cycles, where the forward progress of consolation is marked, almost by definition, by also referring back and remembering. Whether articulated through calendrical or seasonal motifs, there's a logic of mourning here. To articulate the elongated time of Tennyson's (unusually extended) elegy, each moment marked (e.g. Christmas, spring, the autumnal date of Hallam's death) is both linear and yet a return: to mourn is to live on, but without ever letting go of the point of loss.

As Derrida would say, the act of work of mourning is a work which must not seek completion, for that would be to forget and abolish the mourned person's presence. Nevertheless, the cylical progression of Tennyson's work of mourning allows him to finally negotiate and surpass the more disturbing 'double-time' of his melancholy, where he experiences Hallam's absence, gothically, between a present dominated by an 'affection of the tomb' (LXXXV) and ghostly memories of his past friendship. Every marked anniversary allows a different, more positive, sort of double-time, where the co-existence of the past and present can be lived - rather than merely survived as a traumatic disjunction.

Many of these kind of points (admittedly, the Derrida stuff is rather more me than student contribution!) tend to crop up in any discussion of time, structure and consolation in In Memoriam: see, for instance, the 2014 blog I linked to above. However, what was nicely judged in some of the seminar thoughts this year was a discussion of how these temporalities play out in space.

In particular, at least one small group found the unnumbered epithalamium interesting. Already, we might already suggest its siting, or spacing, both inside and outside the poem (should In Memoriam really end with 'until we close with all we loved, / And all we flow from, soul in soul' - CXXXI?) is provocative. But what really grabbed them was the vivid juxtaposition of a bridal figure with the presence of graves: 'now waiting to be made a wife, / Her feet, my darling, on the dead; / Their pensive tablets round her head'. If the poem depends on finally bringing the time of loss and the time of hope back into a livable synchronicity, then to what extent does this find its most profound culmination in the ritual space of the church, where the festive cycles of the Christian calender, and ceremonies of birth, love and death, all find co-existence. One has a marriage pointing to the future, in amongst the dead of the past.

I think this space of the church, set off at the edge of the poem, is actually doing an immense amout of rhetorical work. It allows many of the poem's consolations - which also tend to be reconciliations of time - to have a concrete, spatial embodiment. These would include the religious visions of soul-existence that increasingly dominate the end of the poem (initially rendered merely in lyric thought), or the community of shared experience evoked in XCIX (which is a hypothetical and anonymous interconnection). The Christian space  allows both the speculative doctrine of souls. and the potential community of experience, to have a physical location rather than a merely imaginative existence.

Working through this would be helpful in interrogating the balance of secular and religious in Tennyson. Maybe, a little like Wordsworth, the space of the church in the epithamalium is as much to do with the organic life of a place, rather than a site of institutional belief (i.e. maybe Tennyson believes more in the forms which traditional Christianity allows, but brackets off some of the commitments to its truth-content). Even if this is true, the religious imagination of the individual can only go so far: surely some religious institution in society is required? Reconciliations of time surely need spaces in which to be lived: and it appears nature alone may not be robust enough to provide that space. At the end of CIV, Tennyson talks of shifting to 'new unhallow'd ground'. This is his linear path out of mourning, and out of a place of tombs: he appears to rejoin the world. Yet, for the poem to work, and for the work of mourning to remember its dead in the cyclical patterns I discuss above, it does appear he must always return to the hallowed, and to spaces of hallowedness - i.e. primarily, to the space of the church. What kind of Christianity can provide both the hallowed and the modern is one of the key ones: for the poem, for Tennyson, and for the Victorian age itself.

Popular posts from this blog

Three Notes on Henri Lefebvre

Six months down, four texts in. Although, in my defence, Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space is a 400+ page opus, and everything always gets wiped by the end of term! Engaging with such a long text is always hard, especially when (as often) it is the sidenotes and digressions which are often most fascinating: an analysis of Venice (pp.73-7), a phenomenology of doors and windows which immediately follows a spatial reading of sleep (pp.208-9), a philosophy of red light districts (pp.319-30) or beaches (p.353, 384)... Yet I think I can break Lefebvre's programme down into three interlinked positions.

1. A Philosophy of Space. Like a number of thinkers in philosophy, geography and critical theory, Lefebvre's central contention is that space is not just a neutral container in which things, acts and events occur, but something made by human beings and societies. Whether it is marks, posts, traces, borders, centres, locales, itineraries, passages, tracks, flows, segments, co…

On Lauren Berlant

I used to work with literary theory a lot more than I do now: my own trajectory and the disciplinary boundaries of Romantic Studies have led me away from it. However, if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, the most exciting stuff happening in theory in recent years has tended to come from the sites of 'queer theory': e.g. late Butler, Halberstam and, above all, Lauren Berlant. So it was good to get down to Cruel Optimism. As with all these theory blogs, I'm coming at this from a decent level of expertise in deconstruction, phenomenology and bits of post-Marxism, but not necessarily for other schools: so all errors and misconstruals will hopefully be excused!

1. Temporality. Above all, Berlant is investigating a particular kind of contemporary present. Her scene is set, largely in the West, in a late capitalist epoch: post-globalisation, post 9/11, post-financial crash. The citizens of this moment are a precariat, subject to a 'neoliberal feedback loop, with its effi…

On Laclau and Mouffe

Poor Bruno Latour. Like my 2013 monograph challenge and the rather more modest 2014 'minor Romantic' binge before it, it turns out trying to fit something else blogworthy in between the demands of modern academia and real life is quite hard - as such, I only managed nine rather than ten theorists in 2015. So Latour's We Have Never Been Modern falls off the edge, for the time being at least, and I end up with Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

1. The problematic from which the study sets off is, broadly, the insufficiency and disintegration of the orthodox Marxist political model, which posited both a deterministic progress through phases of history, and a priori 'subjects' of history such as the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. These premises became increasingly difficult to maintain as one observes a 'disjuncture between "theory" and "observable tendencies of capitalism"' (loc. 834).* For example, it…