Music and Meaning in Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ (3): The ‘Speaking Voice’

Over the previous two sections we've begun to think about how what Tennyson says about music, speech and language in In Memoriam might reveal some important facts about his thoughts and feelings concerning questions of immortality and the nature of human progress. Indeed, in an important chapter, 'Tennyson's Voice', of a book called The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry, the Cambridge academic Eric Griffiths claims that 'the metaphysical debates of Tennyson's time did... stir the surface of his verse...; his musicality is attuned to the time's questioning, remote as that music is from the public manners of intellectual exposition'. What do you think Eric Griffiths means here? In saying that Tennyson's poetry is quite literally 'attuned' 'to the time's questioning', he appears to be suggesting that there is a link between the 'music' of Tennyson's poetry and the general search for 'meaning' which characterises the nineteenth century.

'Most particularly', Griffiths continues, 'the music [of Tennyson's poetry] asks, "what is it to be embodied?"'. 'Tennyson's voice sounds as if the body thought'. In this section we'll be taking a look at two more In Memoriam lyrics, numbers 86 and 7, and asking what it might mean to consider the body as thinking and how it might be possible for music or poetry to present the human body in this way. It is pertinent that Eric Griffiths says that In Memoriam celebrates 'such skills of embodied persons as the having of good lungs'. You could try reading this next lyric aloud and thinking about how both its form and its content might be functioning:

Sweet after showers, ambrosial air,
That rollest from the gorgeous gloom
Of evening over brake and bloom
And meadow, slowly breathing bare
The round of space, and rapt below
Thro' all the dewy-tassell'd wood,
And shadowing down the horned flood
In ripples, fan my brows and blow
The fever from my cheek, and sigh
The full new life that feeds thy breath
Throughout my frame, till Doubt and Death,
Ill brethren, let the fancy fly
From belt to belt of crimson seas
On leagues of odour streaming far,
To where in yonder orient star
A hundred spirits whisper "Peace."'

According to Eric Griffiths, this section 'is hard to read aloud'. Did you find it difficult to read aloud, and if so, why do you think this was? Griffith says that it is difficult 'because it has to be taken in one breath and requires good lungs.' 'Consider the effect of attempting to speak this poem in a single breath', he continues; if you haven't already, perhaps you could try this now. 'Even the best lungs will be weary at the close of the section', Griffiths says; even the best lungs 'will have the air left only to whisper the word which is the destination of this eloquent trajectory, "Peace"'. Griffiths continues: 'breathing the reader's last, the word can sound like the peace that death is, the peace of "Rest in peace"'. As he sees it, Part 86 of In Memoriam expresses, 'in the metaphysical depths of melody nineteenth-century philosophers often heard in music, the longing to be out of Nature, to be dead, and expresses simultaneously a billowing delight in the performing breath as a sign of life'.

So as to extend our analysis of the possible meaning of music in In Memoriam, let's now briefly consider the seventh lyric in the poem, in which the speaker discusses the absence of his beloved friend. As you read the lyric, think about how it might be responding to the question that Griffiths raises, namely 'what is it to be embodied?':

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasp'd no more -
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Throughout the first two stanzas and in the opening line of stanza three, Tennyson's emphasis is on Arthur's absence and his own inability to act without the presence of this loved one: the poet's heart 'used to beat / So quickly' whenever he visited this house, but now that Arthur has gone it does not. In the second line of the third stanza, however, 'the noise of life begins again'. 'What revives', according to Griffiths, 'is not the friend... but the beat of regular iambics and the "noise of life", the daily round, they represent.' The music of the poem (its metre) revives, but the 'beat' of the lonely figure's heart does not; indeed, according to Griffiths 'the metrical impetus disappoints his hopes even as it reasserts compositional skill'.

[Go on to Music and Meaning in Tennyson's In Memoriam (4): 'Aeonian Music']

Iambic rhythm is based on the metrical unit known as the iambus, which has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

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