Beauty in Death: Tennyson and Howe

Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a heartbreaking poetic elegy to his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, each verse filled with a painful remembrance and yearning for Arthur to be sitting beside him. However, while the pain of missing someone never quite subsides, we find ways to move on. By the end of In Memoriam, Tennyson comes to a sort of acceptance that his friend is gone, but affirms that the love he has for him will never dissipate; we carry our loved ones in our hearts. The last few cantos of In Memoriam reminded me greatly of Marie Howe’s poem, “What the Living Do”. Tennyson and Howe’s poetry serve to demonstrate an appreciation for life along with an affirmation of love in dark times of grief and mourning.

In canto CVI, Tennyson describes the ringing of bells, presumably ringing out the New Year. At the end of the first stanza Tennyson writes, “Ring out, wild bells, and let him die” (p. 183). The bells ringing out the new year simultaneously symbolize the acceptance of Arthur’s death along with ringing out the painful feelings of grief. As Tennyson calls for the removal of all negative feelings of sin, depression and mourning, he calls for the ringing in of “love of truth and right” along with the “common love of good” (p. 184).

Canto CVI and Howe’s poem both demonstrate a cherishing of life. They are reminders that even in the face of death there are things to be thankful for. As Tennyson calls for the bells to ring in love and peace, he shows the reader that he wants to keep living. In “This is What the Living Do” Howe similarly lists simple things that she cherishes. The purchasing of a hairbrush. The coffee running down her sleeve and wrist. These are things, albeit small, that she can still do because she is alive. In the wake of death, Tennyson and Howe both show us that there are things to look forward to and be appreciative of simply because we are still alive.

Moreover, in Canto CXXX, Tennyson describes how he feels Arthur around him in nature. Tennyson describes how he hears his friends voice on the rolling air and sees him standing in the silhouette of the sun rising and setting (p. 185). At the end of the canto Tennyson beautifully writes, “Far off thou art, but ever nigh; / I have thee still, and I rejoice; / I prosper, circled with thy voice; / I shall not lose thee tho’ I die.” Tennyson’s final stanza has a striking similarity to the end of Howe’s poem. Howe writes about how as she goes through her day, catching glimpses of herself in store windows, she is overcome with an appreciation of life and a remembrance of her departed beloved. Howe writes, “I am living. I remember you.”

Both Howe and Tennyson’s poems are written to someone who is passed yet demonstrate a beautiful appreciation for life and a declaration of remembrance. Howe and Tennyson both show us that even in times of death and grief, there are still things to be grateful for, beauty to be found, and that the love we have for our departed will never be forgotten. This is how we remember and honor our deceased loved ones.

4 thoughts on “Beauty in Death: Tennyson and Howe”

  1. I find it very interesting that he describes about how he feels him in nature. In my opinion, this is a very Romantic idea and I wonder if there are Romantic poems about loss that share this idea. I like how you tied it to Howe’s poem, a more modern poet, as grief is something that does not really change much over time periods. Grief is something that all humans, no matter what time period they belong to, have to suffer with.

  2. I really like your point on how Tennyson and Howe connect love with grief and death. I Elizabeth Barrett Browning also relates love with death, but in a different way. While Howe and Tennyson claim that love goes on even after death, EBB describes Love and Death as almost interchangeable in her first sonnet in Sonnets from the Portuguese. EBB writes, “‘Guess now who holds thee?’ – ‘Death,’ I said. But, there, / The silver answer rang, – ‘Not Death, but Love’” (l. 13-14). I think it’s interesting how Howe and Tennyson both make love seem pleasant, but EBB instead makes Love seem dangerous and scary.

  3. I enjoyed the connection you drew between “In Memoriam” and “What the Living Do.” The fact that poems about death and grief are so timeless that the same ideas are still echoed decades later is fascinating. These two poems you mentioned reminded me of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “When I am dead, my dearest.” Although this poem utilizes the voice of the loved one who has passed or who will pass instead of the one who is left behind, it still echoes some of the same themes of remembrance.

  4. I really like your take on death and appreciating death in these poems becauSE I HAVE BEEN SEEING A SIMILAR PATTERN in Wordsworth’s poems as well. Death is shaped into something that fits into the sublime in a lot of Wordsworth’s poetry, especially in Sonnet: To an Octogenarian when Wordworth says, “Affections lose their object; Time brings forth
    No successors; and, lodged in memory,
    If love exist no longer, it must die,”

    Not only is there beauty in death, but with Wordsworth’s take you quesiton whether there death is better than a life with no beauty (love).

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