Throughout “In Memoriam,” Alfred Tennyson utilizes the passage of time to emphasize the permanence of death. Indeed, he alludes heavily to John Milton’s poem, “Methought I saw my late espoused saint,” as a means of conveying the extent of his grief in the face of death’s finality. Although both men have lost someone close to them, their experiences of grief have different temporal effects in the face of loss. For Milton, the short-term passage of time is evidenced in the transience of a dream; the sorrow he feels becomes painfully clear when he wakes up, for this transition from dream to reality serves as a painful reminder that his wife is no longer with him. However, for Tennyson, the passage of time has both short-term and long-term implications for his grieving process. In contrast to Milton, who watches his wife disappear with the end of a fleeting dream, Tennyson experiences what should have been a short-term passage of time as a long-term ordeal, for he is anxiously waiting for his friend to appear with the arrival of the ship carrying the body at the end of his poem. Surprisingly, on a wider long-term scale, his grief towards the passage of time parallels that of Milton, especially due to the ambiguity surrounding the nature of his feelings for his friend. By alluding so heavily to Milton’s poem, Tennyson emphasizes the full extent of his grief as he likens his friendship to a husband-wife relationship. That he deliberately utilizes vocabulary associated with the ideas of marriage and lifelong love adds a new temporal dimension to the nature of Tennyson’s grief, for one grieves differently for a long-term romantic partner than one would for a mere platonic friend.
To illustrate the effect that the passage of time has on his experiences of grief, Tennyson begins his poem with a reference to John Milton’s work, for he opens with “Tears of the widower, when he sees a late-lost form that sleep reveals…and feels her place is empty” (1, 4.) Although such words provide a parallel to Milton’s poem, they also paradoxically offer a sharp contrast to Milton’s opening, for the two poets portray their subjects of mourning in different temporal dimensions. Indeed, when Milton sees his wife in the form of a dream, he sees her “brought to [him] like Alcestis from the grace” (2.) Elevating his wife to a divine status, Milton spends the first twelve lines of his sonnet dwelling in a dream in which he illustrates his wife as greater than life. That most of the poem is centered on an illusion highlights the transience of his dream; just as mythological beings like Alcestis do not dwell in the real world, his wife has ceased to exist among the living due to her death. Indeed, the jarring transition from dream to reality in the final lines of the poem is exemplified when he “waked, she fled, and day brought back [his] night” (14.) Such words emphasize the long-lasting place she holds in his memory, for the evanescence of the dream makes her absence seem all the more painful. Although Tennyson does not suffer from the transience of a dream, his grief is certainly no less than Milton’s. Unlike Milton, Tennyson never injects any sense of happiness or hope in his poem, for he does not elevate his friend to a divine status by drawing comparisons to romantic figures in mythology. Instead, he gloomily describes his loss as “a void where heart on heart reposed; and where warm hands have prest and closed” (6, 7.) Such words provide a sharp contrast to Milton’s poem, for Milton is unable to embrace the idealized vision of his wife, which disappears when he awakens from his dream. By evoking the sense of touch as he describes his grief, Tennyson not only adds a more human dimension to the portrayal of his friend, but also injects a sense of homoeroticism in his mourning. Indeed, unlike Milton’s work, whose inconsistent rhyme scheme simultaneously parallels and builds anticipation for the change in tone from...
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