Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” click below:
There are poets you are just attracted to.
Sometimes it’s a pose or even a look. Sometimes it is that they had lives you wished you had lived. Byron’s life, for instance, would have been great fun, whereas Philip Larkin’s would not. As Larkin’s biographer, Andrew Motion, once remarked, those who say it’s depressing to read about his life should remember Larkin had to live it.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a curious one. In his day, he was as famous as any poet could be—practically the image of a poet.
And yet that caped, Victorian bard always seemed to me an overly austere individual, perhaps made unappealing by the vast, multivolume “Collected” editions of his works that so often moldered on people’s bookcases in my youth. It is strange the way in which we do actually judge books by their covers.
In his day, Tennyson was huge. And some of his poems made a splash that would be unimaginable now for a poem, or indeed any work of literature.
Today, some of the works—such as “Idylls of the King,” published in 1859—are read by few people except students of Victorian literature. But others still break through. “Crossing the Bar” is hard to forget. As are chunks of some of his larger poems.
One of these is “In Memoriam,” first published in 1850. That work is a long ode in memory of Tennyson’s Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died unexpectedly at the age of 22. The work is a sustained cry of mourning, and it found popularity in its day not just because infant mortality and young deaths were far more common than they are today, but because Queen Victoria was known to have found consolation in Tennyson’s poem after the death of her beloved Albert in 1861.
Going back to that issue of memorability, it very much helps if you know what rhyme scheme the poem is written in, as long as it is consistent. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” is written in quatrains (that is, groups of four lines) and has tones and strains that would enter into the head of Tennyson’s friend Edward FitzGerald when he translated “The Rubaiyat.”
One minor technical difference is that Tennyson used an ABBA rhyme scheme, which means the first and last lines of each four lines rhyme, as do the middle two—whereas FitzGerald worked with AABA, meaning the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme.
Knowing this makes it a lot easier to remember passages from “In Memoriam.” If you remember the rhyme scheme but forget the precise line-ends, then knowing the rhyme scheme is a great aid to memory.
It can certainly be worth it. The most famous passage from “In Memoriam” is probably this one: