Both works, Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” and Rhys’ “I Used to Live Here Once” explore
the fleeting nature of human existence and the unmistakable certainty of death. Death has forever
been a topic of fascination for the human psyche not just owing to the power it has held over
us, but because it is universal. The great leveling event of death has engendered the concept of
religion and mythology so our level of comfort around this formidable fact is enhanced. Both
works delve into the state of impermanence. However, both, “In Memoriam” and “I Used to Live
Here Once” derive toward matched conclusions about the nature of human existence and the
reality of death.
Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” came about in the wake of grief over a very close
friend of his (Hass, Jasper, & Jay, 2007). The poet elaborates over the ocean of dark and
grievous emotions that suddenly pervade his psyche as he deals with his loss. The word selection
employed and the content immediately stand to differentiate the piece from other of his works,
using stylistic elements to elaborate the entire process of coming to terms of the new defining
Toward the end we see the modo changing. The grievous and brooding tone and overall
darkness fades. Hopeful elements replace the sadness and life starts to begin anew. Optimism
starts to make space and influences the reality to lighten the tone. Although set back with the
loss, Tennyson’s quest is to find peace within; his view is that understanding of the reality of
death is going to help him make peace with the new reality.
It must be noted that in the Victorian era, the high rate of mortality made the prominence
of death inescapable (Altholz, 1976). The society characterized by its prudish behavior and
known for the repressed nature of its subjects, was fascinated with death entirely. To say
Tennyson had hit a nerve would be an understatement; in fact he put forth an intellectual and
clean way of dealing with death, one that inspired a return to normalcy. This would have gone
contrary to what the Queen Victoria herself believed, tending to her dead husband in black for
over 40 years, preserving his room and overalls. Tennyson depicts the topic of death in a modern
and relatable way.
It is fascinating to see Tennyson go through the same rigor, though, when it comes to
understanding death and other realities in his life, as someone in our own society, with its new
age science and buildup of hypothetical literature. Tennyson’s tryst with the various stages of
grief he experiences are similar to us dealing with the view on death of religion in the light of
Another aspect of writing herein is the usage of realism. Realism enables the reader to
comprehend Tennyson’s coming to term with his grief and his exploration of the nature of death.
The usage of realism is universal, though there may not be a single unifying theme other than
the meaning of death herein, partly because the poem was composed over a course of seventeen
years and is actually a collection of several smaller poems.
The phases of emotion in the poem go from a resolute anger at the death, as Tennyson
questions how the powers that be in the universe would allow for such a kindred spirit to die so
young. Arthur Henry Hallam was among the poet’s closest friends and the fiance of his sister,
when he died of a fever at age 22. It was the bond that Tennyson shared with Hallam that made
the experience all the more personal for the poet. Also important is that death was not such a
removed topic as it is today, with most people dying in hospitals. Instead, the rate of mortality
was very high and deaths were commonplace, occupying a more real stature with elaborate
ceremonies to recognize it.
Tennyson goes from this anger against his friend’s death to a sense of resignation
later on. The definite and absolute concepts of life give way as the realization of reality sets
in. The narrator, who can be assumed to be the poet himself, then moves to a final phase of
reconciliation. He begins to realize that his friend is not dead. Instead in a form of transcendental
survival he lives on in love, in a higher form of existence (Hsiao, 2009).
“Than that the victor Hours should scorn
The long result of love, and boast,
`Behold the man that loved and lost,
But all he was is overworn.” (Tennyson, 1862)
Tennyson seems to have been doing his all embracing the new ideas of the time. About
the time he was writing the last of his verses, Sir Charles Lyell came out with his Principles of
Geology, deviating from the traditionally held ideas of biblical creation. Soon thereafter, Robert
Chambers would publish his “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation”, which again would
make it harder to concur with the hitherto undisturbed, placating ideas of a God managing the
affairs of life and death (Hass, Jasper & Jay, 2007). However, Tennyson seems to have adapted
well, not relinquishing his religion, neither turning a blind eye to the new science.
Tennyson maintains his belief that man is evolving into a race that is even more
powerful. The concept of the immortality of the soul is replaced with the concept of the
protracted process of human evolution. In this evolution for the next millions of years, the race
will live on, in a meaning of immortality. This is also the reason why the poem ends in an
“epithalamion.” There is celebration over the marriage of Tennyson’s sister with Edmond
Lushington in 1942. Their progeny will be another link in the steps leading to the “crowning
race”, as Tennyson called it. This is described as, ““One far-off divine event / To which the
whole creation moves.”
“I Used to Live Here Once”
Rhys’ work is not entirely devoid of religion. He discusses faith, but he makes no issue of
having to reconcile his faith with newly arrived challenges. The context of death and
impermanence are common in both works.
“O living will that shalt endure
When all that seems shall suffer shock,
Rise in the spiritual rock,
Flow thro’ our deeds and make them pure,
With faith that comes of self-control,
The truths that never can be proved
Until we close with all we loved,
And all we flow from, soul in soul.” (Rhys, 2001)
There are strong undertones of death through the length of the work. The strength
however in the theme is still maintained. The process of thought and the sequence of actions are
driven particularly by the reality of death. The difference however with Tennyson’s work comes
from the technique of narration. As opposed to the male narrator in the earlier work, who is alive
and witnesses death from an outsider’s point of view, in Rhy’s work, we have a female narrator,
who has a deeper connection with death.
Toward the end of the story it is revealed to us that the narrator is active in afterlife and
suddenly the entire plot falls into place. The path that the woman takes is familiar to her, and yet,
it is quickly clear that she has not been on it for quite some time. Her memory is strained and she
is distant from the going ons. For example, sentences like, “the road was much wider than it used
to be” and “the only thing was that the sky had a glassy look that she didn’t remember”, or even,
“the screw pine was gone” (Rhys, 1976) immediately reveal the changes that have taken place
in her absence. The recollection also hints that this cannot be an ordinary trip down the memory
lane nor a physical journey.
The entire experience is surrealistic. Of loss and of love we are reminded throughout; her
growing chagrin at the lack of an interest or interaction from all entities in the journey focus on
the veritable impermanence of the journey of life. The mounting symbolism culminates in the
reader’s understanding and the narrator’s realization that she is in fact dead. This is in contrast
with the narrator in Tennyson’s work, who struggled to cope with the reality (but accepted it) of
his friend’s death. Rhys’ heroine is unaccepting of her death; she wants to still carry on living as
if the illness never happened. Through the work, Rhys has explored through her, what his idea of
an afterlife would be like. In fact the narrator is also shown as scared or afraid of the afterlife,
betraying an even deeper level of impermanence.
The dead have been shown to be meaningless to the living and vice versa. This is
aptly demonstrated in the string of symbolisms used in the story. They also help convey the
tone ot the reader. The symbolism of crossing over, early on, is used to immediately hint at
souls crossing over, in mythology and literature, depicting death. Likewise the narrator must
continue journeying crossing over the river. The usage of glassy sky at once imprints upon us an
imagery of impermanence, fragility and reflection. This too is akin to times of death when the
impermanence of life and fragility of maintaining it is called into attention. Finally, the narrator
is striving to reach out to children who are apparently ignoring her, as she gets ever closer to
them. Rhys calls the children cold. Cold is also to hint at paranormal activity in a real world
setting, but as far as the narrator is concerned, she finally knew she was dead, “That was the first
time she knew.” (Rhys, 1976).
Death and Impermanence
There are many ways in which the works, Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” and Rhys’ “I
Used to Live Here,” are uniquely identified, prominent among them the style and structure.
But, the theme of death and impermanence are commonly found. Both authors possess a
keen understanding of the effects of such events on an individual. The ideas of grief, longing,
suffering are all included by both as natural, obvious responses to such an event.
However, the works are different than each other in their final conclusion. Since as
humans, our understanding of the concepts of life and death is limited, we must regard both
interpretations as accurate and meritorious in their own right; there is no unrealistic or biased
portrayal of death.
In any case, Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” is a much stronger form of expression. This is
because it easily represses the conversation without expressly betraying the emotion and tension
as experienced by the narrator. This could have to do with the time periods that the two works
were composed in. Tennyson finds no need to state the emotional state as the narrator journeys
through the crisis of life, faith, and hope. He is able to describe the scene in such a way that the
reader can quickly understand the narrator’s way of thought without need for straightforward
statements. “Im Memoriam” is more authentic because of the strength in Tennyson’s writing. In
part because the experience was greatly personal for the poet, the reader can at once understand
and connect with his description. There is less approximation and Tennyson writes as if from
In comparison, the writing style of Rhys’ is greatly informal; more so in comparison.
However adjustments need to be made based upon the era that the two authors lived in. Heavily
expressive and solid writing would take longer to write, and longer to understand, a grave
inconvenience over simpler writing, easier to understand.
Another major difference is the nature of exploration. Tennyson’s loss is purely personal,
but he is concerned instead with a generic social issue facing the entire humankind. Through the
means of a lost friend, Tennyson’s wonders if there is a possibility of survival of our race as a
whole; when if at all, will we arrive to be the crowning race.
On the other hand, the treatment in Rhys’ “I Used to Live Here Once,” is much more on a
personal level. The issues and concerns are personal also, there is less oversight over the greater
ends of the human race as a whole. Rhys’ narrator is self-centered when she is affronted at not
getting a response from the children and in her lack of acceptance of her disease and eventual
death. She is trying through the creation to make more out of her condition.
Rhys has used his narrator to expressly make the point that the dead and the living do
not mix and that there is a certain coldness. This lack of knowledge and insensibilities mean
that there should be cause for worry in the living. There is however, a substitution of faith in
Tennyson’s work, something entirely missing in Rhys’. He has a sense of certainty about God,
and how we should believe where we cannot prove. At the same time, Tennyson’s belief in
a crowning race brings out the scientific end of his reasoning. The crowning race would be
superior enough to perpetuate human race via evolution; it is a step in the direction of winning
over death. Tennyson falls short of calling the soul immortal but would settle for immortality
There are quite a few stark differences between the two works, as elaborated above,
spanning also the narrative style, technical skills, and overall intention of the author, however,
the binding theme is that the concept of death is looked at through subjects intimately connected
to death. The narrator’s authority in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” is no less than that of the
narrator in Rhys’ “I Used to Live Here Once,” who has actually experienced death. The agony
is commonly shared at the powerlessness, at the need to not believe and other associated
negativities with death. However the works are different in their attitudes to death. The sudden
and permanent resignation in Rhys’ “I Used to Live Here Once” is contrasted sharply with
the force of optimism at the ultimate invincibility in the crowning race in Tennyson’s “In
Memoriam”, and in a belief in a superior power.
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