In Our Time: In Memoriam

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BBC Radio 4, 30 June 2011

This installment in Melvyn Bragg’s discussion program took as its subject Tennyson’s epic “In Memoriam,” which first appeared in 1850, shortly before the poet’s appointment as Poet Laureate. The poem was written in tribute to his close friend, Arthur Hallam, who had died at the tender age of twenty-two in 1833. The two men had met at Cambridge University, when Hallam was visiting Tennyson, and had fallen in love with Tennyson’s sister Emily. They had become close friends: when Hallam died Tennyson was bereft and started to write verses for “In Memoriam” straightaway, even though the fragments were not integrated into one long poem until much later.

Bragg’s guests, Dinah Birch (Liverpool University), Seamus Perry (Oxford University), and Jane Wright (Bristol University), discussed various aspects of the poem, including its debts to pastoral and classical traditions, its acknowledgment of contemporary scientific and geological discoveries, and its adoption of a regularized verse-scheme. We learned that “In Memoriam” had a particular significance on its first publication: audiences saw themselves in the poem, even if they did not know who Hallam was. The poem’s influence was vast: it exerted a resonance over later verse-sequences, including Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad.”

While the panelists communicated their views with obvious enthusiasm, the program tended towards the pretentious. I was sometimes reminded of the comic exchanges between Lady Cecilia Molestrangler (Betty Marsden) and Binkie Huckaback (Hugh Paddick) in Round the Horne, as the two of them tried to find high-falutin’ adjectives (“somehow … aesthetic, yet … intellectual!”) to describe everyday phenomena, such as going to the restaurant. One line of Huckaback’s springs to mind: “I was certain, positive, convinced, and doctrinaire, and yet … unsure!” I am not criticizing the panelists’ scholarship, but sometimes I wished they could express their opinions directly – i.e. why they liked the poem and why they thought it might be appealing to non-academic readers. The producer was Natalia Fernandez.

In Memoriam, adapted by Tim Dee and performed by David Bamber

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