Literature & Life

In Memoriam A.H.H. (Canto XXI) By Alfred Tennyson

The Canto XXI is one of Alfred Tennyson’s 133 cantos from In Memoriam. The poem is a testament to Tennyson’s valued relationship with Arthur Henry Hallam, who died when he was just 22 years old and whose death severely impacted Tennyson, causing him to write this epic elegy. Tennyson focuses on finding peace and a way to find hope in it after his friend’s untimely loss.

Let’s read the poem first,

I sing to him that rests below,
And, since the grasses round me wave,
I take the grasses of the grave,
And make them pipes whereon to blow.

The traveller hears me now and then,
And sometimes harshly will he speak:
`This fellow would make weakness weak,
And melt the waxen hearts of men.’

Another answers, `Let him be,
He loves to make parade of pain
That with his piping he may gain
The praise that comes to constancy.’

A third is wroth: `Is this an hour
For private sorrow’s barren song,
When more and more the people throng
The chairs and thrones of civil power?

‘A time to sicken and to swoon,
When Science reaches forth her arms
To feel from world to world, and charms
Her secret from the latest moon?’

Behold, ye speak an idle thing:
Ye never knew the sacred dust:
I do but sing because I must,
And pipe but as the linnets sing:

And one is glad; her note is gay,
For now her little ones have ranged;
And one is sad; her note is changed,
Because her brood is stol’n away.

Alfred Tennyson

At the commencement of Canto XXI, Tennyson is seen singing in honour of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who is no longer alive and resting beneath the ground where he is buried.   He is anxious that his decent, generous, and noble friend will be buried somewhere unworthy of him. 

He blows little pipes made from grasses that grow on top of Arthur’s grave in honour of him.
  The poet imagines many people’s reactions to his singing and is surprised to discover that they are rather diverse.  Someone mistook him for someone who was depressed to the point of leading others to be depressed. Others admired his suffering and how he conveyed it consistently. 

Third, he was disagreeable, and he thought the poet was wasting his time on needless pain when there were so many other important things going on in the world to pay attention to. 

The poet is irritated by the comments of onlookers, and defends himself by arguing that they had no idea how wonderful and honourable his friend Arthur was, or how essential he is in his life. “And pipe but as the linnets sing,” he says, as he worships the dust from his friend’s tomb and compares his singing to that of a linnet. According to the poet, one linnet may be singing happily because her little birdies are safe in the nest and can fly, while another may be singing sorrowfully because her brood has died.

According to the poet, these passers-by are conversing without realising it. Their accusations are false since they have never encountered such a kind and honourable person whose sacred body is buried there and whose loss the poet is deeply mourning.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *