Mourning at the Mother’s Breast: on Death and Weaning in Tennyson’s In Memoriam

by Kurt Harris

March 19, 2006


In Section 44 of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the poem’s speaker evokes the image of an infant at the mother’s breast, an image that is the key to an understanding of the link the poem makes between language and touch. The speaker’s recognition of the inadequacy of language to fill the void of the lost loved object (Arthur) leads him to question the nature of the subject/object split. Employing the theories of Winnicott, Klein, Kristeva, and Abraham and Torok, this essay argues that the text produced by the speaker, who calls forth the universal foundational lost object (the mother) in semiotic (maternal and poetic) language, serves as a mediating object between the mourning, infantilized speaker and his empathetic, maternalized ideal reader.



O wheresoever those may be,
   Betwixt the slumber of the poles,
   To-day they count as kindred souls;
They know me not, but mourn with me. (99.17-20)

Most readers of Victorian poetry know that Alfred Tennyson's writing of In Memoriam A. H. H. was inspired by the profound, unexpected loss of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. This poetic, public mourning of a private man sold 60,000 copies within several months of its initial publication, which is evidence that many Victorian readers, who knew neither Tennyson nor Hallam personally, could identify with the speaker expressing Tennyson's loss (Marshall 98). Despite the occasional cultural and linguistic obstacle that necessitates a scholar's footnote, many readers today can still identify with In Memoriam's speaker. Why? Why was this long, unconventional poem so popular when it was published, and why do we still read it today? What are the processes by which signifying systems, such as those embodied in Tennyson's poem, call forth strong emotions in audience members who have little or no apparent connection with the texts' grief-stricken characters?

     In my attempt to address these questions, I will argue that the text produced by the poem's speaker calls forth the universal foundational lost object (the mother) in a sometimes cryptic, almost pre-symbolic language and thereby serves as a mediating object between the mourning, infantilized speaker and his empathetic, maternalized ideal reader. While I rely in this essay on the theories of psychoanalysts-in particular, D. W. Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Julia Kristeva, and Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok-my aim is not to psychoanalyze Tennyson the man. I wish, rather, to shed light on an underappreciated pattern in one of his most popular poems. Specifically, my object is to bring to light Tennyson's pre-Freudian object relations theory, a theory that lies at the center of his epic expression of grief, In Memoriam.

     W. David Shaw describes In Memoriam as a "psychotherapist's report," while he notes T. S. Eliot's description of the poem as "entries in a diary" (132). I consider In Memoriam in a similar light, as a type of stream-of-consciousness text revealing the contents of a subject's psyche; however, I want to avoid implying that the poem is-to borrow the title of Shaw's chapter on In Memoriam-the "Autobiography of a Mourner." Despite its obvious basis in verifiable historical events, Tennyson's apparent inaccuracies regarding the return of Hallam's body to England and the burial place itself indicates that he was not attempting to represent entirely the facts and that, by extension, he was not attempting to represent entirely his own grieving process.

     Darrel Mansell chides Tennyson for his "errors," arguing that "Tennyson's In Memoriam gets wrong some simple and obvious facts and that "In Memoriam could be expected to have such details right. It is after all a poem of hagiographic reverence for its subject [. . .]" Moreover, Mansell implies that Tennyson's intent was to misrepresent, by purposely avoiding, the historical truth: "I contend," writes Mansell, "that he scrupulously avoided knowing the facts [. . .] concerning Hallam's burial, or took care not to be influenced by them" (97-98).

     Setting aside for the sake of argument the rhetorical dangers of ascribing intent to the writer, I submit that Tennyson had no intention of getting right the "simple and obvious facts." He was neither a biographer nor a historian: he was a poet exploring the many facets of grief. In fact, Tennyson himself wrote that In Memoriam is not to be read as an autobiography: "It must be remembered [. . .] that this is a poem, not an actual biography [. . .] The different moods of sorrow as in a drama are dramatically given, and my conviction that fear, doubts, and suffering will find answer and relief only through Faith in a God of Love. 'I' is not always the author speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking thro' him" (qtd. in Hallam Tennyson 304-05). In the context of this essay, readers should not confuse the poem's writer, whatever his intent, with the poem's speaker.

     While many recent insightful analytical readings of Tennyson's poem exist, none has focused in depth on the object relations theory the poem develops through its images of mother and child.1 Isobel Armstrong invites entrance into a theorization of the mother-child relationship evoked by the poem when she writes of the text itself as a form of "play" whereby the speaker, to communicate the distinction between subject and object, repeatedly demonstrates the inadequacy of idealist language to convey his meaning. Armstrong seems to mean by the term "idealist language" a discursive, generalizing, culturally defined language, similar in some respects to Julia Kristeva's symbolic, or scientific, language. In Armstrong's reading, In Memoriam continually redefines its form and subverts idealist language in order to avoid accepting Hallam's death. "It is not surprising that a poem about bereavement, the self without an object, should recognise so acutely the dissolution of idealist language," writes Armstrong. "It is both willing and unwilling to do so, because it is both willing and unwilling to come to terms with death. A world without relationships: to In Memoriam to accept idealist language is to accept death" (205).

     While I agree with Armstrong's claim that the poem is a form of play-in the sense that Murray Schwartz uses the term "play" in his essay "Where Is Literature?"-and I agree that the poem consciously does not accept idealist language, I question Armstrong's notion that the speaker's bereavement involves a "self without an object." I propose, in fact, that In Memoriam's grieving speaker creates both self and object by re-creating in and through the poem the lost mother. Specifically, Section 45 of the poem symbolically repairs the subject-object split by returning the infantilized speaker to the nursing mother. An analysis of this image of the child at the mother's breast will shed light on the link the poem makes between language and touch, a link that forms the poem's theoretical underpinnings.

     Armstrong's claim that In Memoriam "has to sport with words in order to enable itself to continue, to bring itself into play" (172) points to an aspect of psychoanalytic theory that deals with early childhood development. Play, insofar as the term "play" bears the connotations supplied by object relations theory, is the negotiation of the subject's separation from the mother and, by extension, from other objects. Poetic language, or "sporting with words," facilitates that separation. Winnicott coined the term "transitional phenomena" to describe the function of play between mother and infant: play aids the child in his or her transition from dependence on the mother to independence. The play afforded by and enacted within In Memoriam calls up emotions associated with weaning and the acquisition of language, foundational moments in the development of the psyche. At the same time, such play allows for the healing of the mourning subject.

     Winnicott conceives of the mother-child relationship prior to weaning as one in which the child does not differentiate between itself and the mother. Subject and object do not yet exist. In describing how male and female "elements" operate in the development of object relations, Winnicott explains,

    the pure female element relates to the breast (or to the mother) in the sense of the baby becoming the breast (or mother), in the sense that the object is the subject [. . .] The term subjective object has been used in describing the first object, the object not yet repudiated as a not-me phenomenon. Here in this relatedness of pure female element to "breast" is a practical application of the idea of the subjective object, and the experience of this paves the way for the objective subject-that is, the idea of a self, and the feeling of real that springs from the sense of having an identity. (79-80)

The infant subject is still fused with the mother and does not recognize, as those outside the mother-child matrix do, that the subject (infant) exists as an entity separate from the object (mother).

     Because the adult subject experiences the world as an "objective subject" (as a whole, autonomous self), she cannot fully apprehend the position of the "subjective object." Winnicott's search for language that can adequately express what he means by the term "subjective object" displays this difficulty. When describing "the beginning of the individual's life, in which the object is not yet separated out from the subject," he writes,

    This is a condition to which the word merging is applied when there is a return to it from a state of separation, but it can be assumed that at the beginning there is at least a theoretical stage prior to separation of the not-me from the me [. . .] The word symbiosis has been brought into play in this area [. . .] but for me this is too well rooted in biology to be acceptable. From the observer's point of view there may seem to be object-relating in the primary merged state, but it has to be remembered that at the beginning the object is a "subjective object." I have used this term subjective object to allow a discrepancy between what is observed and what is being experienced by the baby. (130)

The words "merging" and "symbiosis" carry connotations that Winnicott wants to avoid, and yet "subjective object" also seems insufficient because it attempts to describe the experience of the pre-symbolic infant symbolically. This anomaly points to the inadequacy of language to express the experience of the infant subject who cannot yet organize its relation to reality based on lexical and syntactical structures.

     The speaker of In Memoriam has experiences similar to Winnicott's in that both seem to be unable to find language adequate to explain exactly what they mean:

    I sometimes hold it half a sin
       To put in words the grief I feel;
       For words, like Nature, half reveal
    And half conceal the Soul within. (5.1-4)

The speaker cannot express his feelings as completely as he would like because he finds that words are inadequate. Words are part of the material world ("Nature") and grief is part of the spiritual world ("Soul"), a dichotomy which leads the speaker's attempts to bridge the gap between the two to distort, unavoidably, the latter. Stated another way, the objectification (the materialization, the putting into words) of the grieving soul can only misrepresent the subject's experience, just as Winnicott's objectification of the pre-symbolic subject misrepresents the infant's experience.

     Yet, despite the distortion effected by words, language is the principal means by which we, as rational adult subjects, express emotion and thought.2 If, according to the speaker, the distortion of words is "half a sin" (against Arthur? against the reader? against God? against nature? against the soul?) then the unacknowledged counterpart to that is "half a virtue." This "virtue of words," the speaker proceeds to reveal in Section 5, lies in their capacity to act on the grieving subject as an anodyne:

    But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
       A use in measured language lies;
       The sad mechanic exercise,
    Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

    In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
       Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
       But that large grief which these enfold
    Is given in outline and no more. (5-12)

The speaker's alliterative words ease the pain of his loss not because he is able to objectify his pain--to reject the pain, to set it outside himself in the guise of words--but because the "exercise" of sporting with words comforts him. Although the separation of subject and object cannot be undone in language, the potentially debilitating effects of separation can be evaded so that the subject does not fall into a persistent state of melancholy.

     Notice also in Section 5 that line 6 allows at least two readings: "A use in measured language lies" could signify that the speaker finds himself using language that is at one and the same time carefully considered (deliberate) and metrical (rhythmical), which are two possible meanings of "measured." In its ambiguity, language thereby "lies" (prevaricates), causing him to sin. The line could also signify that such language "lies" (reposes), waiting to be used by the reader for whatever purposes she finds expedient. The flux of this line is just one of many instances in In Memoriam in which the speaker's syntax and diction deviate from traditional, recognizable linguistic patterns that aim at establishing meaning. But the ratiocinative dissonance or instability of some of the poem's lines are often masked by their aural harmony.

     The use of language illustrated in Section 5 is a form of play that finds its origins in the union of the mother and the pre-symbolic infant (the Winnicottian subjective object). Kristeva deals with the paradoxical situation of writing about a reality outside the symbolic by conceptualizing a realm of feeling separate from meaning, a realm of the semiotic separate from the symbolic, of "heart" separate from "brain." She explores this paradox as it begins to take shape early in the psyche's development. The infant, prior to its separation from the mother, does not know, it only feels; it can make sounds, but it cannot make meaning. Kristeva states that "[g]enetically, the semiotic is found in the first echolalias of infants [. . .] Logically, it functions in all adult discourses as a supplementary register to that of sign and predicate synthesis"; moreover, the semiotic has "a maternal connotation," in contrast to the paternal denotation of the symbolic ("The Speaking Subject" 216).3 The infant's experience as subjective object resists signification, but that pre-symbolic, maternal experience can be approached "by frequent syntactical ellipses which cause the more primordial semiotic, rhythmic and intonational determination to appear beyond what I call the symbolic function" (219-20). The semiotic infuses "meaning-ful" discourse with echolalic, pre-symbolic feeling.

     The speaker of In Memoriam foregrounds that echolalic feeling (without naming it as such) several times throughout the poem. As Armstrong and others demonstrate, the poem evades comprehension and evaluation in various ways, but the speaker seems to strive nevertheless to explain in language his readers can understand the source of his pain; at the same time, he overcomes that pain to a degree by referring to a merging of the child with the mother, sometimes symbolically, sometimes semiotically.

     Admittedly, Hallam's death is a great loss to Tennyson, and that event has incited the writing of the poem, but the speaker's words point to an essential loss that precedes and prefigures all other losses. The first eight lines of Section 45 of In Memoriam commemorate this foundational loss:

    The baby new to earth and sky,
       What time his tender palm is prest
       Against the circle of the breast,
    Has never thought that "this is I:"

    But as he grows he gathers much,
       And learns the use of "I," and "me,"
       And finds "I am not what I see,
    And other than the things I touch." (1-8)

In the first four lines above, the infant, still in a relationship with the mother as a subjective object, does not yet experience itself as separate from the mother; there is not yet an "I" beyond "the circle of the breast," the areola, the physical point of union between mother and child. There is only, to borrow another of Winnicott's terms, "a nursing couple." Soon, however, the child enters the world of objects perceived as objects-"I am not what I see"-and he recognizes that he himself is both subject and object-he "learns the use of 'I' and 'me.'"4

     At the same time that the speaker's words indicate the loss of the subjective object (the infant-mother unit), they echo the loss of Arthur. Following Arthur's death, the speaker must function as a different "I" than he did prior to the death; he has become an isolated, individualized subject no longer merged with the loved object Arthur. In other words, the active subject "I" must now function in relation to a new acted upon "me," a "me" that has been split from Arthur through death. Throughout the poem, the speaker's recuperation from this split is aided by his memory of objects and places associated with Arthur. Moreover, his memory, stimulated by these objects, allows him to approach a remerging with his lost loved object. Less evident is the revelation, through the poem's words, that memory itself, in its abstracted relation to the subject-object split, effects a type of merging of the speaker with Arthur.

     The final eight lines of Section 45 do not elaborate on the first eight lines' illustration of the infant's entrance into the world of subjects and objects as such. Rather, they revert to the previous section's notion that the dead, specifically Arthur, might not retain a clear memory of his experiences in life:

    So rounds he to a separate mind
       From whence clear memory may begin,
       As thro' the frame that binds him in
    His isolation grows defined.

    This use may lie in blood and breath,
       Which else were fruitless of their due,
       Had man to learn himself anew
    Beyond the second birth of Death. (45.9-16)

On one level, the "he" in this passage refers to the deceased Arthur; but "he" also refers to the infant that has just experienced the subject-object split. Both would have but the vaguest of memories of their experiences prior to the split (the split of life from death and of pre-symbolic from symbolic). The deceased's obscured memory shortly after death would be similar to--perhaps a repetition of--the infant's obscured memory before the acquisition of language. When it enters the symbolic world, the infant's mind is other than it was before: it has become "a separate mind/From whence clear memory may begin [. . .]" This second (symbolic, clearly remembering) mind, the speaker indicates, might stand in relation to the first (pre-symbolic, obscured) mind as the mind of the dead Arthur stands in relation to his previous mind, his mind when he was living. The dead Arthur's memory of his time on earth might be unremittingly vague; he might have to "learn himself anew/Beyond the second birth of Death" because he no longer recalls the "use of 'I' and 'me'" that he acquired and used while living.

     The correlation between the memory of the newly dead Arthur and the memory of the newly born infant is underscored further in the phrase "the second birth of Death." Following birth, the infant undergoes a process whereby it learns to use "I" and "me," a process that inaugurates the use of the symbolic in memory. This inauguration of the symbolic nearly obliterates the subject's memory of pre-verbal experience. It is as if birth into the symbolic causes the death of the pre-symbolic. If, in death, Arthur must undergo again such an inauguration into the symbolic, his memory of experiences prior to that inauguration would be nearly obliterated. He would not be able to recall his experiences with the speaker. Furthermore, Arthur's first experience of the "I-me" split as an infant would, argues the speaker, be "fruitless" if, in death, he could not recall his life. The speaker would be more content, it seems, if no memory existed at all. If that were the case, he would not suffer. Instead, the "I-me" split leads to the subject's ever greater isolation in the world of objects ("His isolation grows defined"), all the while obscuring his pre-symbolic memory of experiences prior to that split. It is as if the memory is dishonest about all reality because it (the memory) cannot recall the period predating entrance into the world of objects: "This use [the use of 'I' and 'me'] may lie [prevaricate] in blood and breath [in both the physical and the symbolic forms of reality]."5

     With the notion of the "second birth of Death" in mind, as well as the relation of memory to the pre-symbolic state, the stanzas that immediately precede Section 45 become less opaque:

    How fares it with the happy dead?
       For here the man is more and more;
       But he forgets the days before
    God shut the doorways of his head.

    The days have vanish'd, tone and tint,
       And yet perhaps the hoarding sense
       Gives out at times (he knows not whence)
    A little flash, a mystic hint;

    And in the long harmonious years
       (If Death so taste the Lethean springs),
       May some dim touch of earthly things
    Surprise thee ranging with thy peers. (44.1-12)

The speaker indicates here that even though the deceased's memory probably fails when it attempts to recall the time when he was living-"before/God shut the doorways of his head./The days have vanish'd"-he might still receive glimpses of it: "the hoarding sense/Gives out at times (he knows not whence)/A little flash, a mystic hint." If memory operates in this manner after death, then, the speaker hopes, Arthur may at times be surprised by "some dim touch of earthly things." And if Arthur can bridge the gap between life and death--just as the speaker does between the symbolic (the objective subject "I-me") and the pre-symbolic (the subjective object "I")--in a periodic "little flash," then the two friends can, in a psychic realm beyond the symbolic, reunite.

     This "little flash" of insight, which foreshadows another "flash" (in Section 95), is one of the means by which the speaker hopes the void created by Arthur's sudden death can be filled. Another means is the very act of composing words. Filling with words the void left by the death of a loved one is, according to Abraham and Torok, an integral part of mourning, which is a salubrious process, in contrast to melancholia, which is a debilitating fantasy.6 Freud defines mourning as "the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one" (164); it is a process that requires the introjection of that loved person prior to his or her decease. Introjection (the unconscious, psychic internalization of an external object) begins, as Abraham and Torok argue, when words fill a void:

    [T]he first beginnings of introjection take place thanks to the experience of an empty mouth, doubled by the mother's presence. This void is first experienced through howls and tears, and deferred fulfillment, then as an occasion for calling, a means of making things appear, speech. Or then again, as vocal self-fulfillment, through lingual-palatal-glossal exploration of the void, in echo to the sounds received from the outside world, and eventually as a progressive partial replacement of satisfactions of the mouth filled with the maternal object by satisfactions of the mouth devoid of that object but filled with words addressed to the subject. The transition from breast-filled mouth to word-filled mouth is achieved through experiences of "empty mouth." Learning to fill the void of the mouth with words constitutes an early paradigm of introjection. (5-6)

The infant's introjection of the breast (and, by extension, the mother that initially responded to the infant's cries for food) occurs as a gradual replacement of that breast within the infant. Facilitating this replacement is the infant's filling its mouth with sounds and then with words. Eventually, the mother's constancy guarantees the meaning of words for the infant, and then "words can replace the mother's presence and give rise to new introjections" (6). These new introjections work in tandem with words when the objects they represent are absent. And with the unalterable absence of a loved object, through death, the subject undergoes the non-pathological process of mourning by re-presenting the absent, introjected loved one (the deceased, the mother) in words.

     Klein explains that introjection is an integral part of the mourning process, and In Memoriam might be described as a collocation of introjections recalled at various times in the process of the speaker's mourning. Klein writes, "My experience leads me to conclude that, while it is true that the characteristic feature of normal mourning is the individual's setting up the lost loved object inside himself, he is not doing so for the first time but, through the work of mourning, is reinstating that object as well as all his loved internal objects which he feels he has lost. He is therefore recovering what he had already attained in childhood" (362). The outward mourning of the poem's speaker-the poem itself-makes manifest the reinstatement of his lost loved objects and the "setting up the lost loved object inside himself." But it also returns to the speaker (intrapsychically) his lost loved objects and the essential lost object (not yet perceived as an object at the time but subsequently internalized as such): the mother's breast. That early state of comfort is forever lost following weaning, but subsequent restorations of lost objects (real and imagined) summon the breast to provide the subject relief from quotidian anxiety. Loved objects appear and reappear throughout In Memoriam, and the textual circulation of the loss and recovery that provides coherence to the poem reflects the speaker's real-life experience, thus affording him a source of comfort.

     Although In Memoriam's speaker does not make an overt connection between the mother's breast and his poetic mourning, his expression of grief returns him to a moment in his infancy, when he calls out for the absent mother in Section 54:

    Behold, we know not anything;
       I can but trust that good shall fall
       At last-far off-at last, to all,
    And every winter change to spring.

    So runs my dream: but what am I?
       An infant crying in the night:
       An infant crying for the light:
    And with no language but a cry. (13-20)

After writing just over 1000 lines, the speaker acknowledges that his words are no more than an infant's cry and that his desire to restore Arthur, like the infant's desire to restore the mother, is no more than a dream. The speaker sees himself as a helpless, pre-verbal infant, who "know[s] not anything" and "can but trust that good shall fall." He cannot rationally "know" that good will come out of his pain. Because his writing, like the infant's crying, does not guarantee the reinstatement of the lost loved object, he can only "trust" and "dream" that the void left by the object will somehow be filled.

     Through the act of his writing, though, the speaker is working to fill a void; he is in the process of healing a wound. Yet as he strives to find comfort in the writing of his poem, his grief leads him back in this passage to an infantile state, a state that Klein calls the "depressive position." This position, succinctly described by Hanna Segal, "is ushered in when the infant recognizes his mother as a whole object. It is a constellation of object relations and anxieties characterized by the infant's experience of attacking an ambivalently loved mother and losing her as an external and internal object. This experience gives rise to pain, guilt and feelings of loss" (105). Furthermore, the infant's guilt over its destruction of the mother (the loved object) leads it subsequently to attempt to restore her. Klein writes, "If the baby has, in aggressive phantasies, injured his mother by biting and tearing her up, he may soon build up phantasies that he is putting the bits together again and repairing her"(308).7 This fragmented (bitten and torn up) mother sets the stage for all of the subject's future lost loved objects, and the subject will forever after be "putting the bits together again" in order to make her once more a whole object. The speaker's writing of In Memoriam is one example of a therapeutic exercise in making the mother whole again.

     To expand upon Klein's argument regarding the reconstructed "whole mother," I propose that this whole mother can be whole for the subject only temporarily and only when the subject is intrapsychically merged with her. The concept of the whole mother is more than just the breast and more than just the body to which the breast is attached: the whole mother, from the perspective of the subject, is the subjective object, the pre-symbolic infant attached to the mother, merged with her. She is an entity that can be comprehended only approximately, and expressed only approximately, in the semiotic aspect of poetic language described by Kristeva.

     In contrast to Freud's notion of melancholia as a debilitating state, Kristeva argues that melancholy can, for the artist, be productive. In her essay "On the Melancholic Imaginary," she writes of melancholia in less clinical terms than Freud does when she conflates melancholia, depression, and despair-all a "black sun"-in order to explore the relationship between literature and melancholia. Kristeva states, "melancholy in writing has little to do with the clinical stupor of melancholia" (105). Rather, "melancholy in writing" functions as a sort of inspiration, or incitement, to the artist. She writes, "The artist: melancholy's lost intimate witness and the most ferocious combatant of the symbolic abdication enveloping him [. . .]" (105); that is, melancholy produces in the artist symbolic representations of mental crises that otherwise resist representation with a static meaning. In "The System and the Speaking Subject," Kristeva explains that the artist's representation expresses a "semiotic disposition," a shift in the speaking subject away from symbolic meaning and toward a "pre-meaning and pre-sign" (127). This semiotic disposition renews the practices of social systems by transgressing the constraints of "scientific language" and its apparently fixed meaning, as opposed to "poetic language" and its multiple meanings. According to Kristeva, melancholy encourages the writer's attempts at liberation from the constraints of the signifying system and allows him to create new meaning on the fringes of that system.

     Not coincidentally, similarities between the theoretical definition of melancholia and the clinical definition of mourning emerge. Kristeva's theoretical description of the origins of "melancholy in writing" invokes the maternal reference found in Abraham and Torok's clinical description of the origins of mourning. Kristeva writes,

    Rather than seeking the meaning of despair (which is evident or metaphysical), let us admit that there is no meaning aside from despair. The child-king becomes irremediably sad before proferring his first words: it is being separated from his mother, despairingly, with no going back, that decides him to try and recuperate her, along with other objects, in his imagination and, later, in words. The semiology interested in the degree zero of symbolism is unfailingly led to pose itself questions concerning not only the amorous state but also its sombre corollary--melancholy. Thereby to recognize, in the same movement, that if there exists no writing that is not amorous, then neither does there exist an imagination that is not, manifestly or secretly, melancholic. ("On the Melancholic Imaginary" 104-05)

The imagination is melancholic because, as Kristeva notes, the subject has been separated from the mother, and, in its melancholia, it attempts to restore the mother with words. The artist, specifically, effects this restoration in poetic language that evokes the maternal semiotic within the register of the paternal symbolic. Thus, symbolic language, which strives to reify meaning, is "maternalized" (my term) in the literary creation that recalls the semiotic. Inherent in the use of "literary" language, then-and, in particular, in poetic language-is a melancholic return to the mother.

     In Memoriam can be read as the record of the speaker's struggle to restore Arthur, a struggle that necessarily includes the attempt to restore the lost mother. These struggles begin in earnest in the poem with the speaker's description of the return of Arthur's body to England. But because the body itself is not Arthur (the living, acting, experiential Arthur), it cannot fulfill the speaker's craving. The body is only a "shell" that no longer contains its "pearl" (52.16), the soul of what once was. In order to re-experience life with Arthur, the speaker must put his dreams and memories-realms in which Arthur "lives"-into words, however inadequate: "I cannot love thee as I ought," he tells his dead friend; "My words are only words, and move/Upon the topmost froth of thought" (52.1-4). Following Arthur's death, the objects and phenomena that the two men experienced together are infused with greater meaning for the speaker because they re-present the lost Arthur and, by standing in the gap left by him, psychically restore him. Although the poem offers many instances of such places and objects, one of the most notable examples is the sheaf of "noble letters" Arthur wrote to the speaker years prior to the speaker's writing the poem.

     In Section 95, after the speaker describes the fading away of natural objects that he had observed along his walk, he concentrates his thoughts on Arthur's letters. The bats and trees and cows dissipate "one by one" as he drifts into the world of these letters:

    But when those others, one by one,
       Withdrew themselves from me and night,
       And in the house light after light
    Went out, and I was all alone,

    A hunger seized my heart; I read
       Of that glad year which once had been,
       In those fall'n leaves which kept their green,
    The noble letters of the dead [. . .](17-24)

These "fall'n leaves" bring back to the speaker the experiences of "that glad year which once had been," that time when Arthur was still alive. In themselves, the letters serve as tangible objects in external reality that the speaker introjected, like the mother, later to be recalled in moments of crisis.

     In his description of the time he "was all alone" and a "hunger seized [his] heart," the speaker states, "I read." Note that the speaker performs a double shift that reveals how reading, like writing, can satisfy a hunger. The desire to fill the mouth with food, as Abraham and Torok argue, is directly related to the desire to fill the mouth with words, and the poem's grieving speaker has been filling his mouth with words, filling his pages with signs, apparently, for several years. While his reading of Arthur's letters psychically recuperates Arthur, the reading experience psychically recuperates the lost mother's breast, that which satisfies hunger. This is a particular type of satisfaction that Kristeva alludes to when writing about the effect of poetic language on the melancholic. She states, "The 'semiotic' and the 'symbolic' . . . become the communicable marks of an affective reality, present, palpable to the reader (I like this book because sadness--or anxiety or joy--is communicated to me by it) and nevertheless dominated, kept at a distance, vanquished" ("On the Melancholic Imaginary" 108-09). The reading of literature, Kristeva points out, is therapeutic because it makes the affect, such as sorrow, "palpable to the reader," while at the same time allowing the reader to dominate and vanquish it, like a hunger. As Section 95 of In Memoriam indicates, reading satisfies a hunger.

     While writing about reading as akin to eating, the speaker not only moves into the position of the reader, who eats, but he also moves Arthur into the position of the writer, who feeds. The speaker is the child to the maternal Arthur, just as the reader has been the child to the maternal speaker throughout the poem. The speaker is in this moment in two places at once-he is both writer and reader: he writes about the experience of reading Arthur's letters. As both the feeder and the fed, he fills a gap, as it were, between Arthur and the reader. He satisfies both his own readerly hunger (he fills with Arthur's words the gap left by Arthur) and the hunger of the reader (he fills the gap left by the lost mother by filling the reader with words). The reader, alone like the hungry speaker reading Arthur's letters, is, through her experience with the text, replacing the lost mother with the textual object.

     As the speaker reads, Arthur's letters take on meaning and grow into something more than the objects once touched by Arthur. Intrapsychically, Arthur reaches through time, via the written word, to "touch" the speaker:

    So word by word, and line by line,
       The dead man touch'd me from the past,
       And all at once it seem'd at last
    The living soul was flash'd on mine,

    And mine in this was wound, and whirl'd
       About empyreal heights of thought,
       And came on that which is, and caught
    The deep pulsations of the world [. . .] (95. 33-40)

Arthur's written words have meaning symbolically, in the Kristevan sense, but their power resides in their semiotic aspect, in their capacity to convey and elicit emotion; that is, in their capacity to touch-"The dead man touch'd me from the past [. . .]" The act of reading the letters, then, achieves the symbolic reunion with Arthur that the speaker seeks.

     This reunion through words brings the two friends together for a moment and, in terms that recall the speaker's description of the workings of the memory of the dead quoted earlier--"A little flash, a mystic hint" (44.5-8)--the soul of Arthur "was flash'd on" the speaker's soul. Only briefly does the connection last, but it is enough to have a therapeutic effect. These flashes that unite the living and the dead are the same flashes that unite the reader and the writer, the subject and the mother. They act as little climactic recoveries, and they reveal themselves only fleetingly in language. Note Kristeva's description of language: "language as a system is articulated through the signifier which exceeds the consciousness (and therefore the systematization) of the speaking subject" ("The Speaking Subject" 210). It is when the semiotic aspect of language (the maternal, echolalic aspect of the subjective object, that which exceeds systematization) bursts through the symbolic that we experience the "flashes" of union of which the speaker writes.

     Despite his experience of the reuniting flash, the speaker ends the trance induced by his reading of Arthur's letters by lamenting once again the inadequacy of language:

    Vague words! But ah, how hard to frame
       In matter-moulded forms of speech,
       Or ev'n for intellect to reach
    Thro' memory that which I became [. . .] (95.45-48)

He refers here to his own words but also to those of others, both of which he finds insufficient to convey all that he feels and all that is felt. "For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within" (5.3-4): the speaker cannot express his feelings as completely as he would like because words are inadequate. Yet, despite this paradox, the transcendental "Soul within" can be revealed partially via words so that kindred souls--the speaker and the reader--can re-experience, if only in a fleeting poetic flash, a reunion with the lost mother.



End Notes

1 In fact, it appears that no focused attention has been given to the psychology of grief at all in In Memoriam in the past several years. To open her review of scholarly works on Tennyson published in 2004, Linda K. Hughes remarks that "Amidst inescapable news coverage of the divisive war in Iraq, it is not surprising that Tennyson's war poetry is receiving renewed attention" (409). What is surprising, however, is that few analyses of what is arguably the greatest meditation on death in the English language have been published since the events of September 11, 2001, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. One possible exception is James Krasner's enlightening 2004 PMLA article, which offers a fresh, albeit brief, look at Sections 7 and 13 of the poem. For insightful, pre-9/11 detailed readings of In Memoriam, I refer the reader especially to works by Isobel Armstrong, Alan Sinfield, and Donald S. Hair.

2 The speaker's expression of emotion and thought, however distorted, creates and at the same time acknowledges the role of the empathetic reader, a relationship that finds itself mirrored in the psychoanalytic model. The analyst "reads" the analysand's spoken words.

3 The reader should note that for Kristeva "the symbolic is constituted beginning with what psychoanalysis calls the mirror stage and the consequent capacities for absence, representation or abstraction" ("The Speaking Subject" 216-17). In Lacanian theory, the Imaginary begins with the mirror stage, and the Symbolic begins with the acquisition of language; for an elaboration of the concepts, see his essay "The Mirror Stage." The present essay indicates the Kristevan symbolic with a lower-case "s" to differentiate it from the Lacanian Symbolic, which is often written with an upper-case "S."

4 As Lacan explains this phenomenon, the infant looks into the mirror and finds that the image (the "me," what Lacan calls the imago) is not really the same as the body (the "I") casting that image (see "The Mirror Stage" paper). The infant's recognition of its image in the mirror, its imago, enters it into the realm of the Lacanian Imaginary; its use of the terms "I" and "me" enters it into the realm of the Lacanian Symbolic. With its entrance into the Imaginary and the Symbolic, the infant, for the first time, recognizes and commemorates its loss of the mother.

5 Robert H. Ross's interpretation of Section 45 indicates that he reads the word "lie" in line 15 not in the sense of "deceiving" or "prevaricating," as I do in this case, but of "being situated": "This use may [be situated] in blood and breath" rather than "This use may [deceive] in blood and breath." Ross also reads "this" in "This use" and "their" in "their due" of line 14 differently than I do. Ross's gloss of Section 45 reads, "The purpose of life, the speaker argues, is to establish an individual consciousness, or identity (line 9). Surely, then, the dead must retain some memory of their earthly life; otherwise, man would have to learn himself anew after death, thus rendering the purpose of living merely a waste of 'blood and breath' (lines 13-16)" (30). If nothing else, the differences between Ross's reading and my reading of this passage-and of the individual words "lie," "this," and "their"-point to the semiotic, anti-definitive disposition of In Memoriam.

6 Most psychoanalytic work--certainly that of Freud, Abraham and Torok, Kristeva, and Klein--discusses the pathology of melancholia at the expense of mourning. Because mourning is not socially debilitating and eventually returns the grieving subject to emotional equilibrium, it is considered the "normal" (i.e., "healthy") method of grieving; it is not a symptom indicating the need for a cure. Melancholia, on the other hand, affects the subject's sociability and can lead to suicide; therefore, psychoanalytic theory attempts to explain melancholia's functioning in order to "cure" the sufferer. One might argue that Tennyson's protracted focus on Hallam's death-he wrote on the topic for over sixteen years (in fact, one might argue that he wrote on it for the rest of his life)-is evidence of his melancholia rather than his mourning. However, Tennyson's activity indicates that he did not suffer from melancholia in the clinical sense of the term. In a manner unlike the Freudian melancholic, Tennyson continued to interact with others and, despite several moments in In Memoriam that seem to indicate otherwise, he didn't utter "self-reproaches and self-revilings" for Hallam's death. In fact, almost immediately upon receiving the shocking news of his friend's fatal brain hemorrhage, Tennyson continued with his writing, finishing "Ulysses," "Tithonus," and "Hark! The Dogs Howl!" within a few months, while also working on "Tiresias" and "On a Mourner."

7 Klein describes the processes constituting the depressive position in her essay "A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States." She writes, "From the beginning the ego introjects objects 'good' and 'bad,' for both of which the mother's breast is the prototype-for good objects when the child obtains it, for bad ones when it fails him. But it is because the baby projects its own aggression on to these objects that it feels them to be 'bad' [. . .]" (262). Eventually, as these idealized introjections become more and more akin to the external reality from which they are derived, the child will overcome the depressive position and gain "a greater trust in [its] capacity to love" (288).

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Kurt Harris "Mourning at the Mother’s Breast: on Death and Weaning in Tennyson’s In Memoriam". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 20, 2005, Published: March 19, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Kurt Harris