Since In Memoriam first appeared in 1850, critics have been trying to come to terms with the unusual verse form of the poem and the nature of the desire it seems to encode. This essay roots these two critical preoccupations in the one formal unit-virtually unique in the history of English prosody-so distinctive to the poem that it bears its name: the eponymous In Memoriam stanza. Repeated endlessly, almost relentlessly, seven-hundred-and-twenty-five times, the stanza itself contains hermeneutic potential yet to be unpacked. For while Tennyson claims to have originated the verse form on his own, more than two centuries before him Ben Jonson had used the so-called In Memoriam stanza to similar effect: to express elegiac sentiments on the topic of doomed or "lost desire." To take Tennyson's claim to formal autonomy at face value is to dismiss centuries of poetic syntax built into the verse form that necessarily informs his poem. From the dissident elegiac desire of the Latin poet Propertius, to the elegiac longing of Jonson and Gray, to the yearning "Elegies" (as Tennyson called the individual sections of In Memoriam), to the lyrics of Oscar Wilde, this essay performs a radical genealogy of the stanza, showing how its formal devices work to incorporate (and disguise) its "vague desire" in specific "matter-moulded forms of speech."
- Copyright 1999 The Regents of the University of California