More accurately, this is In Memoriam A.H.H., a tribute to Tennyson’s beloved friend Arthur Hallam, met as fellow poets in the Apostles group at Cambridge. It’s a grief-soaked 100-ish pages spanning three years after Hallam’s untimely death of a cerebral aneurysm in his hotel room in Vienna in 1833, the fall after he graduated.
The ABBA rhyme was used occasionally in earlier poetry, but this is the longest and best-known to use it (so much so that the ABBA stanza is known as the In Memoriam stanza). The editor of this edition, Matthew Rowlinson, notes that it’s an unusual choice for a long poem, “the symmetrical eight-syllable line is far more apt to become monotonous than the longer ten-syllable one of iambic pentameter that from the 16th to the 20th centuries was the norm for long English poems on elevated topics.” It lends itself to seem repetitious, which to me seems to perfectly fit with grief. Henry James called the poem’s style “poised and stationary” where the phrase seems to “pause and slowly pivot upon itself, or at most to move backwards.”
Compared with other poetic elegies, it’s extremely long and doesn’t offer any divine solace like Shelley’s “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep—/He hath awakened from the dream of life.”
The most recognizable part is in XXVII, “I hold it true, whate’er befall;/ I feel it, when I sorrow most;/ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.”
So why am I reading this? Virginia Woolf’s letter to Violet Dickinson (Vol 1, p 217) mention that she’s reading it: “I went to a dance last night, and found a dim corner where I sat and read In Memoriam. While Nessa danced every dance till 2.30. I had one argument about the Roman Empire—you see I am not successful.” It also influenced her first book, The Voyage Out, according to Jane Wheare’s introduction.