Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1850. Tennyson’s poem “The age of irreverence” pasted inside back cover. 1st Amer. ed. Original brown cloth. Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s copy with signature and numerous annotations, some of which refer to Ralph Waldo Emerson. ABLibrary 19thCent PR5562.A1 1850a

Rare Item Analysis: Finding “A Fresh Association” in “The Age of Irreverence”

By Aaron Hatrick

This rare item is a first American edition of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam; it was owned by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and he appears to have made a number of annotations in the book. Higginson was a politically radical American man of letters, one-time Unitarian minister, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and would later become Emily Dickinson’s chief literary correspondent. He appears to have written two dates in the book (August 1850 and October 16, 1850), and if these dates represent a period during which he read In Memoriam, he was reading it in a moment of political upheaval in the United States and of personal transformation in his own life. In addition to these markings, Higginson seems to have pasted a copy of Tennyson’s “Age of Irreverence” in the back of the book. Higginson’s use of “Age of Irreverence” may suggest a continuance of the same thought-process through which he was moving as he read In Memoriam. Higginson also wrote the initials “RWE” over Lyric IX, and it seems very probable that this is a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).

At the beginning of In Memoriam, Higginson appears to have written his name and the date of August 1850 (see image 1), and towards the end of In Memoriam, on Lyric XCIX (CI of the final edition, the one most often used today), he appears to have written Oct. 16, 1850 (see image 2). While it is impossible to know for certain that these were the dates during which Higginson read In Memoriam, it is obvious from another source that Higginson was thinking of Tennyson during this time. In July of 1850, one month before the first hand-written date in In Memoriam, Higginson wrote a letter to Emerson partially on the subject of Tennyson. Higginson writes, “During your absence I made a visit to your study which [sic] I would gladly have had a visit to yourself likewise. I saw several things which I coveted, and this first edition of Tennyson was especially tempting; I had pleasant memories of it and had long wished to meet it again” (T.W. Higginson 33). Higginson explains that he took Emerson’s copy of Tennyson from his study, and the letter seems to indicate that Higginson is sending it back with the letter. Obviously, Higginson does not refer to the first edition of In Memoriam that is the subject of this post, for Higginson had “pleasant memories of it,” and In Memoriam had just been published. Clearly, Higginson was referring to a different set of Tennyson’s poems. Nonetheless, Higginson is thinking about Tennyson during this period, and he is writing to Emerson about it. This letter could explain some of the reason for which Higginson wrote “RWE” over the top of Canto IX (see image 3): he was already thinking of Tennyson in relation to his friend. These facts together seem to build a strong case that Higginson was reading In Memoriam during the dates signified in the copy.

In the period of time during which Higginson would have been reading In Memoriam, the United States Congress passed the Great Compromise, part of which was the Fugitive Slave Law (September of 1850). This law had a profound impact on the development of Higginson as an individual. Even in 1846, Higginson was radically liberal; because of his belief that slavery could not be removed with the slave states still in the Union, he supported the dissolution of the Union nearly twenty years before the Civil War. Higginson writes, “I might have recorded … my final self-enrollment in the ranks of the American Non-Jurors or Disunion Abolitionists and my determination not only not to vote for any officer who must take oath to support the U.S. Constitution, but also to use whatever means may lie in my power to promote the Dissolution of the Union” (qtd. in M.T. Higginson 76). Despite his clearly radical liberal leanings, he goes through a definite intellectual transformation after the Great Compromise. James W. Tuttleton writes, “When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, [Higginson] stood for Congress as a Free Soil party candidate. … [H]e … tol[d] his neighbors that since the Fugitive Slave Law ‘must … yield to a higher law,’ right-thinking Massachusetts men would refuse to catch or return escaped slaves” (32). Before the Fugitive Slave Law, Higginson was willing to stand for radical positions (such as Disunion Abolitionism) that he knew might eventually cause him harm (M.T. Higginson 76), but after the Fugitive Slave Act, he advocates actual resistance to the law. He even takes it one step further, leaving open the possibility that bloodshed may be necessary (Tuttleton 32). Obviously, In Memoriam is not a martial poem, yet Higginson is going through a profound political transformation from protestor to resistor during the period in which he read it. While I do not wish to suggest that this poem acted on Higginson, creating the change, rather, I believe that his political shift is evident in how he read the poem.

In particular, Lyric XCIX is the most heavily annotated lyric in this copy, and it is one of the few with which Higginson marked two “#” atop of it, apparently a sign of some distinction (see image 2). According to Timothy Peltason, this lyric is part of a series “in which the poet bids farewell to his childhood home. … To leave the boyhood home, to move forward at all, is to reenact loss, to pass away” (125). Tennyson is not concerned only with his boyhood home, but his loss is associated with the loss of his friend Hallam with whom Tennyson associated it. In this lyric, Tennyson begins the first stanza with “unwatched,” the following two with “unloved,” (“unloved” also appears in the third line of the first stanza), and the fourth with “uncared,” and in each of these stanzas, some part of nature is operating without the interference of a loving, watchful, or careful observer. In the fifth stanza, however, Tennyson creates a change. He writes

Till from the garden and the wild

A fresh association blow,

And year by year the landscape grow

Familiar to the stranger’s child (ll.17-20).

In the fifth stanza, nature no longer exists in an unwatchful, unloving, and uncaring environment. Something has shifted; now, familiarity has replaced the lack of care in the previous four stanzas. In the final stanza, Tennyson looks toward the future in which the labourer will continue to till “year by year” (l.21).

Two significant thematic parallels between Tennyson’s imagery and the American political climate may have been at work in Higginson’s reading of this lyric: the poem shifts when a passionate consciousness enters into the poem, and the labourers tilling may have brought slavery to Higginson’s mind. In the first four stanzas, Tennyson suggests nature operating without interference, observation, or feeling, but a “fresh association” causes this to change. By introducing an observer, Tennyson shifts from objective, dispassionate recognition of the way things are to a “fresh association” that allows the “landscape [to] grow / Familiar.” Up until this point, Higginson has taken political stands, but they have not cost him anything. Perhaps Higginson felt that he too had allowed the world to pass by in a similarly dispassionately, objective manner. Now, however, he is inflamed to action. He intends to run for Congress, and he is willing to resist the law to his own peril. In the first four stanzas, nature operates without being watched, loved or cared for; this is because someone must do the watching, loving, and caring. Tennyson marks the shift with the word till; if the “fresh association” never comes, nothing will change; nature will continue unobserved, unchanged, “year by year.” But after “a fresh association blow[s],” someone will watch, love, and care. Higginson, perhaps, intends to be this person.

If Higginson were thinking of the Fugitive Slave Law in October of 1850, the final stanza is the most obvious reference that would cause him to think of slavery. In his copy of In Memoriam, Higginson has drawn a line from the final stanza of Canto CXIX (all of which he underlined) to the date of Oct. 16, 1850 (see image 2). In the fifth stanza, Tennyson writes

As year by year the labourer tills

His wonted glebe, or lops the glades;

And year by year our memory fades

From all the circle of the hills (ll.21-24).

Twice in this stanza, Tennyson refers to the laborer as working “year by year”; to Higginson, this may have emphasized the never-ending nature of the condition of the slaves. Significantly, the laborers are the ones who are causing the change in nature. They clearly seem to be part of this “fresh association.” If Higginson read it this way, it would imply a greater agency on the part of the slave – this may have moved him to recognize their full partnership in the movement of their emancipation. Whether he read it this way or not, he certainly lived out that ideal: during the Civil War, Higginson was very proud to take command of a black regiment of Union soldiers. At the time he took command, Higginson writes, “as many persons have said, the first man who organizes and commands a successful black regiment will perform the most important Service in the history of the war” (qtd. in M.T. Higginson 215).

In addition to annotations, Higginson apparently pasted a copy of Tennyson’s “Age of Irreverence” into the back of the In Memoriam (see image 4). This poem appeared in The Spirit of the Age, on October 13, 1849, a year before Higginson probably read In Memoriam. In “Age of Irreverence,” Tennyson writes,

You might have won the poet’s name –

If such be worth the winning now –


But you have made the wiser choice

A life that moves to gracious ends

Through troops of unrecording friends –

A deedful life, a silent voice. (1-8)

In these lines, Tennyson decries the life of a poet and celebrates the life of action. The poet blames the age in which he lives as the reason for which poets are no longer able to make the impact that they once did. Higginson probably found commonality with Tennyson in this poem, for it accurately describes some of his early vocational struggles. Tuttleton writes, “[Y]oung Higginson underwent considerable sturm und drang [storm and stress] over whether he should devote his life to poetry. In due course, his limitations became obvious to him, and he turned to more pressing considerations like reform and literary criticism” (92). When reading “Age of Irreverence” in the Spirit of the Age, Higginson probably appreciated Tennyson’s recognition that the life of action is superior to a life of poetry, and, perhaps, he appreciated the inherent implication that a life of action can do what a life of poetry once did. Higginson was a relatively young twenty-six when the poem appeared; perhaps it even contributed to or confirmed him in his decision not to dedicate his life to poetry. Regardless of its impact, clearly, he kept the poem for a year before finding a home for it in the back of In Memoriam.

During his reading of In Memoriam, Higginson was undergoing a personal transformation of how to interact with society, and “Age of Irreverence” shares the theme of prejudicing action over inaction. While Tennyson in no wise intended In Memoriam to be a political statement, it seems that these sorts of questions were at the forefront of Higginson’s mind at the time he read it. Higginson was particularly attracted to Canto CXIX, which lends itself to readings that are applicable to slavery. He also valued “Age of Irreverence” enough to keep it for a year and finally to paste it to the back of In Memoriam. Except in form, the two poems do not lend themselves easily to a thematically similar reading, but once one considers the occupation of Higginson’s interests in this important moment, they can both operate together – they can both be calls to action. Tennyson more clearly calls his readers to action in “Age of Irreverence,” but I believe that Higginson’s inclusion of “Age of Irreverence” in the back of In Memoriam increases the chances that he was reading In Memoriam similarly.

I think that Higginson’s intentions in writing Emerson’s initials above Canto IX would be an area for profitable continued study. It would also be beneficial to see if Tennyson influenced any other parts of Higginson’s life and development. In order to prosecute such a goal, scholars might consult Mary Thatcher Higginson’s biography (1914) for an analysis of Higginson’s life that is closer to the contemporary period, and they might also use James W. Tittleton’s biography (1978) in order to achieve some critical distance. I found The Letters and Journals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson indispensable for my purposes; it helped me draw the connection between Higginson and Emerson in July of 1850.

From the earliest days of the American republic, persons of action have been influenced by their contemporaries across the Atlantic;[1] Higginson is an example of such English influence extending into the Victorian period. Higginson’s annotations of In Memoriam show the wide-range application and influence of Victorian thought far beyond the physical borders of England or the intellectual intention of the English authors. Quite possibly, Tennyson had direct impact on the formation of a young radical who, nine years later, would become a financial supporter of John Brown. Likely, however, this is not the only such example. A wider avenue of scholarly research could probe the extent to which other American thinkers at this time of flux in American political life might have been influenced by their British counterparts.

[1] Alexander Hamilton was influenced by Alexander Pope; the former wrote poetry in imitation of latter (Chernow 34).

Works Cited

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. The Penguin P, 2004.

Higginson, Mary Thatcher. Thomas Wentworth Higginson: The Story of His Life. Kennikat P, 1914.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Letters and Journals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1846-1906, ed. Mary Thatcher Higginson. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921.

Peltason, Timothy. Reading In Memoriam. Princeton U P, 1985.

Tennyson, Alfred. Tennyson: A Selected Edition. Routledge, 2014.

Tuttleton, James. W. Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Twayne Publishers, 1978.