Polyptoton in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”

According to Erik Gray in his essay, “Polyptoton in In Memoriam: Evolution, Speculation, Elegy” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam,” utilizes an interesting and particular scheme of repetition that is known as “polyptoton.” Gray defines polyptoton as the opposite of rhyme. Rather than featuring word endings that are alike to antecedent word endings within a stanza, polyptoton changes the word ending but leaves the beginning of the word intact. An example of polyptoton would be a couplet wherein one line ends with the word “silent” and the preceding line ends with the word “silence.” Gray claims that more than half of In Memoriam contains polyptoton and concludes that Tennyson’s continual use of polyptoton indicates its necessity to In Memoriam, insofar as that the poem would not be able to produce the same effect in readers without the presence of polyptoton. Moreover, Gray argues that the trope of polyptoton plays multiple roles in Tennyson’s elegy, particularly, it presents and supports the poem’s central philosophical claims and brings the elegy’s consolatory strategies to light. In particular, Gray argues Tennyson’s use of polyptoton serves two primary functions in In Memoriam: the first is to symbolically reflect evolution and the second is to give a new insight into the role of elegies.

 In order to support his claims, Gray first provides background on the trope of polyptoton in the literary canon. Gray argues that it is Virgil’s fifth eclogue that primarily influenced Tennyson’s In Memoriam, as it too depends upon the fundamental belief that death is not an end but merely a change. Gray supposes that this focus on death is echoed by the fact that the words Tennyson typically uses in his polyptotons are “life” and “death.” This focus also serves to bring about Gray’s first proposed role of polyptoton which is to bring about the motif of evolution. Polyptoton, by definition, means a change. Therefore, it can be said that Tennyson’s extensive use of polyptoton causes his work to mirror evolution itself. Gray further argues that In Memoriam presents many images that demonstrate both decline and gradual improvement and that it lends more focus to the latter, as is exemplified by Tennyson’s persistent polyptotons that transform “high” to “higher,” which at first serves to represent decline, then later represents gradual improvement and the celebration of such improvement. In the sections that feature both positive and negative forms of evolution, Gray states that polyptoton is used to demonstrate the transformations occurring within the elegy. 

Additionally, Gray postulates that polyptoton serves a second purpose: speculation. When using the term “speculation,” Gray means to say that Tennyson uses  polyptoton to show “varying ideas about a single theme.” Gray cites poems 30, 78, and 105 in explaining this; he notes that, although all three begin with the identical theme of Christmas, each poem progresses differently because the speaker’s outlook on Christmas changes within each poem. Gray then brings in Peter M. Sack’s theory that “one of the fundamental conventions of elegy is to divide the lament among multiple speakers, fragmenting and multiplying the mourner’s voice.” From this, he concludes that the repetition of Christmas serves as a sort of polyptoton that allows Tennyson to reimagine grief and transfigure it by dispersing it among many speculations of grief that are each supposed in separate reiterations of successive Christmasses. Thus, Gray’s argument overall serves to demonstrate Tennyson’s use of polyptoton towards the end of creating a successful elegy that aims to alleviate the effects of grief by exemplifying a gradual and positive evolution out of grief, as well as a speculative endeavor to fragment grief and thereby reimagine it such that the burden of loss can be leavened. 

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