In section 45 of his poem In Memoriam, Tennyson ultimately describes death as a "second birth" (line 16). He opens the section by discussing an infant's new association with the world and the recognition of the self that begins the formation of a person's identity. As the poem progresses, Tennyson links this recognition with isolation, suggesting that in some ways, developing one's own mind separates one from the rest of the world. He concludes by comparing death to birth — although he does not use the term rebirth, opting instead for a term with strong Christian religious connotations: “second birth" (16).
The baby new to earth and sky,
What time his tender palm is pressed
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":
So rounds he to a separate mind
From whence clear memory may begin,
As through 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.
1. Tennyson ends the third stanza with "His isolation grows defined" (line 12). Is he describing the emergence of isolation, or was the isolation always present but simply undefined before that moment? In the second stanza, Tennyson describes the formation of identity matter-of-factly — does he pass judgement on self-recognition and resulting isolation, or regard them as neutral aspects of life?
2. In the second stanza, Tennyson posits that the quote "I am not what I see/And other than the things I touch" expresses the feelings a baby or young child has upon learning of his own identity as separate from the world. However, the language he uses to express the idea is not that of even a slightly older child. How does this disparity function in the poem? Is it significant that most people do not remember the moment when they recognized their self?
3. "Mind" (line 9), "binds" (11), and "defined" (12) echo one another in sound, drawing attention to themselves. How are the three connected in creating and portraying isolation?
4. How would a character like Dick Crick from Graham Swift's Waterland fit Tennyson's rubric for self-recognition?
5. Tennyson spends most of the section describing the effects of self-recognition after birth. He then compares death to a "second birth" (line 16). How does he think self-recognition and identity would function after death?
Last modified 5 April 2004
Last modified 8 June 2007