In A Nutshell
The very famous line ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, / Than never to have loved at all” is from a Tennyson poem called “In Memoriam A.H.H.” and is commonly mistaken as a line of Shakespeare’s. Though it is often associated with heartbreak after a break up, it was actually written about the author’s best friend who passed away while abroad.
The Whole Bushel
One of the most well known and beautiful quotes of all time appears in Alfred Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” which he completed in 1849. The poem, which was a favorite of Queen Victoria, is about unexpectedly losing a loved one and the harrowing grief process that follows it.
The subject of the poem was Tennyson’s best friend Arthur Henry Hallam (the “A.H.H.” in the title). The two met at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1829, and they shared a love of poetry. Tennyson and Hallam grew closer throughout the year and Hallam even joined the Tennysons for family holidays. He spent three Christmases with the Tennysons at their Somersby home. Upon his first visit, Hallam fell in love with Tennyson’s younger sister, 18-year-old Emily.
Aside from being dear friends, Tennyson and Hallam worked on a book of poetry together. The first book had to be published in secret because Tennyson’s father didn’t approve. Nor did he approve of Hallam’s relationship with Emily. Hallam was forbidden from visiting Tennyson’s home until he was 21.
However, in February 1831, Tennyson’s father died. As a result, Tennyson could no longer attend Cambridge but Hallam could now visit Emily at Somersby. Also, without his father, and with the aid and support of Hallam, Tennyson published his second book of poetry.
In July 1833, after visiting Emily, Hallam traveled to Vienna with his father. Hallam became ill while there, but after a few days of bed rest he was feeling better. On September 15, 1833, Hallam seemed to be on the mend; he was in a good mood and went on a short walk with his father. After returning to the hotel, Hallam went to read his book in front of the fire and his father continued on his walk. When he returned, it appeared that Hallam had fallen asleep. A short time later, his father realized that his son was dead. He had died from a stroke.
Tennyson and Emily were devastated by the news. Obviously they were not expecting the young, virile man to die without giving them a chance to say goodbye. They were expecting to see their friend when he returned; instead Tennyson got a letter from Hallam’s uncle which broke the heartbreaking news.
Over the next 17 years, Tennyson worked on his epic poem which contains 133 cantos and reflects on the sadness and emptiness that happens when someone unexpectedly vanishes from your life. The poem takes place over the span of three Christmases. At the first Christmas, everyone is incredibly sad because they miss Hallam. It does not feel like celebration because they are reminded he is gone and never coming back. At the second Christmas, they are starting to feel better and enjoy the holiday, but then they feel guilty for having fun without Hallam. In the third Christmas, they still miss their lost friend but are happy and enjoying the holiday. They feel like they can move on and enjoy their life without feeling guilty. The poem ends with Tennyson’s sister’s wedding, which originally should have been to Hallam. The poem shows that life must move on, no matter how hard it is and how much you miss someone.
The most famous lines of the poem are found in Canto 27, which is before that first miserable Christmas without his friend. The lines are:
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.
Show Me The Proof
“In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Lord Tennyson
BBC Radio 4: In Our Time, Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’
Book review: ‘Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find’
‘A Life Lived Quickly’: Tennyson’s Friend Arthur Hallam and His Legend, by Martin Blocksidge
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’: A Reading Guide, by Anna Barton