This is a critical edition with a vengeance. By page-count, the 3000-line poem occupies about 100 pages while the critical essays at the back take up about 150, and there is a preface as well. Whether this preface is from the pen of the editor Erik Gray or is by the previous Norton editor Robert H Ross I'm not fully clear, but I don't suppose it matters. For present purposes I am considering this introduction together with the appended essays.
The great and good of lit crit are out in force here. There is Andrew Bradley, there is T S Eliot, there is Basil Willey and there is Christopher Ricks to mention only four of the twelve essayists excluding Hallam Lord Tennyson, son of the poet himself. I myself have a rather low tolerance of literary criticism, much of which candidly seems to me neither here nor there, indeed at times a bit of a self-perpetuating racket. What I look for in it is genuine illumination, and I flogged through the contributions here dutifully if listlessly in search of that. Failing illumination I will settle for good sense, and the main instances of that here are two remarks of the poet's own, to the effect that this is a poem not a treatise, poetry not philosophy or biography. Poetry, said Housman, is 'a tone of voice, a way of saying things'. Earnest analysis of the religious and agnostic elements in the poet's mind is not literary criticism at all, but biography. It is using the poem to illustrate the poet. When this is extended into the further question, as Eliot once allowed himself to extend it, of the relative merits of firm Christian faith vis-à-vis agnosticism, it is simply extraneous philosophy and nothing to do with Tennyson or with his poem at all.
Roughly speaking, the more recent critics keep this basic point in mind better than the earlier do, although often alluding to one another as they go along. The quality of the various contributions does not of course depend on the extent to which they are literary criticism in the proper sense. I genuinely do find illumination here and there along the way, mainly but not entirely in the pieces that seem most relevant to the poem. I found T S Eliot very helpful in his contribution on the dry and academic-seeming issue of the versification, because to me this is not dry but accounts for the extraordinary effectiveness of this great poem to a major extent. To be able to keep a poem of 3000 short tetrameter lines going in their monotonous rhyme-scheme without fatiguing the ear is a phenomenal achievement, and I'm not sure which other English poet could have matched it. Swinburne's anapaests usually have me exhausted after a page and a half, but I can read In Memoriam from end to end at one sitting and finish up not only fresh but elated at its sheer skill and adroitness. On the other hand, Bradley hacks away at the 'structure' of the poem with a determination that leaves me cold. To me, In Memoriam has shape but not structure, in the way a cloud-mass has that. The poet's musings drift through his successive moods as the random thoughts occur to him: Bradley's pedantry would be better suited to some manual.
Perhaps the best essay, at least in the sense of covering the most ground, is by Ricks. However one that is particularly interesting is by Jeff Nunokawa, exploring possible homoerotic elements in the expression. He is very nimble-footed in his approach, wisely not over-committing himself and of course understanding clearly that some of the more amorous-sounding expressions are largely literary convention with a pedigree going back millennia. Tennyson's poetry, to me, doesn't usually convey much erotic impression of any kind, and I sense something else entirely here. What I sense is mental and emotional liberation - after his ghastly upbringing I suspect that Tennyson found in Hallam a window into a better and more beautiful world, and that eroticism may have had very little to do with it. Another aspect that needs and receives consideration from the essayists is the epilogue to the poem, and here again I wonder whether something has been missed. This epilogue is completely at variance with the rest of the great poem in tone and sentiment, and attempts to link it with the frequent expressions of aspiration to a better world earlier in the work, while fair up to a point, seem to me to miss the main point. Go back to old Chaucer and the epilogue to his own great Troilus and Criseyde. There also the poet goes off at a tangent, and I think for the same reason. There is an abstract aspect to poetry just as there is to music, and the soul of literature itself finally trumps all the mundane considerations of beliefs, passions, theories and personal relationships.
I don't suppose I would dare award this production less than the highest rating, but I wouldn't be right to either. My own reservations are mainly subjective, and what does not convince me often has for others the aspect of great and prevalent truth. As a passionate lover of the great English language and its incomparable literature I shunned like the pestilence academic courses in `English'. That is precisely the market this edition is aimed at, it has everything and everyone it should have basically, and the 100 pages of the book that matter to me are beyond the reach of all of them.