BBC Radio 4, 1 February 2011
Read by David Bamber with a specially composed score by Jon Nicholls, this adapted version of Tennyson's magnum opus came across as an exercise in metaphysical speculation, with the author using the occasion of his close friend Arthur Hallam's death to mediate on the meaning of life, death and its significance for humanity. This was achieved not only through Bamber's eloquent delivery, which brought out the poem's iambic pentameter structure, but through sound-effects - the repeated crashing of waves against the sea wall, the cheerful sound of the dawn chorus, the faint rustling of the wind. The sound-effects emphasized that life would continue on its inexorable way: the elements would make their presence felt, and season would inevitably follow season despite Arthur's demise. Hence the poet came to understand that death should not be an occasion for mourning, but seen as part of life. Once that essential fact has been grasped, then death can be celebrated as something divinely ordained; the destiny of every good Christian. It was hardly surprising that Bamber's performance should end in triumphal mode, his voice rising to a crescendo as he communicated the poet's understanding of the significance of Arthur's passing.
Nicholls's music formed a perpetual backdrop to the reading, its lushness - violins and other string instruments to the fore - reminding us of the romantic tradition in which Tennyson wrote. This movement focused attention on the individual and the power of the imagination: In Memoriam is a good example with its repeated and now-famous phrases such as "it is better to have loved, than never loved at all," and "ring out, wild bells," celebrating the power of God's will. As Bamber delivered these lines, Nicholls's accompaniment reinforced the spirit of exaltation. The music also emphasized the poem's dramatic structure - although conceived as an individual (and perhaps private) response to a tragedy, in this production it came across as a public pronouncement, urging listeners to share the poet's delight and understand how death is a cause for celebration.
In a review for Radio 4's In Our Time programme, which devoted an entire episode to a discussion of In Memoriam, I drew attention to the panellists' desire to situate the poem in its context of production, as well as considering its impact on English poetry of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bamber's performance added a further dimension to my understanding of the poem; it's a great dramatic work in its own right, that benefits immensely from a public performance, irrespective of the medium in which it is staged (the theatre, television or on radio).
In Our Time: In Memoriam