“Red In Tooth and Claw”: Connections, Friendship, and Grief

How did I get from a 1996 episode of a British television series to an elegy by Alfred, Lord Tennyson for Arthur Henry Hallam, British poet (1 February 1811 – 15 September 1833)?

The connection? These five words: “red in tooth and claw.”

We had been watching Wycliffe, a British television series, based on W. J. Burley’s novels about Detective Superintendent Charles Wycliffe (originally aired 1994-1998). The phrase was used in Season 3, Episode 2, “Number of the Beast,” in reference to a series of brutal killings. I had heard this phrase before, but the first time I remember really being struck by it, was the first time I heard Field Report’s 2013 “I Am Not Waiting Anymore.” (Live version on 89.3 The Current) The song opens:

I am red in tooth and claw
God’s favorite child, bloodied from the brawl
And this bitterness was killing me all day long
I am not waiting anymore, I am not waiting anymore

(Released on Field Report’s 2012 debut album, Partisan Records, official video.)

To me this song is full of lyrics that reach down deep. Not unusual for Chris Porterfield’s lyrics. When I first heard it, I was curious about where I might have heard the phrase “red in tooth and claw” before, but I never did any research into it. Hearing the phrase on Wycliffe rekindled my interest so I looked it up.

The use of “tooth and claw” has been dated to 1823 in an article published in London’s The Morning Post. It contained a description of a battle between a jackdaw and a water rat, the jackdaw eluded the water rat’s efforts of “tooth and claw.”

In 1837 “tooth and claw” was used in The Hagerstown Mail, a Hagerstown, Maryland publication. “Hereupon, the beasts, enraged at the humbug, fell upon him tooth and claw.”

The phrase “red in tooth and claw” is most commonly attributed to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”, published in 1850.

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

(Here I think the use of the word “ravine” is not as the noun for a geological feature, but rather from old French, “to pillage, sweep down, cascade,” and middle English, “rush, seize by force.”)

Amateur analysis aside, I read the poem. It is the longest poem I have ever read. It is heartbreaking. What caused Tennyson’s deep and lasting grief? I found the answer in articles about this poem (thank you Wikipedia) and this is how I arrived at British poet Arthur Henry Hallam.

Here is an example of the poetry of Arthur Henry Hallam, a piece called Oh Poetry, Oh Rarest Spirit of All written June of 1831. Hallam was twenty years old.

Oh Poetry, oh rarest spirit of all
That dwell within the compass of the mind,
Forsake not him, whom thou of old didst call:
Still let me seek thy face, and seeking find.
Some years have gone about since I and thou 
Became acquainted first: we met in woe;
Sad was my cry for help as it is now;
Sad too thy breathed response of music slow;
But in that sadness was such essence fine,
So keen a sense of Life’s mysterious name,
And high conceit of Natures more divine,
That breath and sorrow seemed no more the same.
Oh let me hear again that sweet reply!
More than by loss of thee I cannot die.

My Poetic Side, 

Also from 1831, a sonnet by Hallam:

The garden trees are busy with the shower
That fell ere sunset; now methinks they talk,
Lowly and sweetly as befits the hour
One to another down the grassy walk.
Hark the laburnum from his opening flower
This cherry-creeper greets in whisper light,
While the grim fir, rejoicing in the night,
Hoarse mutters to the murmuring sycamore.
What shall I deem their converse? would they hail
The wild grey light that fronts yon massive cloud,
Or the half bow, rising like pillared fire?
Or are they sighing faintly for desire
That with May down their leaves may be o’erflowed,
And dews about their feet may never fail

Tennyson and Hallam met at Cambridge. They became beloved friends. They made plans to publish a book of poems together “as a seal of our friendship.” Not only were Hallam and Tennyson close friends, Hallam and Tennyson’s sister Emily fell in love and became engaged. July of 1833 Hallam visited Emily prior to taking a trip with his father. Hallam and his father left for Vienna that August where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in September. Arthur Henry Hallam was twenty-two years old. Tennyson received a letter of his friends death the first week of October. Heartbroken, for his own loss, he had to break the news to his young sister, Emily, Hallam’s fiancée. 

Tennyson’s grief must have been compounded by the unexpectedness of his friend’s death, his youth, his promise as a poet never to be realized, and future brother-in-law no more. His outlet for this grief was his craft, poetry. “The Way of the Soul” was the original title for this requiem to Hallam. He worked on this piece for 16 years while battling depression and literary “obscurity.” He completed it in 1849. It was published in 1850 with its new title, “In Memoriam A.H.H.” 

I read the poem through once again, now knowing the context. I’m glad I read it both ways, fresh without a lot of information about it, and then again knowing the context. Many of the beautiful, sad phrases now had a subject, a person in Arthur Henry Hallam. I found it a beautiful and heartfelt account of the stages of Tennyson’s grief over time, years in fact, which I believe anyone who has lost a loved one can easily relate to. We can relate to how even the joy of Christmas is shadowed by loss. How that grief changes over time, demonstrated by the progression of one Christmas after another. We still miss our loved ones but time can ease the loss: “How dare we keep our Christmas-eve” softens to “And sadly fell our Christmas-eve” then softens yet again to “And calmly fell our Christmas-eve” but throughout all the sense of loss remains.

From Canto XXIX

With such compelling cause to grieve
As daily vexes household peace,
And chains regret to his decease,
How dare we keep our Christmas-eve;

Which brings no more a welcome guest
To enrich the threshold of the night
With shower’d largess of delight
In dance and song and game and jest?

From Canto XXX

A rainy cloud possess’d the earth,
And sadly fell our Christmas-eve.

At our old pastimes in the hall
We gambol’d, making vain pretence
Of gladness, with an awful sense
Of one mute Shadow watching all.

From Canto LXXVIII

Again at Christmas did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
The silent snow possess’d the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:

The yule-clog sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

Though it may do no good, there is also time spent thinking of what might have been. Tennyson mourns the offspring of Hallam and his sister Emily that will never be. That he will never be uncle to children of his beloved friend and his sister Emily. He mourns the strengthening bond of their friendship cut short.


When I contemplate all alone
The life that had been thine below,
And fix my thoughts on all the glow
To which thy crescent would have grown;

I see thee sitting crown’d with good,
A central warmth diffusing bliss
In glance and smile, and clasp and kiss,
On all the branches of thy blood;

Thy blood, my friend, and partly mine;
For now the day was drawing on,
When thou should’st link thy life with one
Of mine own house, and boys of thine

Had babbled `Uncle’ on my knee;
But that remorseless iron hour
Made cypress of her orange flower,
Despair of Hope, and earth of thee.

I seem to meet their least desire,
To clap their cheeks, to call them mine.
I see their unborn faces shine
Beside the never-lighted fire.

I see myself an honor’d guest,
Thy partner in the flowery walk
Of letters, genial table-talk,
Or deep dispute, and graceful jest;

Places too are full of memory. We who have grieved know this experience

From Canto C

I climb the hill: from end to end
Of all the landscape underneath,
I find no place that does not breathe
Some gracious memory of my friend

Eventually comes a measure of acceptance, of moving forward, of hope.

From Canto CVI

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Birthdays are another time of remembrance which with time may enable us to celebrate the person lost.

From Canto CVII

It is the day when he was born,
A bitter day that early sank
Behind a purple-frosty bank
Of vapour, leaving night forlorn.

The time admits not flowers or leaves
To deck the banquet. Fiercely flies
The blast of North and East, and ice
Makes daggers at the sharpen’d eaves,

And bristles all the brakes and thorns
To yon hard crescent, as she hangs
Above the wood which grides and clangs
Its leafless ribs and iron horns

Together, in the drifts that pass
To darken on the rolling brine
That breaks the coast. But fetch the wine,
Arrange the board and brim the glass;

Bring in great logs and let them lie,
To make a solid core of heat;
Be cheerful-minded, talk and treat
Of all things ev’n as he were by;

We keep the day. With festal cheer,
With books and music, surely we
Will drink to him, whate’er he be,
And sing the songs he loved to hear.

I love this from Canto CXXIII

But in my spirit will I dwell,
And dream my dream, and hold it true;
For tho’ my lips may breathe adieu,
I cannot think the thing farewell.


Full text of “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

Perhaps the most familiar lines from the poem are
From Canto XXVII

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.

Queen Victoria told Tennyson the poem had given her comfort after the death of Prince Albert.

“In Memoriam A.H.H.” is considered by Andrew Hass; David Jasper; Elisabeth Jay to be “Tennyson’s most accomplished lyrical work, and is an unusually sustained exercise in lyric verse. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest poems of the 19th century.”
The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology. Oxford University Press, 2007

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Tragedy of the Korosko, described the poem as “Probably the grandest and the deepest and the most inspired in our language”

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