Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reading Tennyson's "In Memoriam"

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
—Tennyson, In Memoriam (stanza 95)

The statue of Tennyson outside Lincoln Cathedral.

I recently watched the film of Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney's one-woman show about her spiritual journey from Catholicism to atheism. Having rejected the God of organized religion, Sweeney attempts to find God in Nature. She goes on a trip to the Galápagos, reads The Origin of Species, and realizes along the way that Nature is harsh and cruel, driven by blind and random forces. Eventually, she comes to accept that there is no God, that human beings occupy no special place in the order of things, and that death is the end. The profound and troubling implication of Darwin's theory of evolution is that we are living in an entirely materialist universe and that humans arose not through some divine plan, but through random variation. To accept this at its full weight is to accept that even human consciousness, even what we call the human soul, is the product of evolution, and has a material cause, and that when the body dies, this consciousness or soul dies with it.

In 1833, Alfred Tennyson's dearest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, died suddenly at the age of 22. In the years after Hallam's death, Tennyson composed a kind of poetic record of his grief, which was eventually published in 1850. The poem, In Memoriam, became one of the greatest poetic monuments of Victorian England. It is essentially a record of a crisis of faith precipitated by Hallam's death, and deepened by Tennyson's reflections on the idea of evolution. In Memoriam was published nine years before Darwin's Origin of Species, but Tennyson was in the midst of writing the poem in 1844 when the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared and created a sensation with its presentation of a theory of evolution.

In famous lines from In Memoriam, Tennyson wrestled with the implications of evolutionary theory. If the theory is true, what happens to Man?

Man, her [Nature's] last work, who seemed so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law—
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed—

Eventually, Tennyson comes to accept evolution not only as a physical process, but also as a kind of spiritual process—a progression "from more to more," in which humans "move upward, working out the beast" that is in their physical nature.

James Secord, author of Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (2001) writes: "Man's spiritual sense and reason were the products of development, part of what the unknown author called 'the universal gestation of nature.' There was, Tennyson later concluded, 'nothing degrading in the theory.'"

"I think we are not wholly brain," Tennyson concludes, "magnetic mockeries...; not only cunning casts in clay." In the end, he makes a leap of faith. We have evolved a brain, and something that we call a soul, and with it we can make more of ourselves than evolution alone can. We can love, and remember, and grieve, and write poems.

"So careful of the type she [Nature] seems,/So careless of the single life." Evolution works in the aggregate, producing the "type," the species, through the impersonal process of natural selection. But it's left to each of us to determine what we do with our "single life."


Shan said...

This was perhaps my favorite piece when I was a college English major studying British literature. I loved Tennyson! Thanks for the sweet reminder, sigh.

Jim H. said...

A beautifully-crafted essay, Rob. I admire your precision.

Interesting side note: Thirty-some years ago, the first version of the Minnesota Data Practices Act was passed. In it, among many other things, was a requirement that government agencies warn people from whom they gathered personal information -- tell them why it's being collected and how it will be used. The chief author of the bill was named Tennessen, and the mandatory notice became known as the Tennessen Warning. Many government workers mislabeled it as the Tennyson Warning. The misnomer is still found on some government forms.

Perhaps it's not a misnomer, eh?

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .