Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Tennyson (1809-1892) is not the last Romantic, but he is the last poet of the nineteenth-century to fully capture, in his early poems, the lyrical spirit of his great predecessors. An early poem like “Timbuctoo” echoes the naturalistic cadences of Byron and Wordsworth while also resonating with the voice of the Victorian bard-sage to be. Tennyson’s attitude toward nature, like that of his strong precursors, is hard to represent in singular or unified terms. Whatever consolations nature offers in Tennyson are almost always overshadowed by a sense that nature does not care about human beings or that nature swallows up petty human concerns in its vastness and impersonal timelessness. Because his beloved Arthur Henry Hallam died of a sudden brain aneurysm at the age of 22, Tennyson came to doubt most of the faith of his youth, many of the details of a theology that asks humans to believe in a loving God–Hallam is dead at 22–who cares about us; Hallam is dead and Tennyson seeks some consolation in a world that now seems increasingly defined by scientific facts: the world has been here for countless eons of time that humans can barely imagine, the dinosaurs and other long-lived forms of life may have ruled the planet for millions of years, but now they are reduced to dust, and human history is just a tiny blip on the scale of biological, much less geological, time.

Darwin did for time precisely what Copernicus and Galileo had done for space. Copernicus showed us that, not only was the earth not at the center of the universe, it was merely another relatively tiny ball of rock circling yet another medium-sized sun in yet another solar system within one of a literally countless number of galaxies. Likewise, Darwin shows us that the time it took humans to get here was even longer than the time required to throw up the Himalayas when the Indian subcontinent rammed into the Asian plates, the time required to wear down the Appalachian Mountains from their original Himalayan heights to their current low rolling hills, and the time required to turn the dinosaurs into mineralized fossils and Homo sapiens (yet anther species) into creatures who seems to have control over their destiny but who are, in fact, just as much at the mercy of tornadoes, and volcanoes, and earthquakes, and tsunamis as any other species, a species who are just as likely to fade away or evolve into some unrecognizable new creature that has adapted to a changing environment, just like every other species that has managed to figure out a way to survive over eons of unrecorded time.

Tennyson’s “The Kraken” is one of the truly great images of Romantic natural history. The poet imagines a mythological sea-beast, derived from various Norse and earlier legends, in terms that present an almost scientifically accurate description of an actual creature, the giant squid–Architeuthis dux–which he may have imagined but had never seen:

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die. (1830)

By the time Tennyson finally agrees to publish his masterpiece In Memoriam (1850), after years of personal delay and artistic revision, he has become as much the producer as he is the recorder of numerous widespread Victorian sentiments: the British “race” is a sort of chosen people, the mighty empire based in London has an almost scientific, as well as an historical warrant for its ascendancy, and the Christian faith circumscribes all of the doubts and uncertainties and contradictions that scientific evidence increasingly proposes. This poem offers a simplistic theological “out” of Tennyson’s dilemma about Hallam’s death (evolution is a part of God’s plan and is fully progressive), and yet it also presents clear secular indications of the powerful cultural influences produced by the catastrophism of Cuvier, the geological speculations of Lyell, and the proto-Darwinian thinking of Lamarck, von Humboldt, and St. Hilaire, among others.  (A.N.)

This entry was posted in Literary Figures and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.