Victorian Doubt In God Essay, Research Paper
Victorian Doubt in God: Alfred Tennyson s In Memoriam
When I first got this assignment I racked my brain for a topic that would interest me as well as something I could learn from. When I came across Alfred Lord Tennyson it sparked my interest and as I read on I decided that I would write about him. My next decision was to pick one of his poems to research. I finally chose In Memoriam I read the background on it and it interested me. In Memoriam is very long so I m only going to discuss some it. But I want to begin by discussing the Victorian Doubt in God.
In Characteristics , Carlyle discusses the same doubt in God that Tennyson feels in In Memoriam, a doubt that characteristically reflects religion in England under the reign of Queen Victoria. Carlyle doubts man s beliefs because he understands man s insignificance in the realm of things and thus wonders how any of man s answers to any questions of the world could be right. He doubts many things especially God. To Carlyle, God did not represent an answer to the problems of the world:
We, the whole species of Mankind, and our whole existence and history, are but a floating speck in the illimitable ocean of the All; yet in that ocean; indissoluble portion thereof; partaking of its infinite tendencies: borne this way and that by its deep swelling tides, and grand ocean currents; of which what faintest chance is there that we should ever exhaust the significance, ascertain the goings and comings? A region of Doubt, therefore, lovers forever in the background: in action alone can we have certainty. Nay properly doubt is the indispensable inexhaustible material whereon action works, which action has to fashion into certainty and reality; only on a canvas of darkness, such is man s way of being, could the many colored picture of our life paint itself and shine. (Norton 957-958)
What made Tennyson so Victorian was his ready acceptance of the mores of his day, his willingness to conform to popular taste, to write a poetry that was easily understood and enjoyed. Partly as a result of his position as a public and nationalist figure, Tennyson was by far the most popular poet of the Victorian era. No poet was ever so completely a national poet: Henry James said in 1875 that his verse had become part of the civilization of his day. This probably explains why literary opinion turned so sharply against him in the earlier part of the twentieth century, as we reacted against everything Victorian.
In a characteristically Victorian manner, Tennyson combines a deep interest in contemporary science with an unorthodox, even idiosyncratic, Christian belief.
In Memoriam, which he wrote between 1833 and 1850 contains his most important confrontations with contemporary science, particularly with geology and biology. Drawing upon Charles Lyell s Principles of Geology (1830-1833), Tennyson anticipated Darwinian conceptions of evolution and their implications, such the extinction of entire species, including man.
As Voltaire once said, If God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. Human beings hunger for an understanding of why things are as they are. Organized religion had simply been bested in performing that function by the natural sciences. Consequently, its popularity dropped considerably. Such an understanding had prompted Comte s philosophy of positivism, which asserted that mankind, was progressing from a point when it would rely on science for understanding instead of superstition . In Memoriam presents the long struggle of a man trying to make sense of a world and a God that has taken his friend. In the process the concept of typology incorporates evolutionary thought into the Christian mythos. In that way, Tennyson presents for the reader a way to hold on to traditional systems of faith without rejecting the notions that science offers.
Like I said earlier In Memoriam represents a struggle of a man trying to make sense of a world that has taken his friend and this also causes him to question God. When Tennyson came to write In Memoriam one of the most experimental and yet influential poems of the century, he already had refined his characteristic basic poetic structure and needed a theme that would permit him to apply his gifts to a major form. Arthur Henry Hallam s death in 1833 provided Tennyson with one by forcing him to question his faith in nature, God, and poetry. Hallam was engaged to marry Tennyson s sister Emily, when he died suddenly of a stroke in Vienna at the age of 22. Although written without any plans at first, the parts of the poem were finally arranged in a pattern to cover the period of about 3 years following Hallam s death. In Memoriam reveals that Tennyson, who found that brief lyrics best embodied the transitory emotions that buffeted him after his loss, rejected conventional elegy and narrative because both falsify the experience of grief and recovery by mechanically driving the reader through too unified and hence too simplified a version of these experiences. Creating poetry of fragments, Tennyson leads the reader of In Memoriam from grief and despair through doubt to hope and faith, but each step stubborn, contrary emotions intrude, and one encounters doubt in the midst of faith, pain in the midst of resolution. Instead of the elegiac plot of Lycidas, Adonais, and Thyrsis, In Memoriam offers 133 fragments interlaced by dozens of images and motifs and informed by an equal number of minor and major resolutions, the most famous of which is section 95 s representation of Tennyson s climactic, if wonderfully ambiguous, mystical experience of contact with Hallam s spirit. In addition, individual sections, like 7 and 119 or 28, 78, and 104 variously resonate with one another.
One of the central resolutions of In Memoriam involves the poet s play upon the word type, which in the poem means either biological species or divinely intended prefiguration of Christ. Typology (or typological symbolism) is a Christian form of biblical interpretation that proceeds on the assumption that God placed anticipations of Christ in the laws, events, and people of the Old Testaments. Typology, which had enormous influence on medieval Europe, seventeenth-century England, and Victorian Britain, provided literature and art with an imaginatively rich iconography and particular conceptions of reality and time. According to this way of understanding the Bible, Samson, who sacrificed his life for God s people, partially anticipates Christ, who repeats the action, endowing it with a deeper, more complete, more spiritual significance. Similarly, the scapegoat and the animals sacrificed in the Temple at Jerusalem, both of which atoned for man s sins, and Aaron, God s priests, are types. Tennyson closes his elegy with the now calm assurance that Hallam was a noble type . In Memoriam resolves the crisis of faith precipitated by Hallam s death by presenting him doubly as a type, because he foreshadowed both the second appearance of Christ and the coming higher race of human beings.