Examine the depiction of nature in relation to the treatment of the human condition in the poetry of Tennyson.
The poetry of Alfred Tennyson charted the increasing anxieties of the early Victorian period as pertain to crises of religious faith over contemporary scientific theories about the true origins of humankind, and our relationship with nature. Tennyson, in particular, was greatly influenced by the views of Charles Lyell.
‘Lyell’s vision of [the] organic world […] is caught in a state of endless warfare […]. There is nothing like a celebration of human beings as standing at the top of an ascending scale. In Lyell, the organic world lives in a condition of directionless and purposeless violence.’[i]
Lyell did not believe, therefore, in a divine orchestration of nature. For him, the human race is not the product of a benevolent creator, but rather a transitory manifestation of processes of geological time: that the rotation of the earth corresponds to the passage of time as we experience it, thus the eventual decline of humankind. Inevitably, human beings will die. Our bodies will decompose, returning to the organic world from which humanity initially arose, subsumed by nature. For Lyell, new species will supersede us, and the process repeats indefinitely. In Lyell’s account, there is ‘nothing developmental, still less progressive’[ii]. Human beings are not, therefore, to be privileged over other species. Like animals, we competitively engage with members of our own ilk, fighting for our survival: ours is to be understood as a violent and irrational nature. Our advancements as a species – our industry and technology – are essentially meaningless. Nature is indifferent to our accomplishments, and will eradicate any vestige of our existence with time. This controversial (and pessimistic) view, at the time, had Tennyson recoiling in trepidation. Aidan Day notes: ‘Tennyson’s special horror is that the human species, bereft of a caring God and with no purpose to its existence, will one day become extinct’[iii]. Furthermore, the unceremonious death of his beloved friend, Arthur Hallam, affected Tennyson deeply. Without ‘Hallam’s love and support, [Tennyson] was overwhelmed with doubts about his own life and vocation […] the meaning of the universe and humankind’s place in it’[iv], a predicament that was complicated by Lyell’s influence.
Tennyson sought to reaffirm his faith. He maintained, unlike Lyell, that humanity is constantly progressing. By incorporating evolutionary theories into his philosophy, Tennyson gradually envisioned humanity as ‘ascending’ from the savagery and violence of the animal, precisely through our industry and technology, enhancing our understanding about our status in the world: what does it mean to be human? Tennyson reinforced his belief in a universal, all-encompassing, and transcendental Love that united humanity exclusively. It is this Love which ultimately distinguishes human relationships from that of feral beasts; which drives us, but also reconciles our discrepancies, or ‘conflicts’.
This essay will explore how Tennyson formulated these optimistic conclusions about humanity, with respect to his depictions of nature to achieve this effect, by analysing two of his poems: ‘Locksley Hall’ (1837-8) and ‘In Memoriam, A.H.H.’ (1833-50).
‘Locksley Hall’ is written as a dramatic monologue, in that it conveys an intense, melodramatic situation to the reader, whilst attempting to misdirect the reader from Tennyson’s personal message. The poem represents the ‘voice’, and communicates the thoughts of an anonymous speaker: specifically, a young man recalling his being jilted by an erstwhile lover as he returns to their place of courtship, the grounds of the eponymous Locksley Hall. Tennyson establishes the poem as a dramatic monologue by framing the situation: the speaker addresses his fellow men, asking for solitude (‘Comrades, leave me here a little […] Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle horn’[v]), before proceeding to reminisce (‘Here about the beach I wandered, nourishing a youth sublime’[vi]).
One of the significant contrasts within the poem lies in the speaker’s states of mind and perceptions of the world as he compares his idealistic youth, full of promise and hope, with his cynical and disillusioned view of the present. Tennyson denotes this shift by later distorting the stanza: ‘When I dipped into the future far as human eye could see,/Saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be’[vii], which becomes:
For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.[viii]
The earlier stanza details imaginings (or memories) of springtime: of an untainted and lush nature, and the intimacy of young, passionate love (‘On her pallid cheek […] came a colour and a light,/As I have seen the rosy red flushing in the northern night’[ix]). The subsequent stanza, however, conveys a decisively ironic sense of ‘wonder’. ‘Vision’, capitalised, appears to have become the slogan of an imperialist campaign: of machines and armies expanding across the world, embarking from their homeland (‘Saw the heavens fill with commerce […] Heard the heavens fill with shouting’ [x]). It has become alienated from its initial, more natural, connotations of intimacy and allure: of humanity attuned with Mother Nature, as opposed to later, more destructive/aggressive acts of superiority over nature.
Although the speaker conveys a Utopian vision of reconciliation and an end to conflicts (‘the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world’[xi]), it is a future with tribal connotations: of ‘the war drum […] and battle flags’[xii]; of a violent and savage heritage. The speaker’s cynicism in any enduring union, born out of war, is vividly illustrated. His once youthful passions and idealism have been exhausted. His body is described as being in an enervated condition that mirrors his state of mind (‘Left with the palsied heart […] jaundiced eye’ [xiii]).
Indeed, Tennyson emphasises the Victorian conflict between scientific methodologies and analysis, and religious faith in the divine heritage of humankind; the speaker denounces the latter, deriding his kin as bestial brutes, acting without purpose or restraint, only on instinct (‘Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion, creeping nigher’[xiv]). The only certainty he here asserts in an ostensibly violent and godless world is that ‘the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns’[xv]. This represents the influence of Lyell’s views of geological time on Tennyson, but with a subtle alteration: our awareness of what it means to be human is constantly evolving and being shaped by the rise of industry. Unlike Lyell, there is no condition–or fate–for humans, which precedes our ongoing, present, discoveries in the world.
The speaker’s feelings of heartbreak over, and rejection by, his erstwhile lover have since unveiled a deeper message about humankind, effectively betraying the poem’s autobiographical air. The speaker’s desire to escape his feelings of superciliousness and scorn towards the woman function as a catalyst for moral revolution: of nostalgia for a Golden Age (‘I will that turn that earlier page. Hide me from my deep emotion, O thou wondrous Mother-Age!’[xvi]).
The speaker directs his yearning for escape to a secluded paradisiacal retreat: this Golden Age at first assumes the appearance of a primordial, pre-industrialised nature. Having been betrayed by the civilised, pale-skinned woman he courted in a gentlemanly-like manner (‘for I had loved thee more than ever wife was loved”[xvii]) he turns now to her exotic, lustrous counterpart, claiming this imaginary figure as his mistress (‘I will take some savage woman, she shall rear my dusky race’[xviii]). The speaker himself has reawakened animalistic, purely sexual, drives. He has been perverted by the very savagery perceived to be latent in civilisation, claiming to have possessed an outsider’s perspective looking in (‘Eye, to which all order festers’[xix]).
Corresponding to Tennyson’s ideas about progress, the speaker subsequently prognosticates on a Golden Age yet to come, ‘in the foremost files of time’[xx]. Tennyson employs imagery of train wheels on ‘grooves’ as an allegory for industry as the motor of change. That with the rise of industry and the expansion of nations across the world, there will be an expansion of human consciousness: a positive, progressive sense of change in our understanding. Aidan Day elucidates that Tennyson wrote ‘in a way that, if not Christian, at least managed to combine an evolutionary perspective with something like a spiritual teleology’[xxi].
This is illustrated as the speaker finally addresses Nature: ‘Mother-Age – for mine I knew not – help me as when life begun;/Rift the hills […] flash the lightnings, weigh the sun.’[xxii] The speaker observes how, with the passage of time, he has become alienated from the Nature associated with his youth; a bond which cannot be reclaimed but only rediscovered and appreciated in a new present form. By evoking cosmological imagery – of the act of creation – Tennyson stresses that paradise is not lost, that humanity is not forsaken to corruption and sin but will ultimately be renewed in the future, as industry advances our understanding.
While ‘Locksley Hall’ is written as a dramatic monologue, with Tennyson adopting an alter ego to present a social commentary, ‘In Memoriam’ is an elegy, dedicated to the memory of Arthur Hallam. The poem chronicles Tennyson’s deeply personal journey as he gradually copes with Hallam’s death, reasserting his faith both in life and in an afterlife: that upon death he will be reunited with Hallam.
‘Dramatic conflicts recur throughout’[xxiii] as Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams observe. This is evident in one of the poem’s more striking and powerful images: the relationship of humanity to Nature. As James Eli Jones notes: ‘Tennyson is most deeply engaged by the idea of a Nature indifferent to its own creatures.’[xxiv] Tennyson develops this approach methodically.
At first, he confidently states his belief in the afterlife, accustomed from experience:
My own dim life should teach me this,
That life shall live forevermore,
Else earth is darkness at the core,
And dust and ashes all that is”[xxv].
Tennyson here expresses his anxieties that perhaps there is no recovery of individual identity after death, again evoking Lyell’s influence: that the human race will be inexorably reduced to ‘dust’. His use of contrasting light imagery, between the ‘darkness’ of an intrinsically uncaring Nature and the divine light of faith in God illustrates this conflict, with the word choice of ‘dim life’ implying his own faith is being diminished by the problematic influence of Lyell.
This anxiety is emphasised when Tennyson later depicts humans as ‘the flies of latter spring,/That lay their eggs, and sting and sing/And weave their petty cells and die’[xxvi]. This image – of humans as ephemeral, visceral insects constrained to an animalistic, and cyclical, way of life – challenges the significance of humanity’s industry and advancements, effectively dehumanising us. The word choice of ‘sting’ implies a human nature that is atavistically violent and belligerent. This is counteracted by the activity of singing, as perhaps associated with church choirs. There is therefore an antagonistic duality in the treatment of the human condition that Tennyson yearns to resolve.
Furthermore, Tennyson portrayals human beings as caught in a figurative ‘crossfire’ between God and Nature:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams? […]
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust […] and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope[xxvii]
The image of dust recalls the earlier stanza, but also suggests biblical connotations. That as Man was allegedly created out of the dust of the earth by God, perhaps too Man can rediscover (or ‘recreate’) his faith in God from the death of loved ones: that an intangible facet of them has survived the disintegration of their material body. Tennyson aims to renew the strength of his faith by challenging the apparent cruelty and perniciousness of Nature (such that we are physically conditioned and hindered by it) by reasserting God’s omnipotent benevolence and love. That Nature, despite its hold on the human body, is itself subject to, and thus conditioned by, material laws: it is subservient to God. His doubts can be allayed by the certainty that, although his material body may be subject to Nature’s whims, his soul – and thus that property that ultimately distinguishes humanity from beasts – will ascend and be united with others (i.e. Hallam) in the all-encompassing Love.
This is elaborated in the Epilogue of ‘In Memoriam’, wherein Tennyson portrays a marriage between lovers, and foresees their offspring as ‘a closer link/Betwixt us and the crowning race’[xxviii]. If marriage is traditionally symbolic of the union of souls consummating their love, then the sexual act of reproduction becomes something divine and pure, elevated beyond animalistic connotations of the mere survival of species: that through the development of our industry, human beings will transcend their savage prehistory (‘No longer half-akin to brute’[xxix]).
In conclusion, Tennyson’s poetry functions as a discourse on Victorian religious doubts in the wake of evolutionary theories about the true origins and nature of humankind, whilst being a deeply personal meditation, following the tragic loss of Arthur Hallam. Between the two poems, ‘Locksley Hall’ and ‘In Memoriam’, Tennyson adroitly creates an enriching tapestry of human history, incorporating the ideas of both Lyell’s views on geological time and contemporary evolutionary theorists to methodically examine this question of the human condition. Tennyson’s poetry therefore represents the Victorian fascination with the dichotomy of body and mind/soul, exploring how the two distinct facets that comprise the human identity are interrelated, as well as questions about the existence of an afterlife. He achieves this by comparing our relationship with Nature. Are we merely subject to, and confined by, physical laws and instinct, or do we survive beyond death? If so, Tennyson says, we must possess some transcendental property that distinguishes us from beasts. This property, Tennyson asserts, is our ability to love one another. Ultimately, what defines the human condition is our pursuit of hope in a universal Love that unites all humanity and brings an end to conflict and war.
Tennyson, Alfred, ‘Locksley Hall’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams (London: W.W. Norton & Company Limited, 2006) pp. 1129-1135
Tennyson, Alfred, ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams (London: W.W. Norton & Company Limited, 2006) pp.1138-1188
Adams, James Eli, ‘Woman Red in Tooth and claw: Nature and the Feminine in Tennyson and Darwin’, in Tennyson, edited and introduced by Rebecca Scott (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1996), pp.87-111
Day, Aidan, Tennyson’s Scepticism (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005)
Greenblatt, Stephen, and Abrams, M.H., Preface to ‘In Memoriam, A.H.H.’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams (London: W.W. Norton & Company Limited, 2006), pp.1138
[i] Aidan Day, Tennyson’s Scepticism (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), p.117-8
[ii] Ibid, p.118
[iii] Ibid, p.119
[iv] Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams, Preface to ‘In Memoriam, A.H.H.’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams (London: W.W. Norton & Company Limited, 2006), pp.1138
[v] Alfred Tennyson, ‘Locksley Hall’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams (London: W.W. Norton & Company Limited, 2006), p.1129
[viii] Ibid, p.1132
[ix] Ibid, p.1130
[x] Ibid, p.1132
[xi] Ibid, p.1133
[xvi] Ibid, p.1132
[xvii] Ibid, p.1131
[xviii] Ibid, p.1134
[xix] Ibid, p.1133
[xxi] Day, p.135
[xxii] Tennyson, p.1134
[xxiii] Greenblatt and Abrams, pp.1138
[xxiv] James Eli Adams, ‘Woman Red in Tooth and claw: Nature and the Feminine in Tennyson and Darwin’, in Tennyson, edited and introduced by Rebecca Scott (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1996), p.93
[xxv] Alfred Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Eighth Edition, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams (London: W.W. Norton & Company Limited, 2006), p.1154
[xxvi] Ibid, p.1157
[xxvii] Ibid, p.1158
[xxviii] Ibid, p.1187