Tennyson and Religion
In this essay second-year undergraduate Claire Wilkinson tries to define Tennyson's views on religion. Some key poems and passages are presented, and readers are invited to consider their own answers to some important questions.
If you try looking for a photograph of Tennyson, either on an internet search engine or in your school library, you'll probably come across a black and white print of a rather austere looking man. Complete with a full beard, tightly buttoned combination of black waistcoat and jacket, and a suitably pensive expression, it is immediately evident that Tennyson was from a time quite different from our own. Maybe you'd describe the person you see as a 'typically Victorian' gentleman. However, whilst Tennyson may have dressed conventionally, his attitudes to religion and also his religious beliefs were anything but conventional.
England under the reign of Victoria (1837-1901) was undisputedly Christian; very few families would have chosen not to visit church on Sundays, and Christians dominated public life. The period of Queen Victoria's reign was, however, a period of change. Over its 64-year span, life changed rapidly: industrialisation took hold and brought the development of the railway, thus widening people's horizons by effectively shrinking England. Scientific thinkers began to contemplate evolutionary theories and to question their implications and compatibility with a religion nearly two millennia old. As Tennyson's work spanned almost the entire Victorian period, it is perhaps not surprising that the concepts of religion and faith feature heavily in his poetry - how, we can ask, did personal experience effect Tennyson's views on religion? And what can we make of the references to religion in Tennyson's poetry, both in isolation and as a body of work written by a man who undoubtedly suffered uncertainties about his own faith?
In referring broadly to Tennyson's own 'uncertainties', there is one formative experience that cannot be forgotten. Personal, as well as social, change forced the poet to question his religious beliefs. The unexpected death of Arthur Hallam (Tennyson's friend, mentor and sister's fiancé) in 1833 so shook Tennyson that he spent a considerable amount of time during the next seventeen years composing a poem of remembrance to his dead friend, In Memoriam A.H.H. This epic poem describes Tennyson's grief at Hallam's death, and was so popular that it is said that Queen Victoria kept a copy at her bedside next to her bible following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.
Faith, Doubt, and Tennyson's Conclusions
We have seen that Tennyson's views on religion were shaped by his experience, but we still do not know what Tennyson believed. Looking at his poetry should give us some clues about whether or not Tennyson abandoned faith altogether:
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
In Memoriam A.H.H. 96.II.iii-iv
You may well have come across the above words before; indeed they are some of Tennyson's better-known lines of poetry. We need to consider exactly what Tennyson is trying to communicate in the extract. 'Faith' and 'doubt' are commonly used but complex terms, and in his assertion, Tennyson is questioning orthodox creeds. Importantly, Tennyson does not neglect faith - he only questions the validity of a faith which has not been doubted. The literary critic and poet T.S. Eliot said of In Memoriam:
It is not religious for the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt. Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience. In Memoriam is a poem of despair, but of despair of the religious kind.
T.S. Eliot - Religion and Literature (1935)
In Memoriam A.H.H. is certainly concerned with religion, as we can see from the numerous references to religious figures and celebrations throughout. What we need to decide is how the various references operate within the poem; do they confirm Tennyson's faith? Or further the argument that Tennyson had rejected Christianity?
Take a look at two parts of In Memoriam: lyric 30 and lyric 78:
With trembling fingers did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
A rainy cloud possess'd the earth,
And sadly fell our Christmas-eve. (lines 1-4)
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. (lines 1-4)
The respective sections of the poem discuss Christmas celebrations in the December following Hallam's death (1833), and Christmas the year after (1834). There are obvious contrasts in the language (look at 'sadly' in the earlier piece, next to 'calmly' in the second) and tone (how do you think the second extract sounds in comparison to the first?). This leads to some interesting points for consideration regarding Tennyson's use of religious imagery:
(i) Does Tennyson ever really commit himself to the religious images he uses within the poem?
(ii) Do you think that Tennyson uses Christmas as a marker in time? - Is the celebration itself significant, or is it more important to look at the differences in the poet's articulation that this poem presents as having developed over the course of a year?
We might extend this comparison to consider both lyric 30 and 78 in their entireties:
With trembling fingers did we weave
Again at Christmas did we weave
You could use the guidelines below to develop your own thoughts on this pair of lyrics, thinking in terms of form, structure and language:
(i) Why is lyric 30 longer than lyric 78? Is it simply that Tennyson had more to say in lyric 30? Or does the length achieve another effect?
(ii) There are places in which the two extracts are very similar; consider how Tennyson's choice of different words within a similar sentence alters the tone of the pieces.
(iii) Can we track the developments in lyric 30 that lead to the more resigned tone in lyric 78? Look at lines 17-20 of lyric 30. Tennyson says that 'a gentler feeling crept / Upon us'; is this 'gentler feeling' reflected in lyric 78? How can we determine if this is a point of change in the poem?
(iv) Although it's not a direct comparison, what do you think is significant about the 20th line both the lyrics?
'And silence follow'd, and we wept.'
'But with long use her tears are dry.'
(v) There is actually another reference to Christmas in In Memoriam, and it's quite different to the two accounts given here. See if you can find it - how is it similar / different? Do Tennyson's accounts of Christmas express a movement forward in his process of grief, or do you feel that he is always returning to a position of comfort?
Discussing religion and faith within Tennyson's work is difficult to say the least. We can come to the conclusion that 'faith' and 'religion' were not synonymous for the poet, but it is impossible to fully derive Tennyson's own beliefs from his work. There are two final important clues that we must consider: what Tennyson himself said on the matter, and his final wishes.
William Allingham, a contemporary of the poet and a renowned Irish diarist, recorded that Tennyson believed in Pantheism. In a discussion with Allingham, it is claimed that Tennyson said: 'Well!... I think I believe in Pantheism, of a sort'. Allingham's diary was written in October 1865 (some 15 years after the publication of In Memoriam A.H.H. and 32 years after the poem was started), which suggests that Tennyson had used the intervening time to develop the thoughts he was entertaining in In Memoriam A.H.H. into conclusions. Importantly, we must understand what Pantheism is before we can come to any of our own conclusions about Tennyson's beliefs. 'Pantheism' is constructed of the Greek 'pan' and 'theos', meaning 'all' and 'God' respectively. In this element, it is similar to Christianity; the concept that 'all is God' is shared between the two beliefs. Pantheism, however, is much more abstract than conventional Christianity. Whilst Christians believe in a personal and creative deity, Pantheism denies any individuality in a creator; the spirit of a 'God' simply exists in everything - 'God is all' and 'all is God'. Tennyson's own allusion to the nature of his beliefs suggests that Tennyson's own faith was existent, if very different from traditional religion.
Finally, Tennyson expressed a wish that his poem 'Crossing the Bar' be placed at the end of every edition of his poetry, and if you look through any collection of his works, you'll find that this wish has been widely respected. The poem was written in 1889, only three years before Tennyson's death, as he crossed the sea on a ferry to his home on the Isle of Wight:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
How can we interpret this poem? There is a close reading of this poem on this site. We could begin by asking some key questions:
(i) Tennyson requested that this poem be placed at the end of each of his collections of work. How might you come to think differently if he'd specified a different poem, such as 'Break, Break, Break', in its place?
(ii) What tone do you think Tennyson develops throughout the text? You might compare phrases conveying certainty ('one clear call for me', 'when I have crossed the bar') with those conveying speculation or uncertainty ('and may there be no moaning', 'as moving seems asleep', 'I hope to see').
(iii) Who, or what, is Tennyson's 'Pilot'? Is there an argument that this is God? Or do you think that he is referring to Hallam as the person who has motivated him throughout his life?
(iv) What do you think about Tennyson's choice of central image? What is Tennyson referring to when he speaks of 'crossing the bar'? We know that the image is literally the crossing of a bar of sand in water. What other meanings might be suggested?
(v) Why do you think 'Time' and 'Place' are capitalised in the middle of a phrase? What particular stress is the author attempting to put on these words?
All these questions about details in the poem help build up a picture of the whole thing, but in the end the poem may well remain ambiguous. However, we must recognise the significance of the fact that Tennyson wished the poem to be published at the end of each collection of his works. The poem can be seen as a conclusion to his life's works even though it sets nothing in stone regarding his final views: as with all matters of faith in the personal lives of each individual, it is necessary to come to your own conclusion.