Tennyson and Science

In this essay Claire Wilkinson, a second-year undergraduate, looks at how Tennyson responded to the dynamic changes in science and technology that occurred in the Victorian period.

From the theory of evolution to the invention of the photograph, modern science owes a lot to Victorian scientific thought.  The era saw the discipline of Science expand rapidly, and considerable progress was made in establishing the foundations of the different sciences of today.  What, however, is 'science'?  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as:

Knowledge acquired by study . . . A branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain. (OED, 'science', n., 2, 4)

'Science' is therefore a kind of organized knowledge, interested in intellectual truths and developing the base of human knowledge.  Developments in general scientific knowledge during Tennyson's lifetime allowed for simultaneous developments in technology, as recently discovered knowledge was applied to the creation of new objects.  Technological advance in turn bred social change; as the railways spread through England, people became more mobile: a journey which would previously have taken several days would only take a matter of hours on a train.

Tennyson was particularly interested in contemporary science, and there are numerous references to the sciences, particularly geology, within his poetry.  As mentioned above, the theory of evolution was itself evolving during Tennyson's life time. Often credited to Darwin and his 1859 Origin of the Species, the theory had actually been taking shape for several years.  Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33) was one of the first works by an English author to consider seriously that the Earth's age was likely to be considerably higher than the biblical estimate of around 6000 years, meaning that evolutionary concepts requiring great timescales were becoming viable.  In Memoriam A.H.H. uses geological images to create a backdrop in which nothing is permanent and every object or moment merely a link in an evolutionary chain.  Tennyson is referring to the geological past in lyric 56 with the phrase 'A thousand types are gone'; when he speaks of a 'type', Tennyson is referring to an evolutionary phase.  A thousand 'types' of rocks are gone, but the impersonal articulation of the poem implies that a thousand 'types' of life may also be gone.  The  implication is clear: Tennyson's awareness of modern scientific theory has led him to the conclusion that events in his life are no more important or significant to an impersonal and uncaring 'Nature' than any other natural process.

Consider the relevant segment of lyric 56:

'So careful of the type?' but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, 'A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.'

. . .

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 -

Notable attention is paid to a lack of constancy in the world; Nature 'care[s] for nothing, all shall go'.  Contemporary scientific theory is challenging received ideas about God and religion, forcing the poet to forge his own conclusions about his place in the world.  Tennyson seems to be concerned with the difficulties in reconciling the laws of 'Nature' with the creeds of God. That Nature has 'shriek'd against his creed' anticipates the problems that later geologists and naturalists would face when developing new theories which were fully in accord with modern science, but contradictory to religion.

Indeed, scientific thinkers have struggled for millennia with the issue of contradicting current religious thought.  What continues to this day in the ongoing debate about stem cell research between the church and scientists was also rife in Ancient Greek society.  Aristotle, the great philosopher, theorist and scientist had to go into hiding in 322BC because the Athenian government deemed that he did not respect the Gods in his work. His predecessor Socrates died under a similar charge in 399BC.  Scientists such as Lyell, Darwin and Spencer faced opposition from the church, which was reluctant to accept ideas contrary to its traditional teachings

Lyell, Darwin and Spencer are the three 'big names' to consider when we're thinking about the development of evolutionary theory.  Most people will have heard of Darwin, who published The Origin of Species in 1859, but Lyell and Spencer contributed a great deal of the groundwork which allowed Darwin's theories to take shape.  Lyell, as mentioned above, studied geology, considering the age and structure of the Earth.  Spencer developed a theory of evolution, published in his Developmental Hypothesis in 1852; it was he who popularised the term 'evolution' and thought up the phrase 'survival of the fittest'.

We have considered how Tennyson interpreted the science and religion debate, but how did the scientific theorists at the heart of the matter view the question?  Were they, for example, actively trying to be anti-religious?  The best answer to this is a straightforward 'no'; however, if you type the question into Google, you'll be surprised at the passionate range of answers displayed!  The issue clearly remains controversial, 150 years after Darwin's publication.  The theory of evolution was not developed with the intention of disproving anything said by the church; more acutely, as the theory has gained intellectual weight, it has come to compromise some traditional Christian beliefs.  Lyell, for example, found it difficult to believe that natural selection could be the driving force behind evolution - his religious beliefs led him to doubt the basis of a theory which his own research had initiated.  Darwin died an agnostic, but his beliefs (just like Tennyson's), were often intimately personal - the death of his daughter Annie in 1851 prompted Darwin to question religion just as Tennyson did in personal response to Hallam's death throughout In Memoriam A.H.H. (Darwin's letters give insights into his thoughts on many matters; see 'Further Reading' below.)

Whilst Tennyson's poetry is concerned with scientific thought, he also makes numerous references to technology, especially to the development of the railway.  The England that Tennyson was born into in 1809 was considerably different from the country in which he died in 1892.  The period was one of great industrial change, and Tennyson makes allusions to such changes in poems such as 'Locksley Hall', which discusses (in part) the effects of technology upon humanity.  A notable line from the poem was penned after the poet had taken a train between two cities:

When I first went from Liverpool to Manchester, I thought that the wheels ran in a groove... then I made this line:

Not in vain the distance beckons.  Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

He was excited by the potential of the railway, but did not actually understand it. Train wheels do not actually run in grooves. Nevertheless, Tennyson is clearly concerned with the implications of science for human life. The poem juxtaposes the images of advancing technology, mythology (Diana and Orion, the great hunters of mythology, feature heavily), and a tale of Tennyson's own - a lost love:

There methinks would be enjoyment more than in this march of mind,
In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind.

There the passions cramp'd no longer shall have scope and breathing space;
I will take some savage woman, she shall rear my dusky race.

Tennyson's concern lies in his conviction that modern technologies promise advancement yet fail to recognise that the human race is 'savage'.  It will not significantly change, despite technology.  We can hear doubt in the narrator's voice in the above extract; 'methinks would be enjoyment more' suggests that the 'march of mind' is not delivering what it promises.

Consider the juxtaposition of the first and second couplets quoted above.  The images 'march of mind', 'steamship', 'railway' and 'thoughts that shake mankind' are all forward thinking, expressive of progression and advancement, but they are made to sound rather ridiculous in light of the second paragraph.  Against the image of 'passions cramp'd' which have no 'breathing space', the earlier images look very contrived and artificial.  All the narrator seems to desire is a 'savage woman'. He has no need for the artifice created by modern society, but yet appreciates that if he holds this mentality, he shall become 'dusky'.  The poet illuminates possible problems with technological advancement, but equally anticipates the necessity of remaining in touch with developments.  Indeed, the entire poem is very involved with the image of moving forward; 'marching', 'forward' and 'beacons' all propel the reader into the technological future Tennyson imagines.

It seems that humanity is racing towards the future, propelled by scientific thought and technological advances, advances which, for Tennyson, are to be treated with both excitement and trepidation.  Throughout his poetry, Tennyson does not shy from discussing controversial themes arising from the domains of both science and technology, and as a poet and thinker we can see him engage actively with 'challenging' thoughts and theories.  Science and technology were just two areas of many that underwent significant change during Tennyson's lifetime, and Tennyson's engagement reflects this.

Further Reading

Claire Wilkinson used The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. F. Darwin (1887), p. 304, as a source for Darwin's questioning of religion. The Darwin Correspondence Project has made a great deal of his correspondence available on the web. It is a mine of information for anyone interested in Victorian science: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/.

Further Thinking

1. Claire notes that Tennyson admitted that the 'ringing grooves' of 'Locksley Hall' are the result of a simple error. Disregarding the error, do you think it is an effective image? What are its implications? Do you think it's significant that Tennyson misunderstood the technology?

2. It might seem strange to us to find even Victorian poets thinking about the relationship between humans and science / technology, and indeed between poetry and science / technology. Do you think that more modern writers that you have come across share Tennyson's interests and concerns, or not?

This just means connected, or bound together.

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