Article ID: JAF221LM | By: Louis Markos


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SYNOPSIS

When struggling with the loss of a loved one, it is sometimes more helpful to turn to poetry than to philosophy for answers and for consolation. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), the greatest and most representative poet of the British Victorian Age, struggled mightily with the problem of pain in an epic poem that he wrote as a way of dealing with his grief over the sudden death of his closest friend, Arthur Hallam. But his poem, In Memoriam, does more than wrestle with the loss of a friend; it wrestles with the societal loss of a traditional Christian worldview. Twenty years before Darwin’s Origin of Species, Tennyson wrestled with the theory of evolution and all that that theory implies about the nature of God, man, and the universe. In seeking to resolve his doubts and fears over the goodness of God, the value and purpose of human life, and the immortality of the soul, Tennyson records a mystical moment when his soul touched that of Hallam, shares his emotion-based, rather than reason-based, testimony of how he found God in the midst of grief, and reworks natural selection so that it offers a vision of physical and spiritual progress and perfection. Although Tennyson, a liberal Victorian Christian unaware of the modern cosmological, paleontological, and bio-chemical challenges to Darwinism, leans toward theistic evolution, and although he comes dangerously close to endorsing a fully subjectivized faith, his raw, honest grappling with pain and suffering and his yearning for a transcendent God make him a worthy co-wrestler for the modern Christian. As such, his epic is best read as a form of pre-evangelism that points to the existence of God, an afterlife, and the presence of a clear purpose and meaning in pain and suffering. To read and engage In Memoriam is to follow Tennyson from despair to hope, crisis to resolution, and to experience with him a true and lasting catharsis that opens the heart to God’s grace.


If I were asked to identify the number one issue that holds some people back from faith in Christ and causes others to abandon, or at least deeply question, their Christian faith, I would reply with a single theological-philosophical term: theodicy. Formed from two Greek words that mean “God” and “justice,” a theodicy seeks, to quote Book I, line 26 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, to “justify the ways of God to men.” A theodicy offers a meditation on, and a defense of, God’s justice, by attempting to answer such difficult questions as: What is the origin of evil? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? If God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-good (omnibenevolent), then why doesn’t He eliminate pain and suffering?

PHILOSOPHICAL VS. PASTORAL ANSWERS

Although philosopher Alvin Plantinga has essentially resolved the problem of pain in the abstract realm of philosophy (see his God, Freedom, and Evil [1974]), his excellent work offers little aid to those who are struggling with the problem of pain on a more personal level. That is to say, even if theodicy has been dealt with in the theological realm, it continues, and will always continue, to be a stumbling block for individual people who must wrestle with the loss of a loved one. How then are we to answer, and to handle, the problem of pain, not philosophically, but pastorally?

Such fine Christian thinkers as C. S. Lewis (A Grief Observed [1961]), Peter Kreeft (Making Sense of Suffering [1986]), and Philip Yancey (Where is God When It Hurts [1977]) have written effectively and compassionately on how one deals with loss; however, I have found in my own life that it is more often the poets than the philosophers who can reach down to that deep emotional level where spiritual healing must often begin. And when it comes to the problem of pain, there is one poet in particular who has journeyed into the abyss of grief and returned to tell the tale.

The Poet as Pastor

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) was the greatest and most representative poet of the British Victorian age. In his poetry, he wrestled mightily with all the major issues of his day, issues that we still wrestle with today: the benefits and miseries of the Industrial Revolution; the ethical and spiritual status of a utilitarian worldview that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number; the value of continually pressing forward and the possibility and desirability of achieving utopia; the status of the arts and of religion in a technological age; the nature and reliability of political, religious, and intellectual authority; the implications of an evolutionary framework that posits natural selection as the source of life’s diversity; and the existence and immortality of the human soul.

With all these issues Tennyson wrestled, but the issue, at once general and specific, abstract and personal, that galvanized them all in Tennyson’s life and poetry was the problem of pain. Though the young Tennyson wrote some very beautiful, highly polished, finely crafted poems in the manner of the Romantic poet John Keats, he would not have become a major poet had he not suffered a tremendous grief that forced him to question all that he knew about God, man, and the universe. Out of that intense questioning came an epic poem that lifted theodicy out of the realm of dusty books of theology and philosophy and made it accessible, human, and urgent.

AN EPIC POEM ON GRIEF

By nature shy and reserved, the young Tennyson was drawn out of his shell by a charismatic young man who befriended him during his college years at Cambridge. His name was Arthur Henry Hallam, and he convinced the introverted Tennyson to join a literary group of Cambridge students who met to discuss the aesthetic, spiritual, and scientific issues of their day. Thrown together in the white heat of conversation and debate, Tennyson and Hallam soon became fast friends, critiquing and supporting each other’s poetry and taking a joint walking tour over the Pyrenees. As added glue to their friendship, Hallam was soon betrothed to Tennyson’s sister, Emily. Life-long happiness seemed to be in the grasp of the often-moody Tennyson, when, in 1833, disaster struck. At the age of 22, Hallam died suddenly while on a visit to Vienna.

Tennyson, along with his family, was devastated by the news. As a way of dealing with his grief, Tennyson began writing a series of short poems. At the time, he had no thoughts of publication; to him the poems were an emotional necessity, a form of grief therapy. For the next ten years, while continuing to write and publish other poems, Tennyson worked on his “Hallam poems.” As the number of poems increased, eventually reaching 131, Tennyson began to give some thought toward publishing them in a series. Accordingly, he arranged the poems in what seemed the most logical order, added an epilogue (1842) and a prologue (1849), and published the epic-length work in 1850 under the title In Memoriam, A. H. H.

The Impact of the Poem

In Memoriam proved an instant and lasting success and was quickly incorporated into sermons across England. It won Tennyson the admiration of Queen Victoria, who found in it great consolation as she struggled with the loss of her beloved husband Albert, and the position of poet laureate, a position he held with dignity from 1850 until his death. It remains, to my mind at least, the finest meditation on grief, not only because of the power of its poetry, but because of its pure and palpable honesty.

Precisely because the poems that make up In Memoriam were not originally intended for publication, they speak to us directly out of the poet’s confusion and pain. There is no attempt to cover up the severity of the grief or to moderate the initial questioning of God’s mercy and providence. By the end, the epic moves back toward a position of peace, faith, and acceptance, but, until that resolution, it can be quite a bumpy ride. What we encounter in Tennyson’s epic is naked emotion, grief in the raw.

Now, it must be admitted at the outset that Tennyson’s Christian faith was not as firmly creedal as one would like; his faith was more emotional than rational, and he was not as critical of science as he might have been. In that sense, his epic is best read as a form of pre-evangelism that establishes the existence of God, an afterlife, and the presence of a clear purpose and meaning in pain and suffering. Still, to read and engage In Memoriam is to follow Tennyson from despair to hope, crisis to resolution, and to experience with him a true and lasting catharsis that opens the heart to God’s grace.

CRISIS OF FAITH

What magnifies Tennyson’s grief over the loss of his friend is his grief over the loss of what we today might call a worldview of religious certainty. Developments in science — or, to be more accurate, changes in the perception of what science is and can tell us about God, nature, and ourselves — exacerbated Tennyson’s fears and doubts over the existence of both divine goodness and divine purpose. Although Tennyson wrote most of the poems that make up In Memoriam two full decades before Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859), he saw where science was headed, and, as the great representative poet of his age, struggled with the implications of the new science before most of his fellow Englishmen had even become aware of those implications.

To What End?

The grieving poet begins section 54 of his epic with a feeble attempt to assert some kind of faith in a greater benevolent design in the universe:

O, yet we trust that somehow good

           Will be the final goal of ill,

           To pangs of nature, sins of will,

Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

 

That nothing walks with aimless feet;

          That not one life shall be destroyed,

           Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete. (54.1–8)

He longs, as believers, seekers, and non-believers still do today, to discover a hidden, cosmic plan that will lend meaning and purpose to such faith-crushing anomalies as hereditary diseases, irrational acts of evil, and human inconstancy. And he wants to believe that nothing that happens on this earth is arbitrary, that even the death of the smallest of animals fulfills a role in the greater plan of God.

But his fear and doubt fog his vision, preventing him from glimpsing any providential purpose in the death of Hallam — or anyone’s death:

Behold, we know not anything;

             I can but trust that good shall fall

             At last — far off — at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.

 

So runs my dream; but what am I?

            An infant crying in the night;

            An infant crying for the light,

And with no language but a cry. (54.13–20)

He lacks not only the words, but the faith, the hope, and the spiritual discernment to see through his pain and loss.

Survival of the Fittest

But alas, that is not the worst of it. In the section that follows, Tennyson realizes to his horror that the direction of the new science only confirms his existential despair. Though he begins section 55 by asserting that our soul cries out that we are immortal and that our lives will not end with death and the grave, that faint hope quickly disintegrates in the face of what Darwin would later call natural selection:

Are God [speaking through our soul] and Nature then at strife,

            That Nature lends such evil dreams?

             So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life,

 

That I, considering everywhere

              Her secret meaning in her deeds,

              And finding that of fifty seeds

She often brings but one to bear. (55.5–12)

To the poet in crisis, what the new science seems to suggest is that nature is a wholly amoral and indifferent mistress who is willing to sacrifice, without remorse, forty-nine seeds as long as one survives. Indeed, she does not care for the individual at all, only the species (type) of which that individual is a part.

The fear that the cosmos and its silent Creator are as arbitrary as they are uncaring leads the poet to end section 55 on a note of despair, desperation, and utter impotence:

I falter where I firmly trod,

             And falling with my weight of cares

             Upon the great world’s altar stairs

That slope through darkness up to God,

 

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,

            And gather dust and chaff, and call

           To what I feel is Lord of all,

And faintly trust the larger hope. (55.13–20)

In Genesis 28:12–3, Jacob sees a vision of a ladder that stretches from earth to heaven, and on that ladder he sees angels ascending to and descending from the throne of God. Tennyson here sees a similar ladder, but at the top is not the Father of all Lights, but darkness, emptiness, and ignorance.

Extinction

Yet still we have not reached the worst, for natural selection holds an even darker implication that the poet must wrestle with as well:

“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.

 

“Thou makest thine appeal to me:

            I bring to life, I bring to death;

            The spirit does but mean the breath:

I know no more.” (56.1–8)

Not only does nature care nothing for the individual; she does not even care for the type. Whole species have gone extinct before, from the dinosaur to the dodo bird. Far from a benevolent mother, nature is a cruel, devouring beast who seems to take pleasure in destruction. She cannot be appealed to or appeased by our prayers; rather, she stands as a brutal reminder that what we call our soul is but a breath of wind.

What then of man, asks the poet? Can it be possible? Shall he,

Man, her last work, who seemed so fair,

             Such splendid purpose in his eyes,

            Who rolled the psalm to wintry skies,

Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

 

Who trusted God was love indeed

            And love Creation’s final law —

           Though Nature red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shrieked against his creed —

 

Who loved, who suffered countless ills,

            Who battled for the True, the Just,

            Be blown about the desert dust,

Or sealed within the iron hills? (56.9–20)

Can it be that man, with all his accomplishments, all his dreams and struggles, will end up an extinct species? Is the noble human race destined to be just another strata in the fossil record? All the causes for which we fought, the mighty cathedrals that we built, the books of philosophy over which we labored: how is it possible that all these will be wiped away and the entire memory of Homo sapiens erased from the earth? If nature is indeed “red in tooth and claw,” what hope is there for our race?

No, concludes Tennyson, if extinction is our final end, we are truly

A monster then, a dream,

A discord. Dragons of the prime,

That tare each other in their slime,

Were mellow music matched with him. (56.21–24)

If extinction is our goal, then our greatest nobility is, in fact, our greatest torment and shame. If all that lies ahead of us are the stone quarries, the iron hills, and the tar pits, then we are truly a cosmic farce, the bad joke of the universe. At least the dinosaurs never fancied themselves the Crowns of Creation. At least they never deluded themselves into believing that such a thing as love existed and that that love had created their world.

Tennyson closes his darkest section with a faint ray of hope:

O life as futile then, as frail!

           O for thy voice to soothe and bless!

          What hope of answer, or redress?

Behind the veil, behind the veil! (56.25–28)

The “thy” here refers not to God but to Hallam. If only Hallam could speak one word to him, he would know then that our soul is immortal, that something will survive the onslaught of nature. If the sought-for voice is heard, then love, purpose, and design need not be meaningless, hollow words. If he speaks, hope is possible; all is possible.

If not, we are left only with the words of the apostle Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19).1

FAITH IN THE AFTERLIFE RESTORED

In section 95, arguably the climax of the poem, the sought-for voice comes. The setting for the poem is a gathering of the Tennyson family, roughly two years after the death of Hallam. In the opening stanzas, Tennyson describes, in precise detail, a calm, peaceful night in which all of the natural and animal world seems in perfect harmony. Tennyson and his family linger late on the green lawn, singing together in joyous unison until, one by one, the others depart, leaving the poet alone. Thus does Tennyson set the stage for a mystical exchange that will give the lie to sections 54–56.

Love as Strong as Death

As the poet, tranquil and alone, muses in solitude, he is suddenly seized by a strange passion to review in his mind his years of friendship with Hallam. Indeed, he engages those memories with such force, urgency, and will that they allow him to rise above his remorse:

And strangely on the silence broke

            The silent-speaking words, and strange

            Was love’s dumb cry defying change

To test his worth; and strangely spoke

 

The faith, the vigor, bold to dwell

             On doubts that drive the coward back,

             And keen through wordy snares to track

Suggestion to her inmost cell. (95.25–32)

With memory comes courage, a courage that is grounded in love and that is stronger and more enduring than time. Change, upheaval, even death cannot rob it of its purity or its tenacity. The love shared by Tennyson and Hallam was a true one, and that love itself now challenges the poet to test its worth and see what it is made of.

Empowered by this love that is as strong as death (see Song 8:6–7) and that bears and believes and hopes and endures all things (see 1 Cor. 13:7), the poet turns around and looks death, doubt, and despair in the face. And it is at precisely that moment that the vision comes:

So word by word, and line by line,

           The dead man touched me from the past,

            And all at once it seemed at last

The living soul was flashed on mine.

 

And mine in it was wound, and whirled

           About empyreal heights of thought,

          And came on that which is, and caught

The deep pulsations of the world,

 

Aeonian music measuring out

            The steps of Time — the shocks of Chance —

             The blows of Death. At length my trance

Was canceled, stricken through with doubt. (95.33–44)

Slowly, bit by bit, the souls of Tennyson and Hallam reach out toward each other, until, with a flash, they touch, meld, and become one. Together, they are whirled throughout the cosmos, and Tennyson, for a suspended moment in time, perceives a fate and a purpose that are higher than death, chance, and time. What he perceives is so great, so beyond his comprehension that he can only give it the name “that which is.”

A Breeze from Heaven

But the vision cannot be sustained, for doubt, the typical, cowardly kind, steps in; like Peter walking on the water, the poet soon slips back into his heavy, earthly element (Matt. 14:22–32). Still, the connection has been made. Tennyson has heard the voice, has felt the touch he cried out for. And the lasting truth and reality of that touch, of that vision, is confirmed in the closing stanzas of the poem:

And sucked from out the distant gloom

            A breeze began to tremble o’er

            The large leaves of the sycamore,

And fluctuate all the still perfume,

 

And gathering freshlier overhead,

             Rocked the full-foliaged elms, and swung

              The heavy-folded rose, and flung

The lilies to and fro, and said,

 

“The dawn, the dawn,” and died away;

            And East and West, without a breath,

            Mixed their dim lights, like life and death,

To broaden into boundless day. (95.53–64)

The breeze that blows gently through these at once natural and supernatural lines is almost a felt presence; the peace that descends on Tennyson, and us, lies almost beyond words. All seems to hang breathlessly on a frozen threshold of time. On the simplest level, what happens at the end of the section is that the dawn rises: Tennyson’s timeless trance has lasted the whole night long. For a brief, fragile moment, moon and sun, night and day, darkness and light, West and East touch and embrace.

But that is not all that happens. Two other contraries meet in this magical moment of suspension: death and life, Hallam and Tennyson. The meeting, of course, is a brief one, but it is enough. When the moment ends, and the opposites go their way, it is not to reestablish an eternal separation, a cosmic estrangement, but “to broaden into boundless day.” Evangelical Christians like myself may find this meeting of souls too mystical for their tastes; Catholic and Orthodox believers who understand the Communion of the Saints may be more comfortable.

Regardless, Tennyson’s intent is not to advocate some early form of New Age spiritualism, but to assert that our souls will endure beyond death, that they will be so transformed as to be more, not less, alive. Or, to quote Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:53–55).

FAITH IN SCIENCE RESTORED

With his faith in the afterlife restored, the poet goes on, in section 118, to tackle the new science. He begins with a resolution to take a second, more in-depth look at evolution and all that that process implies:

Contemplate all this work of Time,

           The giant laboring in his youth;

            Nor dream of human love and truth,

As dying nature’s earth and lime. (118.1–4)

Far from a blind, mechanical, arbitrary process run by a ravenous Nature “red in tooth and claw,” evolution here transforms itself into a Herculean figure struggling to perfect and purify itself. No, asserts the poet as he looks, really looks, at the whole vast process, human life with all its dreams and accomplishments is not just so much refuse in the compost pile of the cosmos.

Upward to the Crowning Race

From that larger perspective, Tennyson offers a position that lies midway between theistic evolution and intelligent design. (He is closer to the former than I am comfortable with, but then Tennyson was not privy, as we are today, to the failure of the fossil record to verify Darwin’s branching tree of evolution, the fine-tuning of the universe, the irreducible complexity of molecular machines, and the front-loaded information of the DNA.) Not only religion, the poet discovers, but the scientific observations and theories of the geologists, the astronomers, and the paleontologists speak forcefully of a greater purpose that is working itself out on our planet:

                                    They say,

The solid earth whereon we tread

 

In tracks of fluent heat began,

               And grew to seeming-random forms,

               The seeming prey of cyclic storms,

Till at the last arose the man;

 

Who throve and branched from clime to clime,

              The herald of a higher race,

               And of himself in higher place

If so he type this work of time

 

Within himself, from more to more;

             Or, crowned with attributes of woe

             Like glories, move his course, and show

That life is not as idle ore. (118.7–20)

What Tennyson asserts here is that just as the natural world has evolved from lower, brute forms to greater complexity, so is man evolving from his primitive state toward a state of greater beauty.

Or, to put it another way, just as man (Homo sapiens) is the crown of natural evolution, so is mankind itself developing upward toward a Crowning Race of men who will be to the Neanderthal what man is to the ape. Although this element of Darwinism would lead directly to the racist eugenics of Margaret Sanger and Adolf Hitler, Tennyson, blissfully unaware of the implications of the oft-suppressed subtitle of Origin of Species (“The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”), saw in it only a hopeful type of the greater evolution of nature. Even in the unique development from infant to adult of each individual, we may spy yet another type of the wider evolutionary process.

The Ape and Tiger

But what is to be the method of that process? Like the evolution of the Earth, which necessitated periods of intense heat and pain, the evolution of man will, nay, must, involve suffering.

No, exclaims Tennyson, the life of man, both as individual and as species, “is not as idle ore,”

But iron dug from central gloom,

             And heated hot with burning fears,

             And dipped in baths of hissing tears,

And battered with the shocks of doom

 

To shape and use. Arise and fly

            The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;

            Move upward, working out the beast,

And let the ape and tiger die. (118.21–28)

Man will be purified and perfected, he will, in time, reach and become the Crowning Race, but first he must, as it were, be tried like gold in the fire. Only by such a process can the dross of primitive man be washed out; only thus, through pain and suffering, can the savage, bestial side of man (“the ape and the tiger”) be worked out. And, of course, if pain is needed to effect the evolution of the species as a whole, so must it be applied to each individual in turn, if that individual is to grow and develop.

The grief Tennyson has struggled with throughout In Memoriam is itself a type of the more general sorrow the human race must suffer if it is to continue on the rising path of progress. For mankind to grow, there must be death; for Tennyson to grow, Hallam must die. On all three levels — individual, species, and terrestrial — the password is progress.

Although I believe that Tennyson’s image of an upward struggle for purification can help modern Christians to wrestle with pain and suffering, I must here confess that Tennyson, as a liberal Victorian Christian, tended to downplay original sin, emphasizing ignorance and poverty, rather than sin and disobedience, as the chief problem with man. Still, the core metaphor of painful refinement is a biblical one that modern Christians would do well to embrace: “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6–7).

FAITH IN RELIGION RESTORED

Though section 95 restores and emboldens Tennyson’s faith in an afterlife and the meaningfulness of the universe, it is not until section 124 that the poet attempts to put the exact nature of that faith into words. For it is in this section that we are given nothing less than Tennyson’s spiritual testimony.

Tennyson’s Testimony

The poet begins in stanza one by invoking, haltingly, the dual mystery of the Christian God (the Trinity and the Incarnation), and then proceeds to explain where he did not find God:

That which we dare invoke to bless;

            Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt;

            He, They, One, All; within, without;

The Power in darkness whom we guess;

 

I found him not in world or sun,

              Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye,

             Nor through the questions men may try,

The petty cobwebs we have spun. (5–8)

Tennyson was unconvinced, at least on a personal level, of the power of the apologetical arguments from design (that sees in the design of nature the hand of a Creator) or from natural theology (that would deduce evidence for a benevolent, merciful God in the benign aspects of the natural world). On the contrary, he believed that, when it came to faith, science was neutral and finally irrelevant.

Tennyson asserts as much in the stanza quoted above, and then, shockingly, extends his rejection of science as a clear avenue to faith in God to include the efforts of philosophy and theology (“petty cobwebs”) as well. Neither in scientific nor in doctrinal theories was Tennyson willing (or able) to rest his faith. Rather, he asserts:

If e’er when faith had fallen asleep,

             I heard a voice, “believe no more,”

             And heard an ever-breaking shore

That tumbled in the Godless deep,

 

A warmth within the breast would melt

           The freezing reason’s colder part,

           And like a man in wrath the heart

Stood up and answered, “I have felt.” (9–16)

Rational proofs are sufficient neither to support nor to debunk the claims of religion. The most Tennyson can claim in his Victorian, post-Enlightenment world — a world that separated rational knowledge from emotional faith, empirical facts from ethical values — is that he has felt the truth and presence of God, has experienced it in his heart.

The Father’s Hands

Yes, he has felt it passionately, a warmth that can stand resolutely against all existential despair, all fear of the void, and he will assert that warmth like a man in wrath. Or rather, no, not quite that strongly:

No, like a child in doubt and fear:

            But that blind clamor made me wise;

            Then was I as a child that cries,

But, crying, knows his father near. (17–20)

He is still, as in section 54, “an infant crying in the night,” but now, for the first time, as he cries out in the dark night, he feels the nearness of his (heavenly) father.

Tennyson realizes that he is not alone, that his father is near, and, with that vital realization, he can end his testimony on a note of triumph:

And what I am beheld again

           What is, and no man understands;

           And out of darkness came the hands

That reach through nature molding man. (21–4)

Finally, after all the groping and reaching, after all the poet’s frustrated attempts to stretch his hands out toward Hallam, toward God, toward hope, it is another set of hands, those of God, that reach down for him with a loving embrace: arms that descend out of the darkness, bringing light. But they are not detached hands, coming only in moments of crisis. They are, rather, hands that have worked and will continue to work through nature, and even through evolution, to shape and to mold man.

A Final Caveat

Just as Christians today must be wary of Tennyson’s too-quick acceptance of theistic evolution, so must they be wary of his too-quick acceptance of subjectivism: the belief that knowledge is based on personal, subjective experience apart from transcendent, objective truth. A religion based solely on feeling is a religion without moorings. Having no fixed standards, no concrete, historical facts to measure itself against, it can only lead us astray in the end.

In one sense, Tennyson’s resolution is an uncritically subjective one, grounded only in feeling and experience. Still, inasmuch as Tennyson gropes upward for a hope that transcends his grief and a supernatural Presence that will found and verify that hope, he takes a bold step out of the darkness of subjectivism into the light of a true faith that rests in the eternal, unchanging object of that faith rather than in the faith itself as an emotional end-in-itself. Tennyson’s yearning for that Object liberates him from the pit of subjectivism and makes him a worthy co-wrestler for modern Christians seeking to rise above the problem of pain: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Louis Markos, PhD, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 20 books include The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes (Classical Academic Press, 2020), Atheism on Trial (Harvest House, 2018) and Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway, 2010). Portions of this essay have been adapted from chapters 7–12 of Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age (Sapientia Press, 2007).

​NOTES

  1. All Scripture quotations are from the KJV.