In Memoriam: Reinvention of Faith for the Scientific Age?

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In Memoriam is an elegy to Tennyson's friend Arthur Hallam, but bears the hallmark of its mid

nineteenth century context – "the locus classicus of the science-and-religion debate."

Upon reflection, Hallam's tragic death has proved to be an event that provoked Tennyson's

embarkation upon a much more ambitious poetic project than conventional Miltonian elegy,

involving meditation upon the profoundest questions faced by mankind. Scientific

advancements, most notably in the fields of geology and biology, challenged the beliefs that

form the foundation of Christianity: the belief in a beneficent God responsible for creation and

ensuing superintendence and the belief in man's immortal soul. By the mid nineteenth century

apologist arguments such as those of William Paley could no longer convincingly reconcile

science and faith. In Memoriam stands as a work that truly represents the anxieties within the

Victorian mind. Queen Victoria once remarked that In Memoriam was her closest consolation,

after the bible, following her husband's death. This essay charts the consoling properties of In

Memoriam and interrogates the notion of Tennyson as a reinventor of faith for the troubling

scientific age.

There is a consensus among critics, such as Matthes and Willey, that Lyell's Principles of

Geology provoked much of Tennyson's troubling religious doubts that were to be

compounded when his dearest friend was robbed from him. Lyell made no explicit challenge

to Christian scripture (and indeed made attempts in his work to ensure readers did not

interpret his work as such), but his assertion that the Earth's landscape was shaped by an

extremely long and gradual process of weathering presupposed a much greater age for the

Earth than was allowed for in biblical chronology. Essentially Lyell's theories questioned the

Christian belief in Divine creation of the Earth over a period of seven days. Lyell's discussion

of the discovery of fossilised remains of extinct animals was perhaps even more troubling

because it questioned the existence of a beneficent providential power and the notion of

divine superintendence. Principles of Geology was so earth-shattering because essentially it

questioned the very validity of euthesitic belief, whether God really does have his eye cast on

every sparrow that falls to earth.

Brooke asserts that In Memoriam is "the story of the voyage of a soul" and in this spiritual

odyssey LV and LVI represent the darkest stages of the journey. They are Tennyson's trip

through Hades. By personifying Nature and placing ‘her' in opposition to God as a distinct

power, Tennyson seems to imply a polytheistic belief that two, not one, seats of power exist.

In these passages it seems that Tennyson perceives Nature to have greater influence over

Earth and mankind. At the close of LV, God appears as distant and hidden in darkness,

leaving man in a state analogous with that of a child – weak, vulnerable and desirous of care:

he falls "upon the great world's altar stairs That slope thro' darkness up to God," (lines 14-15).

Metaphorically darkness represents the secrecy surrounding God and the answers that he

holds, a motif that is reprised at the close of LVI: "behind the veil, behind the veil." The

repetition of the clause emphasises Tennyson's frustrations. Indeed God seems so distant

and hidden that Tennyson's faith in his existence is weakened and he is only able to "feel" and

"faintly trust," not resolutely know. The lack of conviction conveyed here through Tennyson's

semantic choices illustrates an emergence of disillusion with eutheistic belief. The existence

of the Christian conception of a loving god is called into question, and it is implicitly asserted

that the conception of Nature conveyed in these passages may be the true, ditheistic,

conception of God. That...
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