During the Victorian Period, long held and comfortable religious beliefs fell under great scrutiny. An early blow to these beliefs came from the Utilitarian, followers of Jeremy Bantam, in the form of a test by reason of many of the long-standing institutions of England, including the church. When seen through the eyes of reason, religion became "merely an outmoded superstition" (Ford & Christ 896). If this were not enough for the faithful to contend with, the torch of doubt was soon passed to the scientists. Geologists were publishing the results of their studies which concluded that the Earth was far older than the biblical accounts would have it (Ford & Christ 897). Astronomers were extending humanity's knowledge of stellar distances, and Natural Historians such as Charles Darwin were swiftly building theories of evolution that defied the Old Testament version of creation (Ford & Christ 897). God seemed to be dissolving before a panicked England's very eyes, replaced by the vision of a cold, mechanistic universe that cared little for our existence.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson was painfully aware of the implications of such a universe, and he struggled with his own doubts about the existence of God. We glimpse much of his struggles in the poem In Memorial A. H. H., written in memory of his deceased friend, Arthur Hallam. The poem seemed to be cathartic for Tennyson, for through its writing he not only found an outlet for his grief over Hallam's death, but also managed to regain the faith which seemed at times to have abandoned him. Tennyson regained and firmly reestablished his faith through the formation of the idea that God is reconciled with the mechanistic universe through a divine plan of evolution, with Hallam as the potential link to a greater race of humans yet to come.
In the first of many lyric units, Tennyson's faith in God and Jesus seems strong. He speaks of "Believing where we cannot prove" (l. 4), and is sure that God "wilt not leave us in the dust" (l. 9). The increasing threat posed to religion by science does not worry Tension here, as he believes that our increasing knowledge of the universe can be reconciled with faith, saying:
"Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before" (1. 25-28).
He does anticipate doubt, though, as he asks in advance for God's forgiveness for the "Confusions of a wasted youth" (l. 42). Tennyson here foresees the difficulties inherent in reconciling God with the cold universe slowly emerging for the notes of scientists.
In order to deal with the tasks set before him, Tennyson must first boldly face the possibility of a world without God. In stanza number three, Sorrow, personified as a woman, whispers these disconcerting possibilities to a grief-ridden Tennyson, saying, "And all the phantom, Nature, stands-... / A hollow form with empty hands" (3.9, 12). He questions whether he should " embrace" or "crush" Sorrow with all her uncomfortable suggestions.
Tennyson goes on to face an even worse possibility than a lonely universe, that being the possibility of an existence without meaning. In this view, human life is not eternal, and everything returns to dust forever. God is like "some wild poet, when he works / Without a conscience or an aim" (34.7-8). Why even consider such a God, Tennyson asks, and why not end life all the sooner if this vision of God is true (34.9-12)? He answers himself in the next poem, however, as he banishes such a possibility on the evidence that love could never exist in such a reality. What we consider to be love would actually be only be a two-dimensional sense of "fellowship," such as animals must feel, out of boredom or crude sensuality (35.21-24)
The many poems which follow fluctuate between faith and doubt. In
poem fifty-four Tennyson consoles himself with...