In his essay on the post-mortem reactions of critics to the works of Alfred Tennyson,
'Like his great
predecessors, he may be called a poet of Nature, but with a difference'.
Bradley, writing in 1914, two decades after Tennyson's death, was of the firm opinion
that the Poet
Laureate differed from his predecessor Wordsworth regarding his views on the spirit of Nature. Like
Wordsworth, Tennyson saw immense beauty in the natural world, and was much concerned with
the framing of exquisite 'panel pictures' constructed through the subtle arrangement of vowels and
consonants. However, he was also overwhelmed by the conflict, pain and waste of species
evolution which, in the human ecosystem, was reflected through the social outcomes of Victorian
economic development. To Wordsworth, Nature was wholly beautiful, good and unhampered and
was therefore a promise and pledge of humankind's ultimate victory over ugliness and evil. In
contrast, Tennyson's view was that Man and Nature were both subject to a senseless game of
cosmic roulette. As Poet Laureate he sought to serve the nation by inspiring patriotism and
fostering thoughtful morality among its citizens.
This imperative led Tennyson to an evolutionary
belief in species immortality. His standpoint was that Man and Nature, through a process lasting
for millions of years, are developing together into something infinitely greater than at the beginning.
This was coupled with the idea of an ultimate power at the heart of the Universe, which values that
which humankind values highest, and so will ensure its collective progress on earth and
A great mental worry in Tennyson's life was the fact that scientific materialism had
boundless consumer benefits to the Victorians, but was also responsible for moral phenomena
which he detested, and for which he could not provide a practical solution. Through the years, his
poems illustrate this battlefield of the mind. They emerge as exquisite Wordsworthian memories of
the natural history of his boyhood home deep in the Lincolnshire Wolds and his wanderings through
the dunes and saltflats of the North Sea coastlands. The flip side of these scenes of outstanding
natural beauty are gloomy images of technological materialism, which are his responses to the
relentless unravelling of the Church of England by scientific materialsm and the ideas of Darwin,
which rapidly overtook the old certainties about God as designer of the universe. At the extreme,
Tennyson's works expressed nausea with existing things and a contempt of humankind at war with
itself and nature. The overarching message is that Homo sapiens is too base to remain the
crowning achievement in Nature. Yet he accepted Darwin's theory of evolution, and on occasions
he could produce his own hopeful synthesis:
"....mankind is yet on the lowest rungs of the ladder, although every man has and has had
from everlasting his true and perfect being in the Divine Consciousness".
The latter viewpoint eventually prevailed and he accepted, along with other poets
of the time, that
Nature is the manifestation of a world of spirit- 'that true world
within the world we see'. However, in
line with contemporary dynamic biological ideas, he came to believe in the growing perfection of life
and the unfolding of mind upwards in the 'scale of being'. Ultimately, Homo sapiens was the
creature above all others that proved the excellence and purpose of a creative plan for the Cosmos.
This thought had been expressed by Bacon in the 17th century as; 'If
man were taken away from
the world, the rest would seem to be all astray, without aim or purpose.... and leading to nothing'.
Bacon's statement reads like a paraphrase of Tennyson's poetry.
Towards the end of his life Tennyson articulated the human project in terms of having
to resolve the
conflict between humanity, hell bent on plundering the planet's resources to meet its extravagant
wants, and the rest of nature driven by basic ecological needs.
Today we see Tennyson's planetary mandate for humankind in the practical context of
a plan for
the international community to redress what Nature has lost to the materialism of mass
production. In this connection, the theme of melancholia and loss, which runs through Tennyson's
poetry and interlocks with his ideas about the grand and hopeful pilgrimage of life, has something
to offer us today with regards imaging the promised land of sustainable development within a fuller
life of a human ecosystem extending widely into the cosmos. His consistent passion for this
belief made fine poetry and even if today his persistent mellifluous arguments for our place in a
cosmic ecology are found unacceptable, we have to be impressed that a human mind, could make
no sense of the world without it.
Hill, R.W., (1971). Tennyson's Poetry,
W W Norton & Co.