Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age
reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
In his masterpiece In Memoriam, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, arguably the greatest poet of his time, travels from agnosticism to faith in immortality and in a Creator who molded man through nature. In Pressing Forward, Louis Markos traces Tennyson’s conversion against the background of six “sages”—Huxley, Newman, Mill, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold—and their responses to the crisis of faith produced by a new science and the struggle against materialism.
Revealingly, even the unbelievers among the sages retained something of a Christian ethos. With neither the faith of Newman, nor what Markos calls the “half-agnostic/half-Christian compromise of Tennyson,” their declarations about the soul and our duty to posterity reflect the Gospels, while their desire to press forward to a glorious consummation echoes the hope for a New Jerusalem.
Markos, a professor of English at Houston Baptist University, begins by introducing the three “sages” who provide the map of Victorian belief upon which Tennyson’s spiritual journey can be traced.
At one end is T. H. Huxley, who popularized Evolution as a worldview. He used biblical imagery to disguise his materialism, but in the end wanted such metaphors dropped, calling it our duty to adopt materialistic language. He saw man as produced by “material forces,” but still believed him free to shape the world.
At the other end is John Henry Newman, who proposed the Church as the bulwark against the “all-dissolving skepticism of the intellect.” Without “first principles” from Revelation, he warned, the world would lack necessary signposts and boundaries.
And between them (though closer to Huxley) is John Stuart Mill, brought up along rigidly utilitarian lines, who suffered a nervous breakdown at age 21 and was healed by discovering the imagination by way of Wordsworth. He went on to “humanize” the creed of utilitarianism and fight against injustices.
Markos then launches into a moving analysis of Tennyson’s epic-long In Memoriam (1850), a meditation on grief occasioned by the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. At the start, the poet wants to “stop feeling, to turn himself to stone,” but over the course of 131 poems wrestles his way out of despair and “into the Victorian age.”
At the midpoint, he contemplates the crisis of faith caused by the new science. He meditates on “the horror of a blind, impersonal universe,” a “Nature red in tooth and claw” indifferent to mankind:
He wonders if our species will end up extinct, another layer of fossils, and yearns for assurance of the soul’s immortality.
At the climax, he receives this assurance in a mystical experience in which he sees “darkness and light, West and East” embrace and broaden into “infinite space,” and feels the hands of his Creator touch him—“out of darkness came the hands/ That reach through nature molding man”—the same loving hands that molded man throughout eons of time.
In Memoriam could have ended there, but Tennyson uses his newfound hope to inspire others to “Move upward, working out the beast.” The work ends with a wedding that glances at the marriage of Revelation 22. Tennyson’s masterpiece is finally a comedy in the lineage of Dante.
Markos then introduces three more “sages” who, while not exactly Christians, defended the soul’s yearning for transcendence.
Thomas Carlyle revealed the horror of the materialistic vision of the universe—it is, as he put it, “one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on in its dead indifference”—and championed a “ secular spirituality” and leaders with vision to propel mankind forward. John Ruskin urged the revival of the Gothic style and criticized mass-produced art and architecture as impoverishing the soul.
Like them, Matthew Arnold grieved over loss of faith, but advocated at most “a naturalized and even secularized Christianity.” In his role of literary critic, he sums up the critique of several other “sages”:
Crossing the Bar
In the remainder of the book, Markos examines some of Tennyson’s other well-known poems, including “Locksley Hall,” Maud, “Lucretius,” and the Idylls of the King.
In the Idylls, King Arthur is the Christian hero with “power to combat the corrosive forces of materialism” and “all that is bestial in man.” He binds his knights by vows, but, as Markos observes, “The materialistic philosophies and utilitarian ethics of Tennyson’s day rendered such vows illusory at best; in the absence of God and the supernatural, the vow loses both its power and reality.”
In “Lucretius” (1865) Tennyson reveals the “final despair that comes of a too strict naturalist viewpoint.” But he hopes his own death will be an encounter with Christ, as shown in “Crossing the Bar,” a poem he wanted placed at the end of all collections of his poetry:
Pressing Forward, written for the non-specialist, is an illuminating study of Tennyson in the context of his time and an excellent introduction to the Victorian Age. Markos shows that this poet was somewhat of a Christian, even if his faith was based chiefly on reasons of the heart.
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