The Victorian period was one of immense change as the forces of industrialization and urbanization made a drastic impact upon British society.
Age-old rhythms of life were undone as agricultural workers and their families flocked to cities to the metropolis of London in the south, as well as to other rapidly expanding cities such as Manchester and Liverpool in the north. On one level, Victorian Britons marvelled at their success in the fields of industry, commerce, and science; the flourishing of the British Empire was also a deep source of national pride. However, on another level, such rapid change created a collective psychological disturbance, ‘an anxious sense of something lost' (Greenblatt, 980) because such changes were an assault on the pillars of traditional Britain due to the social upheaval which they caused.
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Of major significance to this paradoxical psychological state was the questioning of The Bible. Charles Lyell's geological investigations popularised the concept of Uniformitarianism in the 1830's while his later work, Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man, amalgamated his major geological analysis with Charles Darwin's findings in The Origin of Species, hence questioning the age and evolvement of mankind. These theories posed a serious challenge to religious confidence, and challenged the bible as a literal interpretation of creation. What, therefore, was the literary response to such extreme change?This essay will analyse the poetry of Alfred Tennyson and Mathew Arnold in an era where scientific discovery and technological advancement sought to uproot established assumptions of previous generations. It will be argued that Tennyson's epic homage to his beloved Arthur Henry Hallum, In Memoriam A.
H.H, persistently maintains space for religious faith in light of the arguments of Lyell and Darwin, and attempts to accommodate science to his world view. While Arnold conversely, does not view the world from this double perspective. This is evident in his essay ‘The Study of Poetry', which stated that ‘mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us' (Greenblatt, 1405). However, while Arnold believed that the moral function of poetry would be seen as a replacement for religion, much of his poetry evinces a deep pessimism and this manifests itself in his short lyrical poem, ‘Dover Beach'.Tennyson was mindful of Lyell's earlier publication, Principles of Geology, and In Memoriam is his attempt to comprehend and merge science and religion in an effort to come to terms with the inconsistencies that casted a debilitating uncertainty over the significance of human existence.
T. S. Eliot points out, ‘In Memoriam can, I think, justly be called a religious poem…It is not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt.Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience' (qtd. in Kermode, 245).
Thus, Eliot established a cause for reading In Memoriam as work of religious scepticism camouflaged by a weakened faith in light of scientific discovery and the loss of a loved one. However in contrast to Eliot's appraisal, Tennyson denotes that he intended the poem to represent ‘my conviction that fear, doubts, and suffering will find answer and relief only through Faith in a God of Love' (qtd. in August, 217) and as a result we are presented with a work that contains a compromised adaptation of the religious and scientific views of his era.
A key concern for Tennyson in In Memoriam was mans relationship to God and nature.Tennyson acknowledges the very real doubts of his age as he illustrates the clash of two elusive forces, ‘Are God and Nature then at strife, / That Nature lends such evil dreams? / So careful of the type she seems, / So careless of the single life'' (55, ll. 5-8).
In this instance Nature takes the role of the devil, an immoral and uncompassionate authority, ‘She cries "A thousand types are gone; / I care for nothing, all shall go' (56, ll. 3-4). Here Tennyson illustrates that nature, having eliminated ‘A thousand types,' actually regards human existence as insignificant in the greater scheme of evolution. If ‘type' is taken to mean ‘species' as the Norton Anthology suggests, then this stanza could be understood as being part of the zeitgeist: after all, the conclusions reached by Charles Darwin nine years after the publication of In Memoriam are not entirely dissimilar. Darwin's account is obviously secular whereas Tennyson's is ascetic, but the theory of evolution is one of biological progress, in which weaknesses of the individual (‘the single life') are overcome over eons of time, as each ‘type' or species is perfected. This sense of abandonment overwhelmed Victorian society and it seemed.