|Sections fifty through fifty-eight, which Tennyson
himself understood to be a unit of thought, are a miniature theodicy
that explores both the poets fears concerning the implications of scientific
naturalism and also his doubts about the purpose and limits of his poetic career. Rather
than being a philosophical apologetic that seeks to answer Tennysons doubts, this
particular grouping of lyrics is a "song of woe" which serves as a catharsis of
voiced expression. In other words, Tennyson is more concerned with
"singing" about his doubt than solving it. Its final answers are artistic
and intuitive rather than logical and explicit.
these work in a kind of thesis/anti-thesis fashion, yet the lyrics of doubt are finally
contextualized within the larger frame of love for (if not entirely faith in) the dead,
esp. Hallam. Tennyson does not choose to answer the desperate implications of naturalism;
instead, he sings them because he is a creature of the finite earth. The songs are not an
assurance of faith but an overflow of love. And their doubt exists within the rhythm of
#51-53 (LI-LIII) and #57-58 (LVII-LVIII) can be found at the
following website: Click here
Basic Structure/ Overview
50. 1-14 Tennyson asks for Hallam (and/or the dead or
God) to be near him in the midst of adverse circumstances darkness, suffering, and
50. 15-16 The last two lines hint at a reversal in the
next realm: "the twilight of eternal day."
51. 1-8 Tennyson wonders if we want the dead near us, for
they perhaps see with greater clarity and thus see our secret shameful deeds.
51. 9-16 Yet he recognizes that his love can be forgiven its
lack of faith. The dead must have great wisdom and insight and thus have great mercy on
those still in this life.
52. 1-4 However, his love is ineffective because it is made
up of words which are only surface.
52. 5-8 The "Spirit of true love" (Personification?
Hallam? God?) replies that the poet should not blame "the plaintive song"
because (she/ he/ the dead?) will continue to be near Tennyson. Human sin/weakness
cant force this spirit away.
52. 9-12 What keeps us true to our ideals then? [Lines 11-12
are the most problematic: either Christ is not an example for sinful humans; or Christ,
the sinless one, does not keep record of sinful human ways.]
52. 13-16 Thus, dont worry over ones faults
because the next realm promises our lives good will be separated from our current
53. 1-10 Tennyson entertains the theory that the sins of
youth prepare one for the maturity of adulthood.
53. 11-16 Yet he rejects this because it might become an
excuse for hellish behavior.
54. 1-16 [Reflecting on this] Tennyson holds out hope that
all "ill" has its purposes pain, sin, defect, and "taint." Yet
he admits to not knowing anything.
54. 17-20 He dramatically reverses this hope with his limits.
Being an infant "with no language but a cry," he scorns it all.
55. 1-12 Such a dream is based on a subjunctive inner sense,
while the natural objective world seems to offer no evidence for this. Nature seems
wasteful in natural selection, being more concerned with the species than the individual.
55. 13-20 Tennyson describes his faltering, fainting, limited
trust within this darkness.
56. 1-16 Yet nature is not even concerned with species; the
forces of extinction eliminate multitudes. He wonders: are even human beings, despite all
their seeming value, religious hope, and commitment to the truth and justice, destined for
56. 17-21 If they are, then they are worse than the
dinosaurs, for the dinosaurs seem to belong to such a ruthless order. Life then is futile.
56. 22-24 Can the voice of the dead be heard? Do they offer
any answers or "redness"? Both are "behind the veil." [Of course, this
is double-ended if they are veiled, we cannot be sure if they really exist at all.]
57. 1-8 Tennyson recommends peace because his song of woe
is "an earthly song." As a result, it is a limited work that will not last in
the same way that Hallams spirit does.
57. 9-16 Nonetheless, it serves its purpose here as a
memoriam to Hallams existence, as a kind of greeting (and/or prayer) to the dead.
58. 1-8 Tennyson reflects that this woeful song disturbed the
peace of others who are vaguely aware of their own coming deaths.
58. 9-12 Yet Urania reminds him that he need not continue to
grieve others but look forward to a better, more exemplary death someday.
The Limits of Knowledge/ Faith
This set of Tennyson's poems is full of imagery that stresses the
limits of both Tennyson's faith and his knowledge. What do you
think he is trying to suggest by such language? Here is a partial list:
50:1. "when my light is low"
50.6 "pangs that conquer trust"
50.9. "my faith is dry"
50.13. "when I fade away" (death but also within the sense
51.10. "Shall love be blamed for want of faith?"
51.15. "With larger other eyes than ours"
52.3-4. "My words are only words, and moved/ Upon the topmost
froth of thought."
53.4,9. "And dare we to this fancy give
Yet who would
preach it as truth"
54.13. "we know not anything"
54.20. "with no language but a cry."
55.10. Natures "secret meaning is her deeds"
55.16. "slope thro darkness up to God"
55.20. "To what I feel is Lord of all,/ And faintly trust the
56.28. "Behind the veil, behind the veil"
57.8. "But I shall pass; my work shall fail"
58.1-4: "[T]hose sad words" act as disturbing echoes.
The voices that do speak are "The Spirit of true love"
(#52), Nature (#56) and "the high Muse" (#58). The dead are addressed
throughout, as are the living who prepare for death. Why do these voices
speak? Do they do so clearly?