Department of English
Master of Arts
Alfred Tennyson, the nineteenth century poetic giant of Victorian England, who served as poet laureate for forty-two years, is best known for his elegy, In Memoriam, The Idylls of the King, and such short poems as "Ulysses," "The Lotos Eaters," "Flower in the Crannied Wall," and "Crossing the Bar." But few readers of his poetry are aware of the frequent use of the words "doubt" and "faith" in these poems, as well as in a number of his other poems. A realization of the extensive use of these words presented the challenge for a study to determine how frequently these words are used, why the poet used them, and what their use reveals about the poet himself. A preliminary study indicated that a number of poems have been recognized as "Doubt and Faith" poems. They are the following: "The Ancient Sage," "By an Evolutionist," "Crossing the Bar," "De Profundis," "Flower in the Crannied Wall," "The Higher Pantheism," "Locksley Hall," In Memoriam, "Supposed Confessions of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind," "The Two Voices," and "Vastness." In addition to these eleven poems, a few others have been examined for clues as to what kind of doubts plagued the poet, what steps he took in his search for an abiding faith, and what conclusions he eventually reached. Also, E. A. Arthur's Concordance to the Poetical and Dramatic Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson1 has been used to aid in the location of all lines of poetry that contain the words "doubt" or "faith." Available periodicals, books, and dissertations have been studied to learn the findings and opinions of others. And biographies have been studied to learn, if possible, the extent to which Tennyson's poetry is expressive of his own personal beliefs. These studies have revealed that a prevailing doubt shaped much of this poet's thinking concerning religious dogma, as seen in "Despair" and in certain other poems. And the oft-quoted lines from In Memoriani, "There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds," are probably the nearest that Tennyson ever came in his search for an answer concerning this doubt. A more obvious doubt, however, concerned the reality of immortality. For this seemed an obsession with him, especially after the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, and various lines of different poems seem to be a selfexpression of his grasping for a belief in life after death. A rather conclusive statement concerning this doubt has been expressed in In Hemoriam: I trust I have not wasted breath: I think we are not wholly brain, Magnetic mockeries; not in vain, Like Paul with beasts, I fought with death; (cxx. 1-1".). Another doubt that plagued Tennyson was why mankind must endure mental and physical suffering. Different poems reveal, however, that he realized certain questions had no answers. Thus he eventually seemed to conclude that suffering for individual man, as well as for mankind, is necessary. Two lines from "The Ancient Sage," a highly subjective poem, COMId be considered the poet's conclusion for this question, as well as other questions that produced doubt in his mind: "For nothing worthy proving can be proven,/ Nor yet disproven. . . . " In fact, these lines of poetry, as well as the entire poem, are indicative of a more mature, less troubled individual who was expressing his own beliefs in a more conclusive manner. But the conclusive manner probably was a result of Tennyson's stoic acceptance of prevailing conditions, or his resignation that was a result of a long, courageous life of seeking answers to age-old questions and to questions posed because of the scientific period in which he lived. This Foet Laureate did not gain the abiding faith he struggled for throughout his lifetime, as certain critics mistakenly claim. If he had, his swan song "Crossing the Bar" would not contain such uncertain words as "may" and "hope." Tennyson did, nevertheless, serve his purpose well as Poet Laureate and offered a tremendous service to his countrymen who were groping for a faith to supplant their own doubts. For even though his own failure to gain a faith that would overcome all doubts did result in a lack of a synthesis in much of his poetry, he probably offered answers that were reasonably applicable for that particular period.
English Language and Literature | Literature in English, North America
Wright, Martha, "Doubt and Faith in Tennyson's Poetry" (1972). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 1015.