Microscopes: Tennyson’s perspective

Amongst the many objects on display at Farringford, is Tennyson’s Microscope - tucked in a cabinet in the schoolroom...

Amongst the many objects on display at Farringford, is Tennyson’s Microscope. Tucked in a cabinet in the schoolroom, it is quite possible to pass by without seeing it, but its presence is greatly important. Like many of the scholars of his day, possessed of a university education that was not yet subject specific, Tennyson had a keen interest in Science. He collected an enormous quantity of fossils, which he would keep in his pockets after he found them on his numerous walks across the downs. Eventually, they would take up residence in the Fossil Cabinet located in Farringford’s hall. For Tennyson then, there was, within these fossils, a fascination with the vast encapsulated within the small, and of self-contained, coherent objects, being able to tell of the rise and fall of ages.

Theodore Adorno, in his essay ‘Lyric Poetry and Society’ spoke of the ‘involuntary crystallization’ of lyric poetry, which, like a fossil, becomes a static object, i.e. not in a state of flow, once it is written. The reading of lyric poetry as self-contained, self-referencing objects was one that had been gaining force throughout the twentieth century. However, this very modern reading of the nature of the lyric poem, perhaps, via Tennyson’s relationship with his fossils, is a question in play not only when we, as modern readers, look back on and read Tennyson’s poetry, but also during the time when it was written.

Twentieth Century lyric poetry, particularly American Lyric poetry, both battled against and celebrated its new description as a contained object. One of the most famous poems exploring the new attitude to lyric poetry was Wallace Stevens 1919 poem ‘Anecdote of a Jar’:

‘I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill. 

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and a port in air. 

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare,
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee’ 

In this poem, the jar stands in for the lyric. The small object, although self-contained, operates more largely within an environment, bringing order to the natural world around it, as well as in its glassiness, merging with, and reflecting the spaces around it, despite maintaining its own coherency as a single ‘jar’. Stevens plays with the theories of lyric poems being open and/or closed from the world by playing with the opposition in ‘a jar’ and ‘ajar’, suggesting that even as it is contained as an object (physically on a page), a poem can still be open to the influence from the world around it via the thoughts and experiences of the reader.

But what relevance does Stevens’s poem have for Tennyson and his fossil collection?

Tennyson was the major lyric poet of his day, and throughout his career was criticised for the failure of his poems to address the concerns of a world outside his own (particularly poems like ‘To the Rev. F.D. Maurice’, where Tennyson describes himself watching men sail off to war from his living room at Farringford, which looks over the Solent). Perhaps of all his poems, ‘In Memoriam’ is his most personal, focusing on the process of his own grief at the death of Arthur Hallam, over the course of 133 cantos.

‘The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run;
A web is wov’n across the sky
From out the waste places comes a cry
And murmurs from the dying sun: 

“And all the phantom, Nature, stands –
With all the music I her tone,
A hollow echo of my own, --
A hollow form with empty hands.”’ 

For Tennyson the poem becomes a kind of hollow vessel or form, ‘a hollow echo of my own,---/a hollow form of empty hands’, and within it, Nature’s own voice, a kind of primal cry echoes and re-echoes, ‘And all the phantom, Nature, stands --/With all the music I her tone’. This is the cry that he describes coming ‘From out the waste places’ and as the voice of the infant in the passage I have quoted below. Tennyson, therefore, like Stevens, sees the lyric as both contained and separate from, but also echoing the environment that it inhabits.

‘Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood; 

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete; 

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain. 

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring. 

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.’ 

For Tennyson, the carefully formed poem, is the opposite of Nature’s careless discarding of elements of the natural world, the fossils of other life forms ‘cast as rubbish to the void’. The poet, like God, creates the form whole, contained and perfect, not open to flow and change. The poetic form, the lyric, therefore, becomes a way of fighting nature, even as it catches her voice within it, for it refuses to become a part of the natural flux. Yet, at the same time it fossilises itself, and becomes a subject of ‘involuntary crystallization’, ready to be discarded. Tennyson catches himself in a double bind, and it is this double bind which explains the end of the poem.

‘By which they rest, and ocean sounds,
And, star and system rolling past,
A soul shall draw from out the cast
And strike his being into bounds, 

And, moved thro’ life of lower phase,
Result in man, be born and think,
And act and love, a closer link
Betwixt us and the crowning race 

Of that, eye to eye, shall look
On knowledge, under whose command
Is Earth and Earth’s, and in their hand
Is Nature like an open book; 

No longer half-akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did,
And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed,
Of what in them is flower and fruit; 

Whereof the man, that with me trod
This planet was a noble type
Appearing ere the times were ripe,
That friend of mine who lives in God, 

That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.’ 

When we first read these stanzas, they sound like a mess. In swift jumps we move from Tennyson’s thoughts about evolution, to his thoughts on Arthur Hallam, to his thoughts on God and divine cosmology. However, what Tennyson is trying to do is wrap up the complicated dilemma created earlier in the poem, and stanza by stanza, in these last 6 verses of the poem, solve it.

  1. Here Tennyson sets up a difference between man and nature, the system rolling past, separate to the self or soul which is contained, like a ‘cast’, within its ‘bounds’, and therefore not part of this motion.
  2. The soul remains separate to evolution, where the body is a link between the beings of the past and the ‘crowning race’
  3. When this race comes to fruition, nature itself will be contained by them, who command ‘Earth’. Nature therefore will become like a ‘book’, or, shall we say, self-contained, just like a lyric poem.
  4. The actions, and hopes of men, changing with natural flux, are a part of this evolutionary progression.
  5. His love for Hallam, however, will remain static because Hallam is the highest point of evolution ‘appearing ere the times were ripe’, and therefore natural progression has, in him, come to an end.
  6. This end point that Hallam has reached, makes him like God, something singular, a complete and comprehensive object, ‘One God, one law, one element,/And one far-off divine event’, towards which creation moves.

Complicatedly then, Tennyson uses the tiny stanzas of ‘In Memoriam’, piece by piece, to generate a vast argument, cosmological in scale. Encapsulated within each small stanza, or form, are ideas about the vast world. We must zoom in upon them, like a microscope, in order to reveal this bigger picture. Reacting, perhaps, to each of them, and to the poem as a whole, in the same way that Tennyson reacted to each fossil.

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