Nature, red in tooth and claw

In Memoriam,quite rightly comes up frequently in discussions of grief and loss, but the poem isn’t only about Tennyson

In Memoriam,quite rightly comes up frequently in discussions of grief and loss, but the poem isn’t only about Tennyson coping with the death of Hallam. Another important issue that comes up in the poem is Tennyson’s thoughts on the changing ways of thinking of the world. Though Darwin didn’t publish On the Origin of Species until 1859, nine years after the publication of In Memoriam, other writers were suggesting that the earth was much older than we thought.

In 1837 Tennyson was disturbed by the ideas he found in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). Before Lyell scientists thought species became extinct because of big, earth-shattering events. After Lyell, however, it became clear that the earth was always changing and species were gradually dying out all around us.

This kind of change in the way they saw the world was unnerving for many Victorians. Tennyson expresses his response to these ideas in poems like section LVI of In Memoriam. The poem opens by questioning Nature and the speaker doesn’t like her answer:

"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.
"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more."

Nature can create and destroy without feeling. When she says, ‘I bring to life, I bring to death’, the two are equal. In the following section the speaker wants some reassurance than Man will be treated differently, better:

And he, shall he,
Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law —
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed —
No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

He has begun to see already that Nature will treat man as she has treated her other creations. Man will die out, eventually, just like the dinosaurs. But this time, the dinosaurs are more at peace than man because they are one with Nature, whereas Man fights against Her and wants to be more important than he is to Her. This rather hopeless view of life distresses the speaker:

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

Whose voice does he call for in this closing quatrain? In the context of In Memoriam as a whole, it would seem to be Hallam’s, but in the context of this section he could be asking Nature for a kinder answer.

This poem shows Tennyson’s struggle to adjust to the changing ideas of his time, which considering the rate of change in the twenty-first century is something many of us can identify with. While Tennyson didn’t come to Farringford until after hehad started to grapple with these ideas, I wonder how he responded if he ever saw any of the signs of early life in the area? Do you turn to poetry when the world seems to be moving too quickly? If so, which poems do you find most comforting, or if that’s the wrong word, most useful?

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