Tennyson, Religion and ‘The East’

Tennyson’s changing attitude to his religion can be associated with his friendship with Edward Fitzgerald, famous for ...

Tennyson is remarked by a friend to have once commented that Tennyson thought of God as ‘a great Ego with all our little ego’s swimming about in it‘, part of Tennyson’s changing attitude to his religion can be associated with his friendship with Edward Fitzgerald, famous for his English translation of ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, who taught him to read Persian. In his posthumously published collection of poems, a noticeable interest in ‘Eastern’ religious beliefs can be traced.

‘Light of the nations' ask'd his Chronicler

Of Akbar 'what has darken'd thee to-night?'

Then, after one quick glance upon the stars,

And turning slowly toward him, Akbar said

'The shadow of a dream — an idle one

It may be. Still I raised my heart to heaven,

I pray'd against the dream. To pray, to do —

To pray, to do according to the prayer,

Are, both, to worship AlIa, but the prayers,

That have no successor in deed, are faint

And pale in AlIa's eyes, fair mothers they

Dying in childbirth of dead sons. I vow'd

Whate'er my dreams, I still would do the right

Thro' all the vast dominion which a sword,

That only conquers men to conquer peace,

Has won me. AlIa be my guide!’ – Akbar’s Dream

The broadening of Tennyson’s beliefs, with a noticeably non-western approach to the idea of ‘God’ can be traced throughout his poetry. Tennyson most noticeably begins to attack more western approaches to religion in his famous long elegy on the death of Arthur Hallam ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ and also in his long poem ‘Maud” A Monodrama’.

‘O mother, praying God will save

Thy sailor,—while thy head is bow'd,

His heavy-shotted hammock-shroud

Drops in his vast and wandering grave.’ – ‘Maud: A Monodrama’

 

There is none that does his work, not one;

A touch of their office might have sufficed,

But the churchmen fain would kill their church,

As the churches have kill'd their Christ – ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’

However, this wasn’t just a preoccupation in later life, religious uncertainty overwhelms Tennyson’s juvenilia: 

I am void,
Dark, formless, utterly destroyed.

 

Why not believe then? Why not yet

Anchor thy frailty there, where man

Hath moor’d and rested?’ – ‘Supposed Confessions of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind’

This preoccupation isn’t uncommon in Victorian poetry or amongst the Victorians of the period more generally, access to poetry and works from further afield was becoming easier as a large amount of trade routes were established and travelling abroad became more common.

Alongside a growing awareness of the breadth of the world, a slew of scientific discoveries brought into doubt rigid methods of thought and extended and validated these questions which have preoccupied the human mind for thousands of years.

Read more on Tennyson and his life at Farringford an the Isle of Wight.

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