Tennyson, an interpreter of his age
Stevens, Beatrice Lucile
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The literature of any age is an expression of certain characteristics of the life of that period. Such literature may depict one particular phase or a combination of phases. For example, Byron stressed in his work the revolt against tyranny, Shelley the dream of universal brotherhood, and Keats, the passionate love of pure beauty. Tennyson, however, contributed a broad and clear representation of many phases of the history and spirit of the Victorian Age. Tennyson followed closely his country's progress. He discussed its developments freely with his fellow men, sometimes presenting opposite opinions on the same subject in order to gain the fairest interpretation of the situation. He took an active interest in the state of agitation arising from the Reform Act of 1832 and firmly believed that greater ends could be accomplished through a more widespread education, a greater display of patriotism, and a more sympathetic attitude among the supporters of the various forms of Christianity than through imprisonment and repression. In the Victorian period, science had made great strides, bringing about a struggle between materialism and idealism in the theological and practical worlds. There were intervals of doubt, struggle, enthusiasm and despair, unbelief, strong faith, and idealism; and these, since they composed the general spirit of that age, directly or indirectly appear in Tennyson's works. Although a number of Tennyson's poems express his philosophical outlook, "In Memoriam" is probably the best chronicle of his progress from scepticism to certainty. In this and other poems, we shall see that Tennyson was not seeking to evolve a new faith, but that he was seeking to defend himself against misgivings and struggling to hold firmly to what he already believed. In numerous other selections, Tennyson has illustrate such phases as love of country, the condition of the poor, the attitude toward war, and the advancements of science. Since the Eighteenth Century had been chiefly an age of quiet optimism, the church of that era was hardly adapted to the needs of the more stirring age to follow. The ideal formerly attached to the clerical life and the popular attitude towards this life had both deteriorated. The clergyman of that day was very important to the society about him, serving as ruler, doctor, lawyer, magistrate, and teacher, in such a way that the idea of the priest was not forgotten, even though there was much to obscure it. It may be said truthfully that the clergy in many instances were pious, but the fortunes of the church are not safe in the hands of a clergy most of whom take their obligations easily. During the first third of the Nineteenth Century, this spirit of unconcern toward the mission of the church was still evident. The ordinary parish priest left no particular mark on the church history of this time. This does not imply that there were not truly religious men in the Church of England, but it does imply that they were not the official church leaders. The Romanticists had been dreamers, and their world seemed to consist of a static society and of a complacent materialism. Their views prevailed also during the first part of the Nineteenth Century, but the various reforms and changes in English life made a reform in English worship inevitable. The rising generation had caught the new spirit and had begun to study the religion of their forefathers. Two groups predominated. One group consisted of those whose theories were based on the steadfast and quiet Anglican traditions, and who, though benevolent and pious, were ever seeking advancement, and often held two positions, thus amassing small fortunes for themselves. In sharp contrast were the Evangelicals, men of strong and vigorous understanding, often eccentric, but well able to face the shallow controversialists who attacked them. Despite their accomplishments, such as the overthrow of slave trade and the betterment of social conditions, their attitude towards religion was not the true type that has as its goal the education and development of character. Their attitude made some men fear for the safety of the church, for such a spirit of unconcern or maladjustment was not adequate for the England or the Reform Era. Thus, there arose the Oxford Movement of 1833, at whose head was a group of devoted churchmen who sought to conduct a study of their religion and make it applicable to this new era; not just a scholarly study, but rather a philosophic one which was to be pursued in the spirit of asceticism. Tennyson, who was deeply interested in questions concerning religions and radicalism, became an ardent follower of the Oxford Movement; and his writings expose much of the bewilderment in his own mind as well as his attempt to unravel to his own satisfaction the ideas that led him to doubt and despair. We see also in his work, affected greatly as it was by the advances taking place in the first third of the Nineteenth Century in democracy, science, industry, and philosophy, the influence of Newman, who attempted to solve the question of theology through a study of the past, and the influence of Maurice, who worked on the theory that God was as much in the present as in the past. As a poet, Tennyson was not bound to reason nor to definite plans, but he could carry his thoughts into the realm beyond reasoning. The death of his friend Arthur Hallam, coming as it did at a time when Tennyson was already struggling with the mental effects of Nineteenth Century philosophy and intellectual chaos, was the means of making Tennyson now take the problems he had previously worked out in a theoretical way and try to resolve them once and for all. "In Memoriam," a summary of Tennyson's long spiritual struggle with the problems of despair, hope, and destiny, is a philosophical study that begins as a personal problem but closes with the answer to a universal problem. "Two Voices" and many other poems present the same thoughts. In still another group of later works as "The Ancient Sage" and "Vastness," he shows a strengthening of his faith. As far back as 1688, Englishmen had taken pride in their constitution and national way of life. From then until the late Nineteenth Century, the Tories, composed of small landowners and the clergy, and the Whigs, comprised of small tradespeople and the aristocracy, had ruled England alternately. During the reign of George III, who determined to replace the Whig lords and their corrupt methods with his own ministers under his personal oversight, the Whigs found themselves out of power for the first time in about forty years. By the close of the Eighteenth Century, changes in a griculture and industry were beginning to influence English life and to bring new classes of men into the ruling group. There was the new Tory party under William Pitt, a former Whig. At first this group promoted a reform that would grant greater representation to the more populous counties. Then, made fearful by the effects of the French Revolution of 1789, Pitt's group about-faced and strongly opposed any move tending to give the lower classes more power. The Tory party became extremely conservative; the Whig party, progressive. The Tories continued to rule until 1832, when they were replaced by the more liberal Whigs, who had been waging an intense struggle for internal reform since 1816. After 1830, however, the new generation in England began to devise improvements in the old form of government. The Reform Bills calling for better and greater representation, the Chartist organization working for the betterment of the lower classes, the advances made in the scientific and industrial world, and the steps taken to better the education of the masses all had their definite effects upon the social order of the Nineteenth Century. In summary, we may say that Tennyson, whose life coincided with the Victorian period in ideas and time, was fascinated by the many changes he saw take place; and his poetry reflects throughout not only all of these changes, but the philosophical doubt and the intellectual turmoil of his time as well.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University
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