Christ and the Cambridge Poets 4: Tennyson and the insights of Doubt

Tennyson in all his dishevelled glory

Over the centuries that St. Edwards has stood at the heart of Cambridge, the

city has been home to some great poets whose work can give us

new and imaginative insights into our faith. Over five weeks starting wednesday

may 11th I have been  exploring some of the insights that these poets

can offer to us now.

May 11th Edmund Spenser and the insights of Love

May 18th George Herbert and the insights of prayer,

May 25th Christopher smart and the insights of ‘madness’

June 1st Tennyson and the Insights of Doubt

June 8th Gwyneth Lewis and the Insights of Science

In the lecture whose audio I am linking here I offer a close reading of parts of Tennyson’s great poem In Memoriam and in particular I am concerned with the paradox wherby Faith is strengthened and deepened when it has the courage to pay serious attention to doubt, a process I try to trace through the course of this poem. Tennyson was Darwin’s exact contemporary and it is a great shame that when Darwin’s Centenary was so widely celebrated two years ago, Tennyson’s was, by contrast almost completely forgotten. Yet it was the intelligent and thoughtful response of poets like Tennyson to the challenge which Darwin’s thought appeared to offer to unexamined Faith which prevented our culture, and particularly our intellectual life ,from falling into the extremes of division and antipathy between “Science” and “Religion” which developed elsewhere and are still in need of healing. Tennyson’s famous lines

“There is more faith in honest doubt

Belive me than in half the creeds’

are often quoted as if he were approving doubt as an end in itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Immediately after these oft quoted lines comes a verse  that in some ways sum up Tennyson’s own own acheivement,:

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length


To find a stronger faith his own;

And Power was with him in the night,

Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,


But in the darkness and the cloud,

As over Siniai’s peaks of old,

While Israel made their gods of gold,

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.

As always you can here the audio either by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title. The recorder failed for the second half of the talk ‘live’ so I have posted the rest of it, recorded at home, in two other links labelled tennyson 2 and 3 . In each case there should also be a ‘play button’ above the link. Below the audio I have posted the substantial extracts from in Memoriam I gave in the handout at the lecture.

In Memoriam consists of 133 cantos numbered in Roman Numerals, I give the Roman numeral references to each section I quote.

Tennyson and doubt


tennyson 3

The opening, sets the agenda: (from I)

I held it truth, with him who sings

To one clear harp in divers tones,

That men may rise on stepping-stones

Of their dead selves to higher things.

But who shall so forecast the years

And find in loss a gain to match?

Or reach a hand thro’ time to catch

The far-off interest of tears?

Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d

“Rhyme has been said to contain in itself a constant appeal to Memory and Hope. This is true of all verse, of all harmonized sounds; but it is certainly made more palpable by the recurrence of termination.” AH Hallam (The influence of Italian upon English Literature)

A recognition that grief is a price more than worth paying for the reality of love: repeated verse (from XXVII)


….I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it, when I sorrow most;

‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

Then this verse sets out the method: (from XLVIII)

Nor dare she trust a larger lay,

But rather loosens from the lip

Short swallow-flights of song, that dip

Their wings in tears, and skim away.

Evocation of atmosphere, perfect expression of emotion In the cadence of language, this passage especially praised by Eliot: (VII)


Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more?

Behold me, for I cannot sleep,

And like a guilty thing I creep

At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain

On the bald street breaks the blank

A prayer of faith in the midst of doubt: (From L)

….Be near me when my light is low,

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle; and the heart is sick,

And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame

Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;

And Time, a maniac scattering dust,

And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,

And men the flies of latter spring,

That lay their eggs, and sting and sing

And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,

To point the term of human strife,

And on the low dark verge of life

The twilight of eternal day.


The substance of his doubts: (LVI)


‘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.’ 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?

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,

Who battled for the True, the Just,

Be blown about the desert dust,

Or seal’d within the iron hills?

Assertion of hope even in the moment of admitting that it might be in vain (LXIV)

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

The witness of the heart: (From CXXIV)

If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep,

I heard a voice ‘believe no more’

And heard an ever-breaking shore

That tumbled in the Godless deep;

A warmth within the breast would melt

The freezing reason’s colder part,

And like a man in wrath the heart

Stood up and answer’d ‘I have felt.’

No, like a child in doubt and fear:

But that blind clamour made me wise;

Then was I as a child that cries,

But, crying, knows his father near;

A magical episode of soul-communion: (XCV)

By night we linger’d on the lawn,

For underfoot the herb was dry;

And genial warmth; and o’er the sky

The silvery haze of summer drawn;

And calm that let the tapers burn

Unwavering: not a cricket chirr’d:

The brook alone far-off was heard,

And on the board the fluttering urn:

And bats went round in fragrant skies,

And wheel’d or lit the filmy shapes

That haunt the dusk, with ermine capes

And woolly breasts and beaded eyes;

While now we sang old songs that peal’d

From knoll to knoll, where, couch’d at ease,

The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees

Laid their dark arms about the field.

But when those others, one by one,

Withdrew themselves from me and night,

And in the house light after light

Went out, and I was all alone,

A hunger seized my heart; I read

Of that glad year which once had been,

In those fall’n leaves which kept their green,

The noble letters of the dead:

And strangely on the silence broke

The silent-speaking words, and strange

Was love’s dumb cry defying change

To test his worth; and strangely spoke

The faith, the vigour bold to dwell

On doubts that drive the coward back,

And keen thro’ wordy snares to track

Suggestion to her inmost cell.

So word by word, and line by line,

The dead man touch’d me from the past,

And all at once it seem’d at last

The living soul was flash’d on mine,

And mine in his was wound, and whirl’d

About empyreal heights of thought,

And came on that which is, and caught

The deep pulsations of the world,

Aeonian music measuring out

The steps of Time–the shocks of Chance–

The blows of Death. At length my trance

Was cancell’d, stricken thro’ with doubt.

Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame

In matter-moulded forms of speech,

Or ev’n for intellect to reach

Thro’ memory that which I became:

Till now the doubtful dusk reveal’d

The knolls once more where, couch’d at ease,

The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees

Laid their dark arms about the field;

And suck’d from out the distant gloom

A breeze began to tremble o’er

The large leaves of the sycamore,

And fluctuate all the still perfume,

And gathering freshlier overhead,

Rock’d the full-foliaged elms, and swung

The heavy-folded rose, and flung

The lilies to and fro, and said,

‘The dawn, the dawn,’ and died away;

And East and West, without a breath,

Mixt their dim lights, like life and death,

To broaden into boundless day.

His response to Emily’s fear, (he speaks of Arthur but actually describes what he himself is doing, and is achieving in this poem): (from XCVI)

You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.

I know not: one indeed I knew

In many a subtle question versed,

Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first,

But ever strove to make it true:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,

At last he beat his music out.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own;

And Power was with him in the night,

Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,

But in the darkness and the cloud,

As over Siniai’s peaks of old,

While Israel made their gods of gold,

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.

He came at length to find ‘a stronger faith’, here is an example of that stronger combination of faith hope and love ringing clearly and wildly from his poem: (CVI)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

The preface printed at the beginning of the poem, was written at the end:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,

Whom we, that have not seen thy face,

By faith, and faith alone, embrace,

Believing where we cannot prove;

….Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before,

Crossing the Bar

SUNSET and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness or farewell,

When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.


Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Poems, St. Edward's, Theology and Arts

8 responses to “Christ and the Cambridge Poets 4: Tennyson and the insights of Doubt

  1. Pingback: Christ and the Cambridge Poets 5: Gwyneth Lewis | Malcolm Guite

  2. Pingback: Ringing in The Year | Malcolm Guite

  3. Pingback: Ringing in The New Year | Malcolm Guite

  4. Reblogged this on Elizabeth Halls Counselling and commented:
    Grief and loss touch us all at times in our lives. Malcolm Guite guides us through Tennyson’s own journey through this difficult country. Grief, loss, and a finding; a rebuilding of faith through doubt; an assertion of the continuing connection of one human being with another.

  5. Pingback: Ringing In The New Year | Malcolm Guite

  6. Pingback: The Year Is Going, Let It Go | Literary Life

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