Sunday, August 06, 2006

Tennyson's "By An Evolutionist"

On this day (August 6th) in 1809, Alfred Tennyson was born, the man who would become the most famous and beloved poet laureate England has ever had.

Tennyson's work was prolific, carefully crafted, frequently sentimental and full of English history, lore and patriotism. English children of many generations (and American kids too) knew him well through countless lectures, recitations and textbooks. Tennyson's body of work included both short verses (sometimes composed for events of state) as well as much longer poetic narratives. They include: The Charge of the Light Brigade, In Memoriam, The Lady of Shalott, The Lotuseaters, The Idylls of the King, Maud, Enoch Arden, and Locksley Hall Sixty Years After.

However, one of my favorite poems of Alfred Tennyson is lagrely unknown. It comes from his collection, Demeter, and Other Poems. Entitled, By an Evolutionist, the poem is brief but still it shows several of Tennyson's most characteristic traits -- a wistful melancholy at the brevity of life; an understanding of how various temptations steer man away from God; and a very subtle skill with sarcasm. As you will see, Tennyson's sarcasm in this case is carefully aimed at the use of evolutionary theory (increasingly popular among late Victorians) to justify a life of hedonism and ambition, heedless of its effect on a man's soul and his eternal state before God.

By an Evolutionist

The Lord let the house of a brute to the
soul of a man,
And the man said, ‘Am I your debtor?’
And the Lord–‘Not yet; but make it as
clean as you can,
And then I will let you a better.’

If my body come from brutes, my soul
uncertain or a fable,
Why not bask amid the senses while the
sun of morning shines,
I, the finer brute rejoicing in my hounds,
and in my stable,
Youth and health, and birth and wealth,
and choice of women and of wines?

What hast thou done for me, grim Old Age,
save breaking my bones on the rack?
Would I had past in the morning that
looks so bright from afar!

Done for thee? starved the wild beast that
was linkt with thee eighty years back.
Less weight now for the ladder-of-heaven
that hangs on a star.

If my body come from brutes, tho’ somewhat
finer than their own,
I am heir, and this my kingdom. Shall
the royal voice be mute?
No, but if the rebel subject seek to drag
me from the throne,
Hold the sceptre, Human Soul, and rule
thy province of the brute.

I have climb’d to the snows of Age, and I
gaze at a field in the Past.
Where I sank with the body at times in
the sloughs of a low desire,
But I hear no yelp of the beast, and the
Man is quiet at last,
As he stands on the heights of his life
with a glimpse of a height that is higher.