In a recent post I quoted from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poem In Memoriam A.H.H. The lyrical masterpiece took him 17 years to complete and has more stanzas than a Nissan dealer. It expresses faith (mentioned 31 times) and hope (mentioned 19 times) in the face of loss and grief.
In Memoriam captures Tennyson’s anguish at the unexpected death of his friend and fellow poet Arthur Henry Hallam (hence the A.H.H. in the title). His consternation also reflects a biblical worldview challenged by the science of his day (i.e. the early teaching of evolution that would culminate in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published a decade after In Memoriam).
Originally titled The Way of the Soul, the poem begins with a solid assertion of faith:
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;
Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.
And it ends (sans Epilogue) on a similarly strong note:
O living will that shalt endure
When all that seems shall suffer shock,
Rise in the spiritual rock,
Flow thro’ our deeds and make them pure,
That we may lift from out of dust
A voice as unto him that hears,
A cry above the conquer’d years
To one that with us works, and trust,
With faith that comes of self-control,
The truths that never can be proved
Until we close with all we loved,
And all we flow from, soul in soul.
Faith for Tennyson means trusting in something permanent that cannot be completely known:
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.
He recalls his friend Hallam’s example of humble faith besting honest doubt:
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 along the way Tennyson candidly grapples with the debilitating tension between a believing heart and a questioning mind:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
I find myself among those who are “perplext in faith.” To “faintly trust the larger hope” is all I can muster.