Tennyson’s Poetry

by: Alfred Lord Tennyson



A time to sicken and to swoon, When Science reaches forth her arms To feel from world to world, and charms Her secret from the latest moon?

In “In Memoriam A. H. H.,” the poet quotes an imagined critic of the elegy who objects that a lengthy outpouring of grief displays the wrong attitude during a time of planetary-scale advances in science. In these lines, the poet may have been referring to Neptune or its moon, which were discovered in 1846, just a few years before this poem was completed, or just to the advances in astronomy in general, recognizing that more and more stars and planets were likely to be discovered. The poet recognizes objectively the relative importance of scientific discoveries, but nevertheless his mourning for one soul—the soul of his dear friend—continues: “I sing because I must.”


“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.”

Toward the middle of “In Memoriam A. H. H.,” the poet contrasts nature and god and asks, “Are God and Nature then at strife?” The theory that species become extinct, and the fossil evidence supporting that theory, was first published while the poet wrote this poem. In the poem, the poet attributes extinction to nature’s lack of care for either individuals or species, or “types.” In these lines, the poet’s faith in god and an afterlife gives way to the notion of “life as futile, then, as frail!” His grief for his friend may have temporarily prompted a more existential despair.


They say, The solid earth whereon we tread In tracts of fluent heat began, And grew to seeming-random forms, The seeming prey of cyclic storms, Till at the last arose the man[.]

In these lines from “In Memoriam A. H. H.,” the poet appears to find hope in new scientific theories. Such an idea contrasts ideas he presents earlier in the long poem. While this poem was being written, scientists began to understand how planets were formed and appreciate that the process took eons. Darwin had not yet published his theory of evolution, but the concept of “transmutation” of species was well known by the 1830s, although some scientists attributed change to purely materialistic processes while others credited a divine “watchmaker,” whose final goal was a perfect creation. The poet appears to take comfort in the new science rather than see science as a challenge to his faith.