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Oct 6 Tennyson - Faith and Doubt In Memoriam

Queen Victoria, the longest reigning British monarch, after the death of her beloved Prince Albert was undergoing prolonged and painful grief. Experiencing despair and doubt, in the face of her beloved’s absence, Victoria wrote that she was "soothed & pleased" by Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam. She later requested a meeting with Tennyson because she was so impressed by the poem, and when she met him in 1883, she told him what a comfort it had been. In Memoriam expresses the intense struggle with faith that Tennyson experiences after the death of his best friend, Arthur Hallam. Although Tennyson is submerged in deep sorrow and confronted with questions and challenges to his spiritual beliefs, a careful reading of the poem reveals Tennyson undergoing a spiritual transformation that deepened his belief to a deeper level of spiritual maturity and a deeper faith in a God of love who will reunite him with his departed friend. This is perhaps why Queen Victoria would keep the poem by her bed for the rest of her life.

Alfred Tennyson was born a clergyman's son, a man of deep feelings, creative and depressive, heavy-drinking and heavy-smoking. He suffered a deep emotional blow when he lost Arthur Hallam. Many of Hallam's friends, including the prime minister Gladstone, who had seemed almost in love with him at Eton, had seen him as the great hope of his generation. In a series of lyrics, written piecemeal over a number of years, Tennyson confronted not merely his personal bereavement, in the loss of his friend, but a cultural collective bereavement felt by some of that generation as they said farewell to the religious certainties of the past. Many things were changing in Britain of the 19th Century, Charles Lyell's work in geology, was providing concrete evidence that the planet was of greater antiquity than a naïve literal interpretation of the Bible would suggest.

Protestants who had relied on the sole authority of scripture had developed sophisticated and mathematical ways of ageing the planet whilst trying to preserve as the literal truth of the Book of Genesis. This was now proven to be futile and erroneous. However what geologists were revealing dealt a deeper existential challenge to the human species when many obsolete animal forms where revealed in fossils challenging belief in a loving providence. The discovery of fossils revealed that far from nature being created whole and finished, as in Milton's evocation in Paradise Lost (pod of Apr 27) , species came and went. This was unsettling, and the popularised versions of Lyell’s discoveries published in Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), shook evangelical Christianity. The evangelicals were unaware that in Europeans academic circles, the father of geology was a Danish Catholic Bishop, Niels Steno, who had worked 200 years before Lyell (see pod of Jan 11). On the back of Lyell's work, Charles Darwin and the theory of natural selection continued that shaking, and began a process of unbelief, first among 19th century intellectuals, later among the world at large – and by the end of the century, in Britain, as GK Chesterton observed, "atheism was the religion of the suburbs".

Tennyson was crafting his poems amidst this turmoil and was alive to the imaginative implications of the revolution in the study of geology at the beginning of the 19th century. He was moving away from the evangelical certainties of his youth and revealed that his "religious beliefs also defied convention, leaning towards agnosticism and pandeism": In a characteristically Victorian manner, Tennyson combined a deep interest in contemporary science with an unorthodox, Christian belief. He wrote in In Memoriam: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." He also was amazed at the overreaction to these new scientific facts, that somehow disposed of the ancient truths and cultures which have been part of all civilisations. This tension is at the centre of In Memoriam - on the one hand, he confronts the raw pain of losing the false certitudes still peddled today by creationists. His creative process leaves us an interesting record as delicacy and intelligence, he listens to the intuitive and what we now think of the ‘right hemisphere of the brain’ way of processing information and experience.

A popular theory in neuroscience at the moment is that people are either left-brained or right-brained, meaning that one side of their brain is dominant. If you’re mostly analytical and methodical in your thinking, you’re said to be left-brained. If you tend to be more creative or artistic, you’re thought to be right-brained. It is clear that the two hemispheres function differently thanks to the research of psycho-biologist and Nobel Prize winner Roger W. Sperry in 1960’s. The left brain is more verbal, analytical, and orderly than the right brain. It’s sometimes called the digital brain. It’s better at things like reading, writing, and computations. This prioritises logic, sequencing, linear thinking, mathematics, facts and thinking in words However Sperry found that right brain is more visual and intuitive. It’s sometimes referred to as the analogue brain. It has a more creative and less organized way of thinking. Prioritising imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, the arts, rhythm, nonverbal cues and daydreaming. However magnetic resonance imaging has revealed that the human brain doesn’t actually favour one side over the other. The networks on one side aren’t generally stronger than the networks on the other side. The two hemispheres are tied together by bundles of nerve fibres, and complement each other. For example, the left brain is credited with language, but the right brain helps you understand context and tone. The left brain handles mathematical equations, but right brain helps out with comparisons and rough estimates. The two sides of your brain are different, and certain areas of your brain do have specialties and vary a bit from person to person.

In Victorian times, as Tennyson was processing grief and change, some would talked about the "female" part of his imagination. He recounts dreams, idle thoughts on his walks, glimpses of nature, as well as the common experiences of bereavement – the sudden, awful remembrance that the beloved is no longer there. As Queen Victoria attested to In Memoriam became in effect a good "self-help" book in bereavement. Especially for a soul contemplating an apparently pitiless universe and the raw pain of bereavement; but also acknowledging the reality of religious experience. The intuitive sense that there is something "behind the veil, behind the veil" is honestly confronted. Although this post enlightenment shift was not restricted to British evangelical circles – Tennyson’s explorations can be read alongside other classic 19th century literature about faith and loss of faith – John Henry Newman's Grammar of Assent or Leo Tolstoy's Confession and The Gospel in Brief.