Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age

By Louis A. Markos, Sapientia Press, 288 pages.

Liberalism, nihilism, and scientific growth have failed to settle the basic issues related to philosophy, ethics, spirituality, and life and death. As Markos points out, we have not yet resolved the great paradigm shift of three hundred years ago, and we are therefore still restlessly dissatisfied. Thinkers went from Who? and Why?(Who created us? Why were we created?) to What? and How? (What are we and other things made of? How do we and other things work?). Scientific progress has in fact often led to our dispirited existence. Newton had explained to the English public, for instance, just what a rainbow is, spoiling the enchanting Biblical idea of rainbows.

After this shift towards materialist science and philosophy, the Romantic poets reverted to an individualistic primitivism based on excessive emotionalism and a refusal to face the hard facts that society had changed forever and that the old certainties were now dead and gone.

Tennyson represents for Markus the brave Victorian explorer who, though initially tempted by the almost childish escapism of the Romantics, decides to look straight into and beyond the pain of life – in the case of Tennyson, the death of a beloved friend – and explore the new wide view of things.

This came at great cost and effort. Though Tennyson remained open to “the new science” which would lead to Darwin's evolutionism, he refused to let die within himself the poet's soul.

Science and anti-Christian philosophical systems had by the Victorian age disenchanted the cozy old beliefs and ways of life, and technology had increasingly pushed people from what were seen as idyllic, slow-paced farms into the hustle and bustle of the industrial revolution, under full swing by Victoria's reign.

Markus offers a great background to the poet's sufferings, showing that these were largely the result of England's tumultuous, materialistic, industrial society. Philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, a utilitarian who experienced sharp depression and emotional pain, pushed this process along. Pressing Forward paints a none-too-pretty picture of this philosopher, whose emotional and spiritual state was, Markus writes, comparable “to that of a convicted sinner on the threshold of conversion.”

Nonetheless, Mills avoided a Christian conversion, Markus notes: “His [Mill's] final resolution will be spiritual in nature, but it will happen apart from any Christian doctrine or supernatural event – will constitute, instead, a sort of secular salvation. What else could it be? Mill's education ... ignored religion completely, and his father had instilled in him the unswerving belief that non-empirical, non-rational religious doctrines were ultimately of no value and could not be relied upon to resolve the problems of society or of the individual.”

Tennyson's search for the spiritual and religious within this spiritual and religious desert sounds an awful lot like our search today, but of course Mill's spiritual impotence also sounds like our own.

Tennyson represents the modern human in his need to wed the achievements of science with the belief in a higher power and deep meaning to life and its sufferings and hardships. Markus helpfully identifies in Tennyson's poetry the belief that all of geology and biological nature's savagery is really a movement, “upward and forward,” towards humans.

According to Markus, Tennyson asserts that “human life with all its dreams and accomplishments is not just so much refuse in the garbage pile of the cosmos. We must not think that we are merely nature's compost.”

Pressing Forward makes the vital connection between poetry and religion. Recent theologians and bishops have spent so much of their time trying to answer the impossibly tough challenges of materialist science and secularizing post-Enlightenment philosophy that they have half-forgotten religion's artistic, poetic, and enchanting sides. They forget this at great peril.

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