Varieties of Geological Experience: Religion, Body, and Spirit in Tennyson's in Memoriam and Lyell's Principles of Geology

By Tomko, Michael | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Varieties of Geological Experience: Religion, Body, and Spirit in Tennyson's in Memoriam and Lyell's Principles of Geology


Tomko, Michael, Victorian Poetry


AFTER SURVEYING THE STRATA OF RECENT CRITICAL SCHOOLS, HERBERT TUCKER makes an appeal for combining a vibrant neo-formalism with cultural studies. His lapidary reading of aural elements of In Memoriam's section 33 unfolds into a cultural critique that troubles Tennyson's "suave apology" for the Victorian "secular state and liberal society." I wish to extend Tucker's analysis of In Memoriam by applying a culturally aware formalism not only to Tennyson's poem but also to another "nuanced cultural artifact," Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. (1) These texts--the scientific laureate's lay and the geologist's poetic apology--warrant similar formal consideration because they participate in the same cultural sphere, intervening in questions of religion, metaphysics, science, identity, and nationalism. While Sarah Gates and Denise Gigante have focused on desire and identity in other excellent cultural formalist readings of In Memoriam, I will address the common critical assumption that its geological sections participate in a Victorian war between science and religion, which Harvard scientist and historian Stephen Jay Gould has described as a "cardboard legend" of an "old (and basically silly) model of 'warfare between science and religion'" that creates a "misleading caricature of geological beliefs" in the early nine-teenth century. (2) My analysis has two goals: first, to modify the persistent meta-narrative of a polarized Victorian culture that views science, especially geology, as the efficient cause of a desperate, precipitous decline in religious faith between 1831 and 1859; and, second, to explore the renegotiation of faith by Lyell and Tennyson that advocates a stark, defensive rupture between the body and spirit.

In reexamining the relation between geology, religion, and literature, I will view Lyell and Tennyson as engaged in similar, not contradictory, projects that revise Paleyan natural theology into a dynamic spiritualism that draws an absolute and prophylactic barrier between the physical and spiritual world. The countervailing characterization of this interaction (scientists causing an earthquake of doubt and despair for theologians and Victorian believers) has been so pervasive that even a critic as sophisticated as Isobel Armstrong limits her reading of Lyell's influence on Tennyson's In Memoriam to the "uncomfortable and transgressive." (3) In Robert Bernard Haas's reading, Lyell's "disconcerting" work channels directly into Tennyson's construction of a locus lacrimosus, a place of despair. (4) Instead, I will argue, following J.M.I. Klaver, that geological writing is often a strange melange of awe and analysis. (5) Redefined and negotiated by scientists, theologians, and poets, the terms of belief about immortality, the supernatural, as well as the relation between body and soul, did change significantly in the nineteenth century, but the move of Victorian society and literature, at least in the prominent works of Lyell and Tennyson, was not, as in David Dean's paraphrase of George Meredith, simply from "geology to despair." (6)

This reading has often relied on the assumption that Tennyson's poem is a chronicle of experience somehow more authentic than scientific texts and the assertion that, within this autobiographical account, the Principles of Geology is a source of emotional crisis over the religious issues of immortality and belief. While I certainly do not wish to deny the biographical importance of Tennyson's grief for Hallam, critics have sometimes let this overshadow the public, argumentative nature of Tennyson's published 1850 text. (7) This perspective, however, needs to be balanced against Steven Gill's presentation of a Tennyson who succeeds Wordsworth as the spiritual voice of the age, interpreting intellectual trends for the reading public. I will not, therefore, read In Memoriam as a journal, a grief observed, but as a text offering an explanation and an interpretation, to the nation.

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