Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Tennyson and Zeno: Three Infinities

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Tennyson and Zeno: Three Infinities

Article excerpt

Though Tennyson left Cambridge without a degree because he refused to climb "the apparently unscalable wall of mathematics," (1) astronomy, physics, and the new geology of Robert Chambers and Charles Lyell continue to fire his imagination with thoughts of two immensities: the infinitely great and the infinitely small. As the mourner contemplates the fossil record and the long perspectives of the earth's history, sowing the dust of continents to be in In Memoriam, he hears a female harpy cry, like the sibyl in Heraclitus: "A thousand types are gone; / I care for nothing, all shall go." (2) The poem also plunges Tennyson into a second kind of infinity: the vortex of an endlessly receding mindscape. Within Tennyson's picture of the earth is a picture of his own mind, and within that picture a picture of the mind that frames the pictures, and so on to infinity. In the third place, as a mystic who uses mantras to evoke God's presence, Tennyson is continually trying to map the coordinates of the Nameless of the hundred Names. Transformed by rapture and transfixed by awe, he is touched in turn by these three infinities: physical infinities of space and time, infinities of a mindscape, and the metaphysical paradox of a God who is absolute and infinite at the same time.


Tennyson most memorably evokes infinities of space and time in "Ulysses," where the poetry is distinguished by self-retarding motions that inch toward the end of a line by tiny increments, like Zeno's tortoise:

   Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
   Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
   For ever and for ever when I move. ("Ulysses," ll. 19-21)

In imitation of the "untravelled world" that gleams before Ulysses, expansive open vowels with long quantities and voiced consonants stretch and pull open the long central line. Readers can also literally see how the "fading margin" of that world coincides with a slight fading of the poem's right-hand margin on the printed page. Indeed long vowels and assonance combine with the visual impact of the poem's "printed voice" to create an impression of spaciousness so vast that Matthew Arnold felt "these three lines by themselves take up nearly as much time as a whole book of the Iliad." (3)

It is as impossible for Tennyson's Ulysses to reach the untravelled world as it is for Achilles to overtake the tortoise or for Zeno's arrow to reach its target. As in Zeno's third paradox of motion, which argues that an arrow in flight is always at rest, Tennyson often freezes motion into a still life or photograph that visualizes spatial effects through sound. Browning, by contrast, is always trying to free the arrow from the frame in which Zeno freezes it, and then to graph the trajectory it traces. A student of calculus would say that as a connoisseur of spatial effects and opsis, Tennyson is a poet of derivatives, who takes refuge from vertiginous movements by retreating to the still point of an instant in time, which appears like Zeno's arrow to possess no motion at all. Though Zeno's arrow must have instantaneous velocity, it is hard to determine at any given moment what that speed might be. To calculate such velocity we have to divide zero distance by zero time, which is impossible. As a poet who traces movement in time rather than pattern in space, Browning reverses this process by graphing integrals instead. Out of a point in space he generates the volume of a sphere or a three-dimensional star, just as the student of calculus adds up pieces of area that have no volume in themselves to create a solid object that has three dimensions.

As in the hierarchical world of Pope's Essay on Man, where the chain of being is a ladder or the vertical axis of a graph, In Memoriam's "great world's altar-stairs / That slope through darkness up to God" (LV.15-16) approximate a 45 degree-slanted straight line. If x is the length of time Tennyson has traveled on the moving stair, then the function f(x)=x tells us how high he has climbed. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.