TENNYSON AS A STUDENT AND POET OF NATURE
By Sir Norman Lockyer, F.R.S.
When Tennyson passed from life, not only did England lose one of her noblest sons, but the world a poet who, beyond all others who have ever lived, combined the gift of expression with an unceasing interest in the causes of things and in the working out of Nature’s laws.
When from this point of view we compare him with his forerunners, Dante is the only one it is needful to name; but although Dante’s knowledge was well abreast of his time, he lacked the fullness of Tennyson, for the reason that in his day science was restricted within narrow limits. In Dante’s time, indeed—he was born some 300 years before Galileo and Tycho Brahe—science apart from cosmogony had chiefly to do with the various constellations and measurements of the passing of time and the daily and yearly motions of the sun, for the observation of which long before his epoch our ancient monuments were erected; the physical and biological sciences were still unborn. Dante’s great work is full of references to the science of his day; his science and song went hand in hand as Tennyson’s did in later, fuller times. This in strong contrast with such writers as Goethe who, although both poet and student[Pg 286] of science, rarely commingled the two strands of thought.
It is right and fitting that the highest poetry should be associated with the highest knowledge. Tennyson’s great achievement has been to show us that in the study of science we have one of the bases of the fullest poetry, a poetry which appeals at the same time to the deepest emotions and the highest and broadest intellects of mankind. Tennyson, in short, has shown that science and poetry, so far from being antagonistic, must for ever advance side by side.
So far as my memory serves me I was introduced to the late Lord Tennyson by Woolner about the year 1864. I was then living in Fairfax Road, West Hampstead, and I had erected my 6-inch Cooke Equatorial in the garden. I soon found that he was an enthusiastic astronomer, and that few points in the descriptive part of the subject had escaped him. He was therefore often in the observatory. Some of his remarks still linger fresh in my memory. One night when the moon’s terminator swept across the broken ground round Tycho he said, “What a splendid Hell that would make.” Again, after showing him the clusters in Hercules and Perseus he remarked musingly, “I cannot think much of the county families after that.” In 1866 my wife was translating Guillemin’s Le Ciel and I was editing and considerably expanding it; he read many of the proof sheets and indeed suggested the title of the English edition, The Heavens.
In the ’seventies, less so in the ’eighties, he rarely came to London without discussing some points with me, and in these discussions he showed himself to be full of knowledge of the discoveries then being made.
Once I met him accidentally in Paris; he was most anxious to see Leverrier and the Observatory. Leverrier[Pg 287] had the reputation of being difficile; I never found him so, but I certainly never saw him so happy as when we three were together, and he told me afterwards how delighted he had been that Tennyson should have wished to pay him a visit. I visited Tennyson at Aldworth in 1890 when he was in his 82nd year. I was then writing the Meteoritic Hypothesis, and he had asked for proof sheets. When I arrived there I was touched to find that he had had them bound together for convenience in reading, and from the conversation we had I formed the impression that he had read every line. It was a subject after his own heart, as will be shown farther on. One of the nights during my stay was very fine, and he said to me, “Now, Lockyer, let us look at the double stars again,” and we did. There was a 2-inch telescope at Aldworth. His interest in Astronomy was persistent until his death.
The last time I met him (July 1892), he would talk of nothing but the possible ages of the sun and earth, and was eager to know to which estimates scientific opinion was then veering.
So far I have referred, and in very condensed fashion, to Tennyson’s knowledge of and interest in Astronomy as they came out in our conversations. I have done this because I was naturally most struck with it, but only a short acquaintance was necessary to show me that this interest in my own special subject was only a part of a general interest in and knowledge of scientific questions.
This was borne home to me very forcibly in about the year 1866 or 1867. The evenings of Mondays were then given up to friends who came in, sans cérémonie, to talk and smoke. Clays from Broseley, including “churchwardens” and some of larger size (Frank Buckland’s held an ounce of tobacco), were provided, and the confirmed smokers (Tennyson, an occasional[Pg 288] visitor, being one of them) kept their pipes, on which the name was written, in a rack for future symposia. One night it chanced that many travellers—Bates, Baines, and Winwoode Reade among them—were present, and the question of a certain kind of dust-storms came on the tapis. Tennyson, who had not started the subject, listened for some time and then remarked how difficult it was for a student to gain certain knowledge on such subjects, and he then astonished the company by giving the names of eight authors, four of whom had declared they had seen such dust-storms as had been described, the other four insisting that they could not be produced under any known meteorological conditions and that with the best opportunities they had never seen them.
In many of our talks I came across similar evidences of minute knowledge in various fields; nothing in the natural world was trivial to him or to be neglected. This great grasp was associated with a minute accuracy, and it was this double habit of mind which made Tennyson such a splendid observer, and therefore such a poet, for the whole field of nature from which to cull the most appropriate epithets was always present in his mind.
Hence those exquisite presentations of facts, in which true poetry differs from prose, and which in Tennyson’s poetry appeal at once both to the brain and heart.
But even this is not all that must be said on this point. Much of Tennyson’s finest is so fine that it wants a knowledge on a level with his own to appreciate its truth and beauty; many of the most exquisite and profound touches I am convinced are missed by thousands of his readers on this account. The deep thought and knowledge are very frequently condensed into a simple adjective instead of being expanded into something of a longer breath to make them apparent[Pg 289] enough to compel admiration. This it strikes me he consistently avoided.
All the charm of all the Muses often flowering in a lonely word.
Although many of the poems seem to me to be clothed with references to natural phenomena as with a garment, it can on the whole, I think, be gathered from them, as I gathered from our conversations, that the subject deepest in his thoughts was the origin of things in its widest sense, a Systema Mundi, which should explain the becoming of the visible universe and define its different parts at different periods in its history. In this respect we have:
Three poets in three ages born.
Dante, Milton, and Tennyson, with their minds saturated with the same theme, and I can fancy nothing in the history of human thought more interesting or encouraging than the studies of this theme as presented to us in their works published we may say, speaking very roughly, three centuries apart.
This of course is another story, but a brief reference to it is essential for my present purpose.
All the old religions of the world were based upon Astronomy, that and Medicine being the only sciences in existence. Sun, Moon, and Stars were all worshipped as Gods, and thus it was that even down to Dante’s time Astronomy and religion were inseparably intertwined in the prevalent Cosmogonies. The Cosmogony we find in Dante, the peg on which he hangs his Divina Commedia, with the seven heavens surrounding the earth and seven hells inside it, had come down certainly from Arab and possibly prior sources; the Empyrean, the primum mobile, the seven Purgatories, and the Earthly Paradise (the antipodes of Jerusalem) were later additions, the latter being added so soon as it was[Pg 290] generally recognized that the earth was round, though the time of the navigator was not yet.
Dante constructed none of this machinery, he used it merely; it represented the knowledge, that is, the belief, of his time.
Between Dante and Milton there was a gap; but what a gap! It was filled by Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco da Gama, to mention no more, and the astronomers and geographers between them smashed the earth-centred heavens, the interior hells, and the earthly paradise into fragments.
It was while this smashing was working its way into men’s minds that Milton wrote his poem, and he, like Dante, centred it on a cosmogony. Well might Huxley call it “the Miltonic Hypothesis”! but how different from the former one, from which it was practically a retreat, carefully concealed in an important particular, but still a retreat from the old position.
Milton in his poem uses, so far as heaven is concerned, the cosmogony of Dante, but he carefully puts words into Raphael’s mouth to indicate that after all the earth-centred scheme of the seven heavens must give way. But the most remarkable part of “Paradise Lost” is the treatment of hell.
Milton’s greatness as a poet, as a maker, to my mind is justly based upon the new and vast conceptions which he there gave to the world and to which the world still clings.
To provide a new hell which had been “dismissed with costs” from the earth’s centre, he boldly halves heaven and creates chaos and an external hell out of the space he filches from it. “Hellgate” is now the orifice in the primum mobile towards the empyrean.
In Tennyson we find the complete separation of Science from Dogmatic Theology, thus foreshadowed by Milton, finally achieved. In him we find, as in[Pg 291] Dante and Milton, one fully abreast with the science and thought of the time, and after another gap, this one filled up by Newton, Kant, Herschel, Laplace, and Darwin, we are brought face to face with the modern Cosmogony based upon science and Evolution. The ideas of heaven and hell in the mediaeval sense no longer form a necessary part of it, in Tennyson they have absolutely disappeared. In those parts of his poems in which he introduces cosmogonic ideas we have to deal with the facts presented by the heavens and the earth which can throw light upon the ancient history of our planet and its inhabitants.
The modern Systema Mundi which Tennyson dwells on over and over again is dominated by
Astronomy and Geology, terrible Muses.
To come back from this parenthesis I must finally point out that although some of the most pregnant and beautiful passages in Tennyson’s poems have reference to the modern views of the origin of things, almost all natural phenomena are referred to, in one place or another, in language in which both the truest poetry and most accurate science are blended.
The breadth of the outlook upon Nature shown by the references in the Poet’s works is only equalled by the minute accuracy of observation displayed. Astronomy, geology, meteorology, biology, and, indeed, all branches of science except chemistry, are thus made to bring their tribute, so that finally we have a perfect poetic garland, which displays for us the truths of Nature and Human Nature intertwined.