Canto 56 is part of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a long poem of 131 cantos, and it was written in 1850, fully nine years prior to the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). Why, then, is Canto 56 linked in the public mind with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution? Richard Dawkins, for example, writes at the beginning of his brilliant and disturbing classic, The Selfish Gene (1976), and with his characteristic sharpness,
I think ”nature red in tooth and claw” sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably. (2)
But Tennyson, as I say, wrote his phrase before Darwin’s great book.
So what gives?
Might it be that Tennyson, being a poet, felt, ahead of others, in his muse’s bones, the philosophical (and therefore, emotional) implications of what the new biological and geological sciences were discovering about the Earth, and anticipated the sublime horror and terror to which they were beginning to testify?
Below is Tennyson’s Canto 56 in full. Notice that it begins with Nature giving witness, by the fossils buried in her rocks, of vast ages of birth, death, and extinction:
‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.
‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,
Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.
Of life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.
I hear in this poem a kind of Western version of Nature anthropomorphized into a Hindu god, a Shiva, indifferent to the shrew of the self, dancing upon it, and creating and uncreating worlds over vast eons. Tennyson saw, via hints from the new discoveries of science, what Darwin’s book would make explicit a few years hence, and what the continental Indian poets intuited long before: a very old universe had arranged and unarranged worlds and multitudes long before us, and would unarrange us as well anon.