Was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Canto 56, in Which He Calls Nature “red in tooth and claw”, the Product of His Reading Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species?

Nope.

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.   

 

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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Canto 56, in Which He Calls Nature “red in tooth and claw”, the Product of His Reading Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species?

  1. Ephemerae says:

    What lovely writing and analysis. I’m glad you posted the full text, it’s actually how I wound up here.

    I’d say there’s one subtle disagreement between Tennyson’s impression, here, and the character of the god Shiva, and that is that in Hinduism, this making and unmaking obscures truth – the tangible world is, in effect, to be rejected if one wants to progress spiritually. Tennyson’s poetry dances around the problem of evil or the problem of suffering, as well as the problem of meaning in an ephemeral world, which are both questions that Hinduism answers concretely, and yet he leaves the question open. His view of Nature doesn’t preclude any possible interpretations, it merely struggles with the unpleasantness of it in a very human way, which is why I like it. With no statements of interpretation as truth, there remains even the possibility that the world is goodness manifest – for if horror there is, then also the height of beauty.

    Is a brief creature a sad thing or a lovely one, or both? I can’t help but wonder why so many are so inclined to believe that something must be lasting to be of value.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Ephemerae:

    Thanks for the kind words. As for your observation that Hinduism sees “making and unmaking” as something that “obscures truth”—I agree that Hinduism says this. But that Hindu observation is also the one that caused Buddhism to divide from Hinduism, isn’t it? Do you hold to the doctrine of the Atman (Hinduism), or the no essence, only contingency and change, doctrine of the Anatman (which is the Buddha’s position—and, I might add, the position of Darwin and Nietzsche)?

    Exit or no exit?

    —Santi

  3. jeremy says:

    thanks for the analysis. I love Alfred, Lord Tennyson, having written on his poetry as an undergrad. I actually found myself here because of a speech I heard in a Business Ethics Course in my MBA program where Dr. Freeman of The University of Virginia, while talking about changing the story of business questioned if Capitalism need be a world where its all like Nature, red in tooth and claw and I knew that I had read that line before. I went home and dug into my poetry books and quickly remembered that the line was from In Memoriam. Anyway, thank you for posting this as I have devoted much time on this tangental inquisition.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Jeremy:

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    —Santi

  5. Pingback: Go West, Young Species? Like Ulysses and Darwin, Launch Out? « Prometheus Unbound

  6. S.A. says:

    Read Charles Lyell. That is what is influencing Tennyson. You are ill-informed.

  7. Joel MacClellan says:

    Leave it to a literature teacher to claim that a poet “felt… in his muse’s bones” the philosophical implications of violence in nature before anyone else. 😉 Suffice it to say that Darwin was kicking around the ideas published in Origin for a few decades before its eventual publication in 1859, and while Tennyson’s famous poem predated Darwin’s Origin, philosophers, theologians and scientists (including Darwin) were all wrestling with these issues as Tennyson was.

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