Evolution and English Literature - Part 1
Darwin’s Contemporaries: Tennyson, Shaw and Hardy
As we peruse the literature of any era, we cannot fail to notice the extent to which contemporary ideas, be they political, scientific, or sociological, color the sorts of subjects and themes of the contemporary writers. Thus Shakespeare’s plays are frequently tainted with political puns, flattery, and criticism; the French (and English) authors of the late nineteenth century echo the libertarian sentiments of the French Revolution; the early twentieth century writers utilize the thinking of Freud and Jung, and modern writers make liberal use of space odysseys and international political intrigue, and nuclear weaponry.
By far the most obvious example of this sort of influence in Darwin’s century was the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1902). Son of a clergyman, Tennyson had a grounding as a child in the classics and religious teachings. The death of his closest friend Arthur Hallam, unexpectedly and suddenly, crystallized for Tennyson the essential problems of life. Is there meaning? Is there purpose? Is there a God?
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust: Thou madest man, he knows not why, He thinks he was not made to die, And thou has made him. Thou art just.
‘In Memoriam’ (1350) is a very long ‘poem’ (really a collection of 133 short poems) describing the way in which Tennyson came to terms with these questions. The progression from the thoughts in the prologue concerning God demonstrates a desire to believe in an omniscient and beneficent Creator. In three very significant poems in the middle of ‘In Memoriam’, Tennyson traces very clearly the thoughts of a man who sees evolution as a clear and evident denial of the existence of God. (Although Darwin’s book Origin of the Species was not published until 1859, he had published many journal articles from as early as the late 1830’s. Darwin’s theories were certainly well known in broad outline sometime before 1859).
The first of these three poems (no. LIV) exhibits Tennyson’s vague trust that God is in control of the world and man:
O, yet we trust that somehow good; Will be the final goal of ill … That nothing walks with aimless feet;
This trust rapidly decreases by the end of the poem:
Behold, we know not anything; I can but trust that good shall fall; At last—far off—at last, to all, And every winter change to spring.
In the final analysis, says Tennyson, all of this trust in an invisible God is not much more than a dream, ‘So runs my dream’. He pictures himself as a tiny child battering against a dark and silent world for solace, company and clarity:
So runs my dream; but what am I? An infant crying in the night; An infant crying for the light, And with no language but a cry.
In the next poem (LV) Tennyson perceives that the revelations of God in the Bible, and Nature as viewed by the current science spokesmen, appear to be incompatible.
Are God and Nature then at strife, That Nature lends such evil dreams? So careful of the type she seems, So careless of the single life.
Nature appears careful to preserve the various species, but in doing so, gives scant regard for individual lives within those species: ‘… of fifty seeds, she often brings but one to bear.’ Where then, asks Tennyson is meaning and purpose for the individual. He admits that his faith is becoming very shaky, and a belief in God can only be sustained by belligerent and blind grasping:
I falter where I firmly trod … I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope, And gather dust and chaff, and call; To what I feel is Lord of all, And faintly trust the larger hope.
Since he can perceive only ‘dust and chaff’ in Biblical revelation, Tennyson completely casts away his faith in poem LVI, as he observes that not only is Nature careless of individual lives, but even whole species have been squandered in the struggle for survival:
‘So careful of the type?’ but no. From scarped cliff end quarried stone She cries, ‘A thousand ties are gone; I care for nothing, all shall go.’
He concludes that man’s spirit ‘does but mean the breath’, and that man is at the mercy of the forces of nature to be ‘blown about the desert dust.’ Every aspect of nature is cruel, so that nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’ shrieks against the creed of man as God’s companion and greatest creation.
In the final stanza, his despair is profound, ‘O life, as futile, then, as frail!’ In a gigantic leap, Tennyson transcends a century of human thought, and shows us how twentieth century man will be humanistic and atheistic. In the event of God’s apparent nonexistence, says Tennyson, all we can do is turn to man for our solace. Beyond ourselves there is nothing. He yearns for Hallam’s presence, as religion holds no hope:
O for thy voice to soothe and bless! What hope of answer, or redress? Behind the veil, behind the veil.
Other writers who lived at the time of Darwin were profoundly influenced by evolutionary concepts; men such as George Bernard Shaw (1858-1950) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Shaw was a prominent social activist, and most of his plays were written with the intention of commenting on contemporary society.
For this reason, he frequently wrote long prefaces to his plays which were often more important than the plays themselves. In the preface to the play ‘Major Barbara’, in which the conflict centers upon the widely-differing philosophies of a wealthy industrialist and an idealistic young Salvation Army officer, Shaw states, (referring to the Salvation Army): ‘It is hampered by a heavy contingent of pious elders who are not really Salvationists at all, but Evangelical of the old school. It still, as Commissioner Howard affirms, ‘sticks to Moses,’ which is flat nonsense at this time of day if the Commissioner means, as I am afraid he does, that the Book of Genesis contains a trustworthy scientific account of the origin of the species … .’
The logical outcome of this disregard of Genesis is clearly demonstrated by Shaw just two pages further on: ‘And here my disagreement with the Salvation Army, and with all propagandists of the Cross (which I loathe as I loathe all gibbets) becomes deep indeed. Forgiveness, absolution, atonement, are figments: punishment is only a presence of canceling one crime by another; and you can no more have forgiveness without vindictiveness than you can have a cure without a disease.’
It ought to be transparently obvious to every Christian, that to deny the truth of the first three chapters of Genesis, as Shaw does, is to totally undermine any belief in the fall of man into a state of sin, and thus to deny the necessity (and, by association, the truth) of the cross of Jesus Christ. The truth of creation is the sine qua non of Christian truth, in that as soon as we define the purpose of Christ’s death, we declare the necessity of the fall into sin. Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death, by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (Romans 5:12)
In Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Plaint to Man’, Hardy argues that God is a figment of man’s imagination:
The truth should be told, and the fact be faced That had best been faced in earlier years: The fact of life with dependence placed On the human heart’s resource alone, In brotherhood bonded close and graced With loving-kindness fully blown, And visioned help unsought, unknown.
Hardy suggests that belief in God is dwindling ‘day by day’, and asserts that ‘the truth must be told’. The ‘truth’ Hardy wants us to believe is that man can only progress and succeed:
… with dependence placed On the human heart’s resource alone, In brotherhood bonded close and graced; With loving-kindness fully blown, And visioned help unsought, unknown.
How close this is in concept to the conclusions which Tennyson drew some sixty years earlier. Hardy’s atheism (or at least agnosticism) is discussed by Walter Allen in ‘The English Novel’: ‘ … as David Cecil has written in “Hardy the Novelistâ€?’: ‘Christian teachers have always said that there is no alternative to Christianity but pessimism, that if Christian doctrine was not true, life was a tragedy. Hardy agreed with them.’ ‘He did so because he lived at a time when the intellectual assent to Christianity was probably more difficult than it has ever been, and however much he hoped, in the words of his famous poem, that “it might be soâ€? he could never give Christianity his intellectual assent.’
‘He did not believe because, as G.M. Young says in “Last Essaysâ€?, the total effect of Darwin, Mill, Huxley, and Herbert Spencer on their age was to make it “almost impossible for their younger contemporaries to retain the notion of a transcendent governing Providenceâ€?’. ‘The findings and beliefs of science do not remain the property of scientists only. They are inevitably ingested by the whole of society—the media, the writers, the artists, and finally the ordinary man and woman. In the three writers, Tennyson, Hardy & Shaw, we can detect the extent of Darwin’s effect on his own generation.’