Aug 18 2010

Alfred Tennyson – The Higher Pantheism

Published by at 9:52 am under Poetry

The Higher Pantheism
by Alfred Tennyson

The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains —
Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?

Is not the Vision He? tho’ He be not that which He seems?
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?

Earth, these solid stars, this weight of body and limb,
Are they not sign and symbol of thy division from Him?     

Dark is the world to thee: thyself art the reason why;     
For is He not all but thou, that hast power to feel ‘I am I’?

Glory about thee, without thee; and thou fulfillest thy doom,
Making Him broken gleams, and a stifled splendour and gloom.

Speak to Him thou for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet —
Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.

God is law, say the wise; O Soul, and let us rejoice,
For if He thunder by law the thunder is yet His voice.

Law is God, say some: no God at all, says the fool;
For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool;

And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;
But if we could see and hear, this Vision — were it not He?

— from Tennyson’s Poetry (Norton Critical Editions), by Alfred Tennyson / Edited by Robert W. Hill Jr.

/ Photo by tourist_on_earth /

This is a poem worth reading aloud, several times. Listen to the rhythm and rhyme. Only once you’ve danced about with the words should you then let the meaning sift in.

Each couplet is rich with inner insight…

The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains —
Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?

I think here the Romantics got it right: To ignore the natural world or merely dominate it, only blinds us. It is when we learn to see the living world that we glimpse the underlying Reality. This is Tennyson’s “Higher Pantheism” — that the Divine is not somehow separate or apart from creation; the Divine is revealed through the living world.

The material world is sometimes seen as a mask or a veil that obscures the Eternal. True enough, but here’s the funny thing about masks– they not only hide, they also reveal the contours of the face behind it.

Tennyson invites us to look well, and catch the gleaming eyes peering out through the mask.

Dark is the world to thee: thyself art the reason why;     
For is He not all but thou, that hast power to feel ‘I am I’?

The world seems like an obstruction only because we ourselves — the false projected self of the ego — stand in the way of clear seeing. When we recognize our true Self, that which knows “I am I” a stillness and clarity of awareness results. The world is no longer seen as dark and dense and separated, but as an enlightened, interwoven whole.

Glory about thee, without thee; and thou fulfillest thy doom,
Making Him broken gleams, and a stifled splendour and gloom.

The world all around us — and through us — is filled with a radiant glory, but too often we don’t see it. Instead of seeing that shining wholeness, the mind inserts itself into the vision and breaks it apart, dims it, stifles it so the ego can remain unchallenged by something brighter and bigger than itself.

A few thoughts

Alfred Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Alfred Tennyson

England (1809 – 1892) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic
Christian : Protestant

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was probably the most prominent English poet of the Victorian era. He gained immense fame and renown in his own lifetime.

Alfred Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire, the fourth of twelve children. His father was a bitter clergyman, forced into the life of a rector by his own father after being disinherited in favor of a more capable younger brother (Alfred’s uncle) who would build a family of position that could eventually claim a place within the aristocracy. Alfred’s father was an unstable man, an alcoholic and drug addict, creating a dark, tense atmosphere in Alfred’s upbringing.

Addiction and nervous disorders ran through the family. Two of Alfred Tennyson’s siblings were institutionalized for erratic behaviors and addictions. It’s said that all of the Tennyson children had at least one mental breakdown.

Alfred Tennyson began writing poetry at a young age, as did several of his brothers and sisters, as a way to find freedom from their dark home atmosphere.

Yet, despite such a difficult upbringing, Tennyson experienced ecstatic states of spiritual transcendence which he described as “a kind of waking trance – this for lack of a better word — I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone… All at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state but the clearest, the surest of the surest… utterly beyond words – where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.” These “trances” continued throughout his life.

His first collection of poetry was published before he was 18.

Alfred Tennyson attended university at Cambridge, happy to escape his home life. There he made friends easily, where he was admired for his intelligence, his skill as a writer, for his sense of humor, and for his good looks. This was an especially happy time in the young poet’s life.

During this time he became close friends with a brilliant student named Arthur Henry Hallam. While some modern historians suggest this was a homosexual relationship, there’s not really any clear indication that that was the case. But the the bond between the two friends was immediate and strong. Hallam became engaged to Tennyson’s younger sister, but the wedding was put off until Hallam completed his studies.

Alfred Tennyson had to abandon his studies when his father died. His grandfather provided some income to the family, but would not support the Cambridge studies of Alfred or his brothers, since none seemed to be pursuing studies that would lead to profitable careers and family advancement.

Alfred Tennyson refused a position in the church pressed on him by his grandfather. Living in virtual poverty on a small allowance given to him by an aunt, he determined to make his way as a poet. This was a period of great struggle for the young poet. His published poetry received brutal notices from the literary critics.

Then Hallam, Alfred’s close friend and fiance to his sister, died unexpectedly while traveling in Vienna.

Hallam’s death, mixed in with his other life struggles, created a spiritual crisis for Alfred Tennyson. His mood and hopes collapsed. He refused to publish his poetry for nearly ten years, though he continued to write.

Alfred Tennyson was briefly engaged to a young woman named Emily Sellwood around this time, but broke off the engagement because of his poverty and fears for his health. He began an itinerant period of heavy drinking and staying with his widowed mother or with friends in London.

His friends, worried about him, finally convinced him to publish his poems again, and the resulting two volume Poems, which was received with unexpectedly high praise. Alfred Tennyson was suddenly considered one of the rising stars of his generation of poets.

Subsequent publications further increased his notoriety and restored his finances. His collection of elegies to his dead friend Hallam In Memoriam lifted him to the position of the preeminent poet of his day.

Feeling that his life was on track once again, he renewed the betrothal to Emily Sellwood that he’d abandoned a few years earlier and two finally married. His wife took over much of the day-to-day business of home and finances, freeing Tennyson to focus on his writing.

Because of his prominence, Tennyson was invited to court and he became a close friend to Queen Victoria. Tennyson succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate. Later, after several refusals, he allowed himself to be created a baron, no longer Alfred Tennyson, but Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The Victorian romanticism of Tennyson’s poetry doesn’t always match modern tastes. The language and imagery can be florid. Ideals of military heroism are often romanticized. His poetry gives voice to an imperial culture trying to rediscover what is most noble within its own identity, while at other times it serves as a reminder to reconnect with the living world of nature. Through it all, like his “trances,” Tennyson’s poetry uncovers moments of stillness and transcendence and underlying unity… and with rhymes and turns of phrase that play endlessly through the mind.

More poetry by Alfred Tennyson

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Alfred Tennyson – The Higher Pantheism”

  1. franon 18 Aug 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Incredible photo, mystic and earthy. Thanks for the time energy and dedication in righting the poem’s meaning. I will need a 2nd peek later, regarding the Law and mask imagery. It relates to another work an African folk tale I am working with. peace

  2. sardarion 18 Aug 2010 at 2:52 pm

    thanks very much for your fantastic introduction of the beautiful poem and the great poet.
    special thanks to ivan for the restlessness.
    mohammad sardari

  3. Silvine Farnellon 18 Aug 2010 at 3:08 pm

    thank you for doing justice to Tennyson! His IN MEMORIAM meant so much to me at 15–my doubts expressed, and my longing strengthened for what I hoped would overcome them–a real experience. So many of the Victorians saw so deeply–even Kipling, believe it or not. My first introduction to Kabir and self-inquiry came in Kipling’s KIM, which is full of Kipling’s love for India.

  4. Larry Coonradton 18 Aug 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Thank you for the extensive background on Tennyson. It seems as if The Higher Pantheism encapsulates “our” eternal attempt to return to whence we came, or maybe never left except in our “post-dream” state. It’s images, visions, and illustrations only re-connect us to our own source. Well Done Mr. Tennyson. Thank you also Ivan for bringing us such a tasty delight.

  5. Anne-Marieon 19 Aug 2010 at 1:51 am

    Thank you Ivan for this poem.. It reminds me God presence in nature, not only in our hearts. The world is dark because our sins and comes to the light of reason on the way of purifying and simple path of faith where reason reaches its limit. I believe we can find the hands of God in every corner of this creation and still , this bound of beauty and wisdom is never totally embraced, as the immense power of love is yet more attractive on the way and more to be discovered

  6. simonbaghon 19 Aug 2010 at 3:47 am

    Hi Ivan,
    imagine all existing eggs in hatch together
    and ask the chicken in one about the other
    whatever that you think will be the answer
    is the same veil keeping you off the matter
    if you desire to see eggs and chickens right
    tear up your egg’s crust and walk into light
    now you die to depart from your blind insight
    you are dead but you witness your burial rite
    now on you assess A naught wholly the truth
    but will see yourself the naught’s beloved fruit
    the dept in ocean of truth that you can dive,
    never exceed the realm a bee flies out of hive
    the flight speed of mind no device can decide
    however the sweetheart still stays in the hide

  7. Dominicaon 19 Aug 2010 at 4:20 am

    When I have the time I enjoy reading poetry as I am a poet with images – see my photographs on website.
    thank you for your work,

  8. Kathy Stewarton 20 Aug 2010 at 6:34 am

    What a lovely chance to revisit Tennyson from a more mature and less constricted perspective. Your words added to the poem, helping me to go beyond the 11th grade rendition I’d carried all these years!!! (and they are many!) Thank you Ivan!!!
    Love, Kathy

  9. pitaon 03 Sep 2010 at 12:36 pm

    ‘…bent staff in a pool’, elementary physics and visual distortion across two planes; my mind is rippling yet from the immense depth of what Tennyson was getting at… For all our wisdom, we can ‘only see through a glass darkly’ as some mystic famously observed; Tennyson brings it all out of doors, it seems, and I can’t ever look at a reed in the village stream anymore with that casual lack of thought, feeling or insight. Simple. Sublime…

  10. Cardassiaon 02 Mar 2018 at 2:00 pm

    Such a beautiful tribute to my most favorite poet of all time. I first loved him with his poem Charge of the Light Brigade, so I always love it when someone else appreciates his tribute to the Romantics Period of poetry.

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