Even before the deaths of my parents, I was fascinated by the struggle of faith and doubt in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., a collection of elegiac lyrics in which the poet chronicles his reactions to the sudden death of his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. Like several of my other favorite works, including Paradise Lost and Blake’s “The Tyger”, the poem explores questions of faith in the matter of theodicy. Even now, 160 years later, Tennyson’s crisis of faith is affecting, even contemporary.
Part of that is because in Tennyson’s era, scientific discoveries, especially in the realms of geology and zoology, affected people perhaps even more profoundly than the work of Copernicus and Kepler centuries earlier. From a practical standpoint, it may make little difference to us whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa. We’re mainly concerned with the apparent rising and setting. However, there’s a serious existential crisis in the gap between the notion of being a special creation in the image of God and being just another animal, a bag of meat with delusions of grandeur. How we reconcile (or fail to reconcile) those ideas is perhaps the central question in our lives — a point Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit knew as well. It will determine how we live our lives, how we treat ourselves and others.
Thus, the challenge to faith represented in Tennyson’s work remains vital today. Although I’m a little late to this particular party, I’d like to recommend A.N. Wilson’s article on In Memoriam that ran a couple of months ago in The Guardian. It’s not terribly long, and it’s certainly worth your time.