"Our Little Systems Have Their Day": Tennyson's Poetic Treatment of Science

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Shearer, Emily Carroll
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Middle Tennessee State University
Cultural studies approaches identify all texts as arising from cultural contexts, and as such inform the methodology of this study of Tennyson's poetry as mediating conflicting truth claims by aesthetic and spiritual spheres and materialist and empirical spheres of thought. John McGowan's description of modernity suggests a way of reading Tennyson's poetry as evidence of his involvement in an ongoing discussion involving competing claims to totality by these epistemologies. Tennyson was from early days interested in science, keeping abreast of current thought at Cambridge, and being elected to the Royal Society. While critics often see aspects of Tennyson's work as the complaints of an increasingly pessimistic, personally disappointed old man, this study suggests that his poems instead display his engagement with major epistemological issues in which he and others express distrust of the totalizing claims of science and materialism.
This dissertation analyses poems written during various points in his career that deal with these issues. Chapter 1 discusses historical and cultural contexts of Tennyson's poems. Chapter 2 analyzes "The Palace of Art," an early poem, as displaying his concerns with astronomy and its implications regarding creationist accounts of the cosmos in terms associated with the great chain of being metaphor and its principles of unity and perfection. It also reflects concerns with the second law of thermodynamics regarding its theories of entropy and death. Chapter 3 analyzes In Memoriam as it addresses natural evolution in terms of what Darwin would later term "survival of the fittest" and in which Tennyson ultimately reaffirms the immortality of the soul in evolutionary terms. Chapter 4 examines "Locksley Hall" and "Locksley Hall Sixty Years Later," written forty years apart, and their reflections of Tennyson's adaptations of evolutionary theory to account for what the later poem marks as increasing cultural decay. Finally, Chapter 5 analyzes "The Higher Pantheism," "Parnassus," and "By an Evolutionist" as late poems that reveal persistent attempts to validate the aesthetic and spiritual as necessary contexts for understanding experience as illuminated by science.
Aesthetics, Empiricism, History of science, Spirituality, Tennyson, Victorian poetry