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A Short Analysis of Tennyson’s ‘Nature Red in Tooth and Claw’ Poem

‘So careful of the type?’ A brief summary of Tennyson’s In Memoriam LVI

The so-called ‘dinosaur cantos’ or ‘dinosaur sections’ from Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s long poem In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850) are among the most popular cantos from this elegy for Tennyson’s friend, Arthur Hallam, who had died suddenly in 1833. Hallam’s death had a profound effect on the young Tennyson, and close contextual analysis shows that many of his most celebrated poems were inspired, whether directly or indirectly, by this early tragedy. The stanzas below, comprising Canto LVI of In Memoriam, meditate on Tennyson’s personal loss by reflecting on the scientific discoveries of the day, and feature his famous description of Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’:

‘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.

O 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.

Throughout the whole of In Memoriam Tennyson explores his own grief at his friend’s death, eventually moving towards acceptance when he comes to the conclusion that he and Arthur will be reunited in heaven later on. But what makes this a great poem – in many ways Tennyson’s masterpiece – is the way that he transmutes a private and Dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Parkpersonal grief into a universal response to death, the afterlife, and the nature of faith in the Victorian era. After the discoveries of Charles Lyell, and other geologists, discoveries which undermined the literal truth of the Bible, could one retain one’s faith in Christianity? (This is something that Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ would also explore a few years later.)

The above ‘dinosaur canto’ is often viewed as a response to Darwin’s theory of evolution; this is incorrect, as Tennyson’s poem was published in 1850 and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was only published in 1859. In actual fact, Tennyson is reflecting the geological theory (which Tennyson had picked up while at university) known as Catastrophism, which maintained that the fossil record was the result of short, sudden, and violent disasters that occurred between longer, steady periods.

The question with which the canto begins – ‘So careful of the type?’ – picks up on a statement made by Tennyson earlier in the poem, that Nature seems to care for the species as a whole, but not for the individual within the species. Nature had seen fit to take Arthur Hallam in his prime; Nature cares little, then, for the individual or ‘single life’ within the species.

But in this later canto, Tennyson questions that previous assessment. Nature doesn’t care for the individual but nor does ‘she’ care for the species. How can she, when geology has shown that so many earlier species have gone extinct? ‘A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go.’ Nature is a world of strife and conflict and violence – ‘red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson memorably puts it (the first use of this famous expression). This certainly prefigures the Darwinian view of nature, but Tennyson had learnt of nature’s brutality from geology, rather than evolution.

So, the poem asks, is this man’s fate, too? To follow the dinosaur and the woolly mammoth to extinction? But this seems worse than contemplating the fate of other creatures:

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.

It’s one thing for insensible animals to go extinct (as W. B. Yeats wrote, ‘Nor dread nor hope attend / A dying animal … / Man has created death’), but quite another thing for mankind, who is aware of what it is to live and die, and who has tried his best to please and placate God by praying to him and building churches and temples in his honour, to be allowed to die off.

The dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures referred to in the lines ‘Dragons of the prime, / That tare each other in their slime’ were relatively new discoveries: the word dinosaur had only been coined nine years earlier, in 1841, and writers were keen to seize upon them as symbols for the relatively new scientific fields of geology and palaeontology. Note Tennyson’s use of the word ‘tare’ here, by the way – an archaic or obsolete form of ‘tore’, denoting the brutal competition between the animals. T. S. Eliot once praised Tennyson for writing (in his poem ‘Mariana’), ‘the blue fly sung in the pane’ rather than sang: the latter would be more grammatically correct, but doesn’t convey the flat, muted onomatopoeic buzz of the fly in the same way as sung can. Here we have a similar piece of genius: tare, in being an old-fashioned form of tore, conveys the remoteness of the dinosaurs’ lives from our own. They are not simply part of history; they are prehistory. Tare conveys this in a way that tore cannot. But tare also sounds, when spoken aloud, exactly the same as the present-tense tear (as in to tear something apart), thus also conveying the fact that these prehistoric animals are only now coming to light. Tennyson can make a little word do a great deal like this.

The final stanza, however, says that life may not be futile if man looks ‘behind the veil’ – a suggestion of the ‘revelation’ of Christianity. Tellingly, referring to the ending of the poem where his Christian faith is restored, Tennyson later said, ‘It’s too hopeful, this poem – more than I am myself.’ But this is the message that Tennyson publicly promoted at the end of In Memoriam as a whole: one can find hope in the face of such bleak facts by embracing Christianity.

When Tennyson died in 1892, a magazine called The Nineteenth Century printed a series of tributes to the poet. The tribute – written in verse – which led all the rest was by perhaps the man who was then the greatest living English scientist, T. H. Huxley, a man known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ for his tenacious and fierce defence, and promotion, of the theory of evolution. So this is quite some poet, who can provoke a leading scientist to pen a poetic tribute to him. Canto LVI of In Memoriam displays exactly why Tennyson was worthy of such a tribute.

Continue your discovery of classic Victorian poetry with this analysis of a classic Gerard Manley Hopkins poem and this popular Thomas Hardy poem, which shares some similarities with Tennyson’s poem.

Image: Dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park, by Peter Jordan; via geograph.org.uk.

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Posted on January 1, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The poem is brilliant, and I thank you for your excellent review of it. Tennyson asks the questions we all still do. I love the way the poet answers his own doubt and fear in his incredible verse.

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