Record: 15
Title: `Red in tooth and claw.'
Subject(s): TENNYSON, Alfred Tennyson, Baron
Source: Natural History, Nov92, Vol. 101 Issue 11, p14, 7p, 1 cartoon
Author(s): Gould, Stephen Jay
Abstract: Claims that this essay was written in the year of Tennyson centenary to explain the actual context of a line in the poem `In Memoriam,' and then the horizons expanded. Background of Tennyson and the impetus of his writing; Influence of Darwin and Huxley; Champion of science; Excerpts and interpretations from the poem; Dealing with grief; Tennyson's biology view as evolutionary; Catastrophists--geological giants of his youth; Separation from moral and ethical quests.
AN: 9212212014
ISSN: 0028-0712
Note: This title is not held locally
Database: Academic Search Elite



Few scientists know of the thinking and pain behind the most overused one-liner in biology
If buttercups buzzed after the bee
If boats were on land, churches at sea
If ponies rode men and if grass ate
   the cows
If cats were chased into holes by
   the mouse...

"Then all the world would be upside down"--an apt description of his plight, or so Cornwallis undoubtedly thought when he instructed his pipers and drummers to play this ditty during his surrender to Washington at Yorktown (the Americans responded with "Yankee Doodle").

Such reversals of established order intrigue us for their challenge to our "safe" assumptions. I keep a file for biological examples--carnivorous plants, worms that eat frogs, marine phytoplankton (single-celled, photosynthetic forms) that release toxins to poison fish and then digest flecks of tissue dislodged from the dying vertebrates (see report in the July 30, 1992, issue of Nature). This month marks the hundredth anniversary of another curious reversal, sociological this time but from the heart of British science. The November 1892 edition of The Nineteenth Century, perhaps the leading British review of the time, published a series of tributes to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate who had died the month before. A memorial from Thomas Henry Huxley-- in verse--led the parade. This tribute has never won any prizes for rhyme or meter, but I still delight in the thought that Britain's leading scientist chose to honor Tennyson in the poet laureate's own medium. Huxley spoke of Tennyson's company in Westminster Abbey, undoubtedly evoking his old friend Darwin as exemplar of the last couplet:

And lay him gently down among
The men of state, the men of song;
The men who would not suffer wrong;
The thought-worn chieftains of the mind;
Head servants of the human kind.

But why did Huxley choose to memorialize Tennyson? They knew each other only slightly. Both belonged to the Metaphysical Society, an elite club of Victorian intellectuals, but Tennyson almost always remained silent at meetings. Tennyson liked Huxley, but recorded only two visits of the scientist to his home. Huxley resolves this riddle for us in a letter to the secretary of the Royal Society (Britain's leading association of scientists), urging that an official representative be sent to Tennyson's funeral. Huxley honored Tennyson from general respect, not personal friendship:

He was the only modern poet, in fact I think the only poet since the time of Lucretius, who has taken the trouble to understand the work and tendency of the men of science.

Even so, why should this series of columns, devoted to evolutionary subjects, choose the old device of a funerary centennial to honor Tennyson? His general interest in science will not suffice, especially in the light of other monumental events in 1892, equally worth memorializing: the election of Grover Cleveland, the birth of Haile Selassie, Monet's beginning of the Rouen Cathedral paintings, the pugilistic victory of Gentleman Jim Corbett over John L. Sullivan, and the composition and first performance of "Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay."

I choose Tennyson (and have, in fact, been looking forward to this excuse for several years) for a very definite and parochial reason. Many subjects have canonical descriptors, snippets of phrase that, in knee-jerk fashion, identify the item with all the immediacy of a psychiatrist's test in word association. If I say "the Georgia Peach," you will reply "Ty Cobb" (if you know anything about baseball). If I say "the Big Apple," you will reply "New York City" (if you know anything about anything). Darwinian evolution also has a canonical descriptor, this time, a snatch of poetry: "Nature, red in tooth and claw."

Every evolutionist knows the line. It slips out in lecture after lecture, article after article--even following that New Year's pledge never to quote the cliche again. Its parodies are also legion. My colleague Michael Ruse, for example, once subtitled a book about Darwin's intellectual struggles with his contemporaries: Science Red in Tooth and Claw.

Every evolutionist can cite the line (we would draw and quarter any impostor who couldn't); we all think that it describes a biological world reconfigured by evolutionary theory; nearly all of us know that it began as a line of poetry; most of us are aware that Tennyson is the source; I suspect half of us even know that it comes from In Memoriam; I'll bet a thousand bucks that fewer than one in a hundred of us have ever read the poem (and I stood among the ninety-nine until last week). Don't be too quick with your opprobrium. In Memoriam, after all, is not a Haiku with seventeen syllables, or a sonnet with fourteen lines. In Memoriam runs to 131 sections and more lines than I care to count (filling eighty pages in my edition). And these days, long Victorian poems are not high on the hit parade, even of most serious intellectuals. So, initially, I decided to write this essay in the year of Tennyson's centenary in order to discover for myself--and to convey to my colleagues and readers--the actual context of a line that we have repeated too often and without any background. As so often happens, the story became broader and more interesting as I probed.

Tennyson was born in 1809, the same year as Darwin. As an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, he met Arthur Hallam, handsome and brilliant son of the historian Henry Hallam. Their ardent friendship was clearly the key emotional experience of Tennyson's life. (I will not speculate on its nature, and the literature continues to maintain a discreet silence, largely for lack of evidence--for Hallam's father destroyed all his son's letters to Tennyson, while Tennyson's son later burned all Hallam's letters to his father. Arthur Hallam was engaged to Tennyson's sister at the time of his death, so complexity probably reigned, but if the intense bond between Arthur Hallam and Alfred Tennyson didn't have at least a repressed sexual basis, then...well, I'll be a monkey's uncle.)

On October 1, 1833, Tennyson received a letter from Henry Olden, Hallam's uncle, and his world collapsed:

Your friend, Sir, and my much loved nephew, Arthur Hallam, is no more--it has pleased God to remove him from this his first scene of Existence, to a better world, for which he was created. He died at Vienna on his return from Buda, by apoplexy--and I believe his Remains come by sea from Trieste.

Arthur Hallam was twenty-two years old when he died.

In Memoriam, published in 1850, is Tennyson's extensive tribute to this extraordinary friendship, and to the emotional, religious, and philosophical meaning of such loss. (Tennyson originally published anonymously--although his distinctive authorship didn't elude a soul in the know--under the full title In Memoriam A.H.H. Obit [died] MDCCCXXXIII.) The poem was an instant success and surely played a large role in Tennyson's appointment (following the death of Wordsworth) as poet laureate later in 1850. Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, especially liked the poem. After Albert's death in 1861, Victoria regarded In Memoriam as important solace in her extended grief. "Next to the Bible," she stated, "In Memoriam is my comfort." She even altered one of Tennyson's verses in her private copy, substituting "widow" for Tennyson's "widower" and "she" for "he"--so that the lines could be recast as mourning for Albert:

Tears of the widow, when she sees
  A late-lost form that sleep reveals,
  And moves her doubtful arms, and feels
His place is empty, fall like these.

Victoria requested (I think one says "commanded") a visit from Tennyson in 1862, and later wrote in her diary:

I went down to see Tennyson who is very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair and a beard--oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him. I told him how much I admired his glorious lines to my precious Albert and how much comfort I found in his In Memoriam.

With this background, we can grasp the setting for Tennyson's famous image of "Nature, red in tooth and claw." And we can understand why evolutionists have so misinterpreted the phrase as either a harbinger or a description of Darwin's world. First of all--and sorry to sound so defensive--the error is not entirely our fault. (The most basic of all facts can make evolutionists seem mighty stupid when they argue that Darwin's new formulation inspired Tennyson's line--for In Memoriam appeared in 1850, while Darwin kept his views close to his chest before publishing The Origin of Species in 1859.) A long tradition of literary criticism has read evolution into the biological passages of In Memoriam and the uniformitarian geology of Lyell into Tennyson's lines about the earth and its historical changes. Dutch historian of science Nicolaas A. Rupke presents an extensive list of such literary citations and writes (in his important book The Great Chain of History, Oxford University Press, 1983):

It has become customary to read in...In Memoriam not only organic evolution, but also the geology of...Lyell. Because the relevant sections were written...long before Darwin's Origin of Species...some literary critics have interpreted these passages as an anticipation of the theory of organic evolution by the intuitive genius of a poet, before the analytical mind of Darwin dared to arrive at the same conclusion. "How did the poet come to forestall the scientists in their own game?" one critic asks.

If In Memoriam is a grieving man's quest for peace, transcendence, renewed faith, resolution, acceptance, or whatever (all and more have been proposed), then what role does science play in this search--and remember that Tennyson was a champion of science, not an embodiment of the unjust (and probably nonexistent) stereotype of an affected, anti-technological, romantic poet. The scientific verses of In Memoriam are among the most famous, and critical commentary has always viewed them as essential to the narrator's quest in the poem.

Tennyson dismisses a silly argument about science, the kind of sophistry woven by such tormentors as Job's "comforters." How can any grieve so deeply in a world made so exciting by scientific advance:

"A time to sicken and to swoon,
 When Science reaches forth her arms
 To feel from world to world, and charms
Her secret from the latest moon?"

Tennyson replies with two affecting verses, also invoking an image from nature. How can you compare a happy generality with my private desolation:

Behold, ye speak an idle thing;
  Ye never knew the sacred dust.
 I do but sing because I must,
And pipe but as the linnets sing;

And one is glad; her note is gay,
  For now her little ones have ranged;
  And one is sad; her note is changed,
Because her brood is stolen away.

Tennyson's serious examination of nature as a possible source of solace occupies a crucial place in three consecutive sections (5456), just before the poem's midpoint. In section 54 (which I shall quote in full), Tennyson uses the first four verses to express a standard argument of the "natural theology" so popular in the generation just before his--that good must lie behind nature's apparent evil:

O, yet we trust that somehow good
   Will be the final goal of ill,
   To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
  That not one life shall be destroyed,
  Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
  That not a moth with vain desire
  Is shriveled in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

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.

Nicely said; but then, as a stunning reversal in the last verse, Tennyson labels this conventional belief a vain reverie:

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.

The narrator must now examine nature more honestly--as Tennyson does in section 55. In some of the poem's most famous lines, Tennyson expresses a theme that would be important to Darwin (although scarcely original with him), and that strikes the narrator as such a mockery in his grief: why does nature, while preserving stability of species, permit such a hecatomb of individual and untimely deaths:

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,

That I, considering everywhere
  Her secret meaning in her deeds,
  And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear.

Tennyson then looks to large scales for an answer. Perhaps the carnage of individuals (like Hallam) subserves a larger good over eons:

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.

But Tennyson is not optimistic; he has already labeled this solution as a "faint" hope. He then opens section 56 with my favorite lines of all, the geological verses of In Memoriam. Nature mocks his own observation in section 55 by showing that, in the fullness of time, even species must die. "All shall go," and momentary suffering supports no permanent stability:

"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 so, we finally come to "Nature, red in tooth and claw." One hope still remains: nature may savage individuals and eventually remove species, but does this carnage (however paradoxically) eventually lead to human nobility and the soul's immortality? Tennyson, in a long question spread through four verses, answers "no" and, invoking the famous image, even chides the narrator for imagining such a solution in the light of nature's factual rapacity:

      ...And he, shall he,
Man, her last work, who seemed so fair,
  Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
  Who rolled the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
  And love Creation's final law--
  Though Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed--

Who loved, who suffered countless ills,
  Who battled for the True, the Just,
  Be blown about the desert dust,
Or sealed within the iron hills?

Later in the poem, as the narrator resolves his grief, Tennyson does take comfort from the progressive pathway that he infers from geological history. "Contemplate all this work of Time" he states in beginning section 118. Perhaps the ancient dead are harbingers of better things to come: "But trust that those we call the dead/Are breathers of an ampler day/ For ever nobler ends." He then describes geological history--an earth that "in tracts of fluent heat began[...]Till at the last arose the man[...]The herald of a higher race." The section ends with a plea for human betterment:

  Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die.

(I assume he means the ape and tiger within us and that these lines are not pro-hunting propaganda!)

Tennyson ends In Memoriam (section 131) with a happy epithalamium (a fancy name for a marriage ode). He returns to the theme of historical progress and compares the growth of the child that will issue from this marriage with advance of the race: "And, moved through life of lower phase,/ Result in man, be born and think." This ray of comfort, drawn from nature at the very end of the poem, may strike us as hokey today, but I am inclined to respect any rationale invoked (however tenuously) to describe a gain of emotional peace by someone who has grieved so long and deeply. Tennyson argues that modern humans are in transition to some higher stage, that our current sufferings aid this progress, and that Hallam was a premature representative of these nobler beings:

No longer half-akin to brute,
  For all we thought and loved and did,
  And hoped, and suffered is but seed
Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man that with me trod
  This planet was a noble type
  Appearing ere the times were ripe,
That friend of mine who lives in God.

The sources of these "nature passages" have almost always been misconstrued because we remember and honor supposed "winners" and forget the scientists now branded as wrong. Tennyson's biology is almost always viewed as evolutionary and his geology as following Lyell's uniformity of slow and steady change. In fact, as Rupke shows so well (and as should be clear to anyone who reads In Memoriam with adequate knowledge of British nineteenth-century geology), both facets of Tennyson's natural history derive from a single and different source--the progressivist and catastrophist geology that represented the main line of early nineteenth century thought (and that Tennyson had studied at Cambridge under his tutor, the great philosopher of science William Whewell, who knew and supported the catastrophists, and who even coined their name.)

The catastrophists--Buckland, Sedgwick, Conybeare, and others--although not generally remembered today, were the geological giants of Tennyson's youth. They argued for a nonevolutionary, directional history based on successive creations of increasing excellence, separated by catastrophic episodes of extinction. Tennyson often cites them directly. Section 118 describes the origin of the earth by the nebular hypothesis (coalescence from rings of hot gases spun off from the sun), a central idea for catastrophists (as a starting point for life's progressive history, keyed to the earth's cooling), but denied by Lyell, who advocated a climatic steady state--"in tracts of fluent heat began," Tennyson writes. The famous lines about extinction ("from scarpd cliff[...]all shall go") are descriptions of catastrophic episodes. Later in section 56, Tennyson even cites the favorite case-study of catastrophists, the Mesozoic "sea-monsters" (ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs): "Dragons of the prime,/ That tare each other in their slime."

In this light, we have no reason to regard Tennyson as an incipient evolutionist because he speaks so often about progress in life's history, for advance by successive creation was a hallmark of catastrophist geology. Tennyson may have been favorable to some form of evolutionary thinking--a subject widely discussed in the years before Darwin's Origin. He presumably imagined human spiritual progress as gradual and uninterrupted. But the biological and geological passages of In Memoriam record the progressivist catastrophism of his time, not the evolutionary theory of Darwin's world to come.

An old cliche proclaims that each generation reads great works of literature in a different and distinctive way, and that a primary sign of greatness lies in the intrinsic richness that permits so many changing interpretations. Tennyson's contemporaries read In Memoriam as a great religious poem, an odyssey in the rediscovery of faith, following deep grief and doubt born of a senseless and untimely death. The great liberal theologian Charles Kingsley, good friend of Huxley and author of Water Babies and Westward Ho!, wrote a major review of In Memoriam (Fraser's Magazine, September 1850). He called Tennyson a "willing and deliberate champion of vital Christianity," and labeled In Memoriam "the noblest Christian poem which England has produced for two centuries[...][expressing] an orthodoxy the more sincere because it has worked upward through the abyss of doubt."

In his 1936 essay on In Memoriam, T.S. Eliot takes an almost opposite position. Tennyson, he says, "had the finest ear of any English poet since Milton." Eliot acknowledges the usual Victorian reading: "Tennyson's contemporaries[...]regarded it as a message of hope and reassurance to their rather fading Christian faith." But Eliot then demurs and supports the religious character of the poem from an inverted, modern perspective:

In Memoriam can, I think, justly be called a religious poem, but for another reason than that which made it seem religious to his contemporaries. It is not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt. Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.[...] Tennyson seems to have reached the end of his spiritual development with In Memoriam; there followed no reconciliation, no resolution.

As a totally naiive reader, I experienced the poem differently again, and in an unoriginal manner that will probably be viewed as stereotypical for this generation. I find it hard to discern any consistent intellectual or philosophical answer to the key issue of Hallam's death and its meaning. The poem is full of contradictions and nonresolutions--as in Tennyson's shifting use of historical progress (dismissal as solace early in the poem; acceptance as subsidiary comfort at the end, when he views Hallam as a harbinger of higher stages).

I read the poem instead, and with an intensity that brought me to tears in places, as a wonderful and deeply truthful account of the psychology of mourning. You are devastated by an event that cannot be explained or reconciled: the love of your life is lost so young. Fundamentally, the primary thing you must do is wait--wait while the long process of emotional healing, something deeply constitutional within us I suspect, plays out its long course of years. If you succeed, and do not sink permanently into despair, you eventually reconstruct your life. You find no answers, but you do accept because you must, and you move on. To me, In Memoriam is an odyssey in the working out of extended grief. I am awestruck all the more because Tennyson composed the verses in haphazard fashion over seventeen years, yet the sequence of 131 sections rings so true as a chronological account of grieving. How could Tennyson remember and capture the sequence so beautifully? How could he integrate the swirling and swinging moods: the anger, the despair, the emptiness, the search for answers, the exultation of temporary resolution ("Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky" of section 106), the renewed despondency, the final acceptance without real answers?

Above all, I admire Tennyson's treatment of the relationship between science and human values--for I believe that his answer is entirely right, and just as important (if not more so) in our times. The narrator of In Memoriam probes several sources for answers to his quest for meaning--science prominently among them. He presents several characterizations of nature, some contradictory--red in tooth and claw, a domain of death for all species, a realm of steady progress through history. And he rejects them all as potential resolutions of his ethical and emotional quest.

On one obvious level, the narrator must reject science or any source of objective information--for how can any exterior knowledge extinguish the primal pain of personal grief? But Tennyson goes further and argues that, in principle, science cannot provide answers for moral questions about life's meaning. As a champion of science, not a detractor sniping from another profession, Tennyson lauds its power to build a global network of railroads, feed nations, answer empirical riddles of the universe--but he knows that science cannot tell us why a man should die so young or how a grieving lover should resolve his suffering.

Tennyson consistently held this position on the separateness of scientific and moral knowledge. He stated (as reported by his son whom, to add a footnote to the poignancy of this story, he named Hallam):

We do not get this faith from Nature or the world. If we look at Nature alone, full of perfection and imperfection, she tells us that God is disease, murder and rapine. We get this faith from ourselves, from what is highest within us.

In Memoriam features the same sentiments. Early in the poem, in section 3, Tennyson considers and rejects nature as a source of moral instruction ("my natural good"):

And shall I take a thing so blind,
  Embrace her as my natural good;
  Or crush her, like a vice of blood,
Upon the threshold of the mind?

Later on, in section 120, he refutes the idea that our essence is nothing but our material self: "I think we are not wholly brain, Magnetic mockeries." In a wonderful couplet, Tennyson allows that science might establish a material basis, but still would not speak to our moral struggles:

Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men.

Setting forth the proper logic of a question does not guarantee an answer. I accept Tennyson's separation of scientific from moral and ethical quests; but few of us these days would be satisfied with Tennyson's particular answer, especially for resolving his grief at Hallam's death. Tennyson, by his own statements and all his friends' memories, was obsessed with the issue of personal identity for the soul after death. Following one of his few long talks with Tennyson, Huxley remarked that "immortality was the one dogma to which Tennyson was passionately devoted." And Tennyson himself stated: "The cardinal point of Christianity is the Life after Death." Thus, insofar as In Memoriam reaches a moral conclusion at all, Tennyson celebrates his voyage from religious doubt to confidence that he will meet Hallam again in heaven--a resolution that strikes most modern readers as lame after so much struggle.

My own dim life should teach me this,
  That life shall live for evermore,
  Else earth is darkness at the core,
And dust and ashes all that is.

Immortality, moreover, must be personal. The fusion of Hallam's soul into a glob of general good is not enough:

  And I shall know him when we meet;
  And we shall sit at endless feast,
Enjoying each the other's good.

But the particular character of Tennyson's personal solution doesn't vitiate the principle that answers to questions about ethical meaning cannot come from science. Tennyson, in fact, revered both sources and knew that "the good life"--a cliched phrase perhaps, but do we not all seek it?--required their successful integration. Two separate sources; Huxley's world and Tennyson's. (Huxley, by the way, took the same position on the separate and equally necessary contributions of science and ethics to a reasoned life-- see his famous essay Evolution and Ethics, often quoted in these columns.) Tennyson called these two sources knowledge and reverence, personified as mind and soul. And he spoke of their union with a metaphor from the discipline that owns "harmony" as a technical concept:

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
  But more of reverence in us dwell;
  That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music, as before.


By Stephen Jay Gould

Steven Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University.

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Source: Natural History, Nov92, Vol. 101 Issue 11, p14, 7p, 1 cartoon.
Item Number: 9212212014