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“The Thews of Anakim”: Postulations of the Superhuman in Tennyson’s Poetry


ISSUE:  Autumn 1983

Most men and women, whether or not they give serious thought to the matter, wish in various ways to transcend the limitation of their humanity. As Browning’s Cleon says, “Life’s inadequate to joy, / As the soul sees joy.” Like the caged skylark in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem by that name, the spirit, imprisoned in the ribs of the human body often in fits of “fear or rage” seeks to burst its barriers. Man, recognizing that he is bound by the human predicament—the necessity of change and death— nevertheless aspires to be more than human—to be in physical prowess or beauty a superior creature, to penetrate the mystery of his origin and destiny, to attain freedom from the restraints of mortality, to reach union with the ultimate power of the universe, whether revered as God or designated by another name—in short, to become superhuman.

As the quotations from Browning and Hopkins suggest, the poet is likely to feel more intensely than ordinary mortals the constraints of the human condition and to long more fiercely than his fellow men and women to escape them. No English poet exceeds Alfred Tennyson as an exemplar of this characteristic—what with him might be called a continuing crisis of the spirit. His earliest writings through his last volume, published two months after his death at 83, reveal his constant engagement with questions of man’s individual self-fulfillment and of the potential perfectibility of human beings as a race. There are noticeable constants throughout Tennyson’s literary career in the means by which he gains access to the superhuman—notably through mystical vision, prophecy, and dreams. Yet when we look at his canon, we discern a distinct process of development in his way of resolving his crisis—just as we might expect, since a great poet must grow and mature both emotionally and intellectually, as well as in poetic power. And for Tennyson a paradoxical perception emerges—that man ineluctably must endeavor to lift himself in the ethical and spiritual plane, must try to be greater than himself, must seek to be superhuman, if you will, but that he can do so only by striving to be truly human and not by seeking to escape his humanity and to be a god.

In one of Tennyson’s earliest poems, “Armageddon,” begun at age 15, expanded at 18, and incorporated at 19 into “Timbuctoo,” with which he won the Chancellor’s Medal for poetry as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he undertook his poetic search for the superhuman. Following in the visionary and prophetic tradition of his immediate predecessors, the Romantic poets, of Milton, and of the book of Revelation, where Armageddon is to be the great, decisive battlefield between the forces of God and the anti-Christ, the poet, standing upon a mountain overlooking “the valley of destruction” starts by thanking Prophecy for having “removed / The cloud that from” his “mortal faculties” barred knowledge of the future. The sun sinks in the West, and the lurid light of the moon that is rising in the East discloses strange and horrible shapes. There is a dissonance as well as a confusion of sounds and voices. A “breathless stillness” ensues; and in “the hot and feverish night” of “windless calm,” he observes on one hand the silver tents of the myriad forces of the Lord and on the other a “suite of dark pavilions,” the central one of which displays under its banner a black serpent, coiled and swaying about the flagstaff. A young seraph descends from above, addresses the poet as “Son of Man”—one whose “sense is clogged with dull Mortality” and whose “spirit [is] fettered with the bond of clay,” and commands him, “Open thine eyes and see!” These words describe his response:

I felt my soul grow godlike, and my spirit
With supernatural excitation bound
Within me, and my mental eye grew large
With such vast circumference of thought,
That, in my vanity, I seemed to stand
Upon the outward verge and bound alone
Of God’s omniscience.

He gains a penetrating sight of activities on earth, of the cities of the moon, and of “Life in distant worlds,” and his self-revelation continues as follows:

My mind seemed winged with knowledge and the strength
Of holy musings and immense Ideas,
Even to Infinitude. All sense of Time
And Being and Place was swallowed up and lost
Within a victory of boundless thought.
I was a part of the Unchangeable,
A scintillation of Eternal Mind,
Remixed and burning with its parent fire.
Yea! in that hour I could have fallen down
Before my own strong soul and worshipped it.

Although the poem ends on its original note of something yet about to be, without the cataclysmic battle’s ever having been joined, in the last six lines the poet apprehends

An indefinable pulsation
Inaudible to outward sense, but felt
Through the deep heart of every living thing,
As if the great soul of the Universe
Heaved with tumultuous throbbings on the vast
Suspense of some grand issue.

Manifestly, these quotations portray the poet’s role as one of prophet and visionary, uniquely invested with the power to view and record what no man heretofore has seen, one privileged to be superhuman in his perspective and in his freedom from the constraints of time, place, and personal being. Scintillating with sparks of the Eternal Mind, he feels the vital pulsings of a unified and indestructible universe. If there admittedly is vanity in a self-consciousness so intense with godlike exaltation that the poet can conceive of falling down before his own soul and worshiping it, the implication is not entirely pejorative; for as the seraph asserts, the spirit in man is “deathless as its God’s own life” and thus shares a primary attribute of God. The soul, Tennyson repeatedly insists in his poetry, is the divine quality in man and woman and is worthy of reverence. The soul, which distinguishes human beings from the beasts and links them with God, defines humanity. Man (in the generic sense) is the nexus of the physical and spiritual worlds. He may, as In Memoriam and The Idylls of the King, set forth, move upward, and become an increasingly spiritual and ethical being or reel backward into bestiality.

II

After the self-adulatory and grandiose foray into the super-human of “Armageddon,” Tennyson in a number of poems, first written or published from 1832 to 1842 (predominantly dramatic monologues or what Ralph Rader has called mask lyrics), explores through myth, allegory, and symbolism the mortal wish to dissociate one’s self from one’s fellow creatures and to elude the human predicament by consorting with or assuming the place of a god. No matter how promising the prospect is, however, such attempts in some way always fall short of fulfillment and frequently, because of pride and selfishness, lead to disaster. Even where the resolution of a poem may be subject to various thematic interpretations, Tennyson manages to raise some doubt as to the adequacy of any superhuman outcome. Consider, for example, “Tiresias,” “Semele,” “Ulysses,” “Oenone,” and “Tithonus.”

Tiresia’s search for a sight of the supreme and all-powerful god—”that more than man / Which rolls the heavens, and lifts, and lays the deep”—is what leads to his inadvertent discovery of Pallas Athene just leaving her bath in a mountain pool and to his consequent blinding. Although she compensates him with the gift of prophecy, thus making him more than human, he must endure the accompanying curse that people disbelieve and disregard his foreknowledge.

The mortal Semele, who insists upon seeing Zeus, her lover, in his form as the god of lightning, gets burned to ashes. In Tennyson’s poem she describes the coming of Zeus in a “blast of Godhead,” accepts the fate that she has brought upon herself, and takes solace in the fact that her offspring by the Olympian will himself be Dionysus, the god of wine. Nevertheless, her anticipatory description of his leading “troops of clamorous revellers. . ./ Rioting, triumphing / Bacchanalians,” makes his divinity at best seem a mixed blessing; and his followers, aping his attributes, are self-destructive as to the higher qualities of mankind.

Tennyson’s Ulysses, a man who prides himelf upon being one “who strove with Gods,” finds no satisfaction in the life of ordinary kingship and leaves Ithaca in search of further adventure. The courage of the old man in setting to sea again and facing an unknown destiny is admirable—

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

And Ulysses may represent, as Tennyson said, his own feeling “after Arthur Hallam’s death . . .about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life.” But in undertaking to revive a heroic and partially superhuman past, Ulysses does so at the expense of his “common duties”; and he leaves his son Telemachus to improve the generality of humankind—

              to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

In Tennyson’s “Oenone,” Paris, by judging the beauty of the three goddesses and by deciding for Aphrodite over Hera and Pallas Athene, not only turns Oenone’s love for him into hate and invites his eventual death by the arrow of Philoctetes but also brings about the destruction of Troy.

Of all these early mythological poems, “Tithonus,” which Tennyson called a pendant to “Ulysses,” is the one that most directly exemplifies the dangers of man’s aspiring to the superhuman. Tithonus was the lover of Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Seeming to himself to be “none other than a God,” he asked her for immortality, which she granted; but he failed to stipulate eternal youth as well. While Eos, like the dawn, renews her beauty daily, he himself ages continuously. Thus he has become a pathetically decrepit old man, who recognizes his own responsibility for his plight. Now he laments,

Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

Imploring Eos to release him and restore him to the ground, he longs once more to be one of those “happy men that have the power to die.”

In “The Palace of Art” Tennyson allegorically expatiates upon the thematic burden of “Tithonus.” The soul, after occupying her palace built on a crag and delighting in all the objects of art with which it is filled, takes supreme pleasure in her superiority to ordinary humans, who live a life of brutes, and in her superhuman separation that distances her from them. Triumph over death, through resurrection and immortality, she takes for granted:

“O God-like isolation which art mine,
 I can but count thee perfect gain,
What time I watch the darkening droves of swine
 That range on yonder plain.

In filthy sloughs they roll a prurient skin,
 They graze and wallow, breed and sleep;
And oft some brainless devil enters in,
 And drives them to the deep.”

Then of the moral instinct would she prate
 And of the rising from the dead,
As hers by right of full-accomplished Fate;
 And at the last she said:

“I take possession of men’s mind and deed.
 I care not what the sects may brawl.
I sit as God holding no form of creed,
 But contemplating all.”

Her artistic and intellectual pride, however, is insufficient to sustain such bravado. She falls into deep despair; the isolation of which she formerly boasted torments her into howling anguish, Leaving her mountain height, she must seek humility and human association in “A cottage in the vale”; and acknowledging her guilt, she hopes eventually to return to the palace to share its beauties with other people. Clearly, to try to become a god and to deny one’s kinship with humanity is not the way to the superhuman. Direct efforts to break the bonds of mortality end in misfortune or catastrophe; and the avenue to the divine—which “The Lady of Shalott,” one of Tennyson’s finest poems, shows—leads through the human and temporal.

III

The Lady at the beginning of the poem, like the soul in “The Palace of Art,” is dwelling in absolute isolation from humanity within “four gray walls and four gray towers” on an island in a river. There she weaves in a tapestry endlessly mirrored reflections of the human activity on the road running along the riverbank. A spectator, rather than a participant in life, she exists outside time as well. So completely is she cut off from other beings that she seems to be a preternatural creature; and the reapers, hearing her echoing song in the moonlit dusk of evening, whisper to each other, “ ‘Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott.”” She is without human sympathy or love—”She hath no loyal knight and true,” and death has no meaning for her other than an aesthetic one of delight in reproducing in her tapestry the funerals that “often through the silent nights /. . .with plumes and lights / And music, went to Camelot.” Lancelot’s brilliant advent in her mirror, however, galvanizes her will to leave her shadowy and illusory world, to face death if necessary, and to become truly human. As I have written recently in Victorian Poetry, “ In the traditional symbolism of the mirror, it is a folk belief that the soul is projected out of a person in his or her reflection in a mirror”; and when Lancelot “flashed into the crystal mirror,” there is a suggestion of an instantaneous conjunction of spirits with each other and with love, which for Tennyson is God.

The curse, which comes upon the Lady as a consequence of her looking directly at Lancelot and to Camelot, is that of God upon Adam and Eve—of pain and death—which she must now endure by electing to become human. Although denied reciprocated love in this world, she seems to undergo the self-sacrifice and redemption of Christian love. By looking

. . . down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance,
With a glassy countenance,

she attains, like the mystic and the poet in Tennyson’s two early poems by those names, prophetic vision into ultimate reality. She grasps behind phenomena the truth of which Tennyson himself was certain—the reality of the unseen. “Depend upon it,” he is quoted as saying in his son’s Memoir, “ the Spiritual is the real.” By loosing the chain of the boat and descending the river that flows to Camelot and the sea, symbolically, she frees herself from her former bondage to illusion and willingly enters time, moving toward eternity, which the sea signifies. The inevitability of death, she accepts as a mysterious aspect of the human condition. Her song, chanted like religious worship, issues as a triumphant “carol,” a hymn of joy and praise, that is traditionally associated with the birth of Christ, who is the representation of hope and eternal life. While the Christian message is muted and not insisted upon, it resides in the symbolism of the Red Cross Knight on Lancelot’s shield, in the knights at Camelot crossing themselves “for fear,” and in Lancelot’s valedictory prayer of intercession— “”God in his mercy lend her grace.”” The implication is that this plea for grace— God’s gift of unmerited spiritual regeneration and illumination through divine love—will be answered affirmatively and that the Lady has achieved the victory of love over death.

Tennyson derived his conception of the centrality of love from the first epistle of St. John; “He that loveth not knoweth not God: for God is love.” Becoming human, accepting the temporal, and experiencing love enable the Lady to gain eternity and union with the divine. In Tennyson’s metaphysics, then, unselfish love, the spiritual force undergirding the universe, overcomes time and death; and as his career progresses, he frequently treats love, time, and death in his poetic postulations of mankind’s potential for elevating itself to the superhuman.

The canonical version of “The Lady of Shalott” (revised extensively from the text of 1832) appeared in Poems (1842); and in Tennyson’s next publication, The Princess (1847), his first completed attempt at an extended narrative poem, he returns to the theme of human betterment. Having had his own thinking reinforced by the lessons of Charles Lyell’s Geology and Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, however, he adds a new dimension to his hopes for the superhuman—an evolutionary one. The Princess, in justly undertaking to raise the moral and intellectual condition of women, segregates herself and her followers from men (male interlopers to the women’s college are condemned to death), and she would herself be superhuman. As usual in Tennyson’s poetry, she must supplant misguided pride with humility and love. Nevertheless, her genuine qualities of greatness of mind and spirit, joined with those of the Prince, who by the end of the poem has enhanced the attributes of his own manhood, offer the prospect of an ideal union. Married, they will be a couple who, in the Prince’s words, will

          . . . upon the skirts of Time,
Sit side by side, full-summed in all their powers,
Dispensing harvest, sowing the To-be. . . .
Then comes the statelier Eden back to men;
Then reign the world’s great bridals, chaste and calm;
Then springs the crowning race of humankind.

Although the Prince and Princess are prototypes, Tennyson here considers the elevation of the race to be a matter for the ages and one that requires faith; for in the poet’s words in the conclusion,

This fine old world of ours is but a child
Yet in the go-cart. Patience! give it time
To learn its limbs: there is a hand that guides.”

IV

In Memoriam (1850), though much of it was written before The Princess, reveals a further development of Tennyson’s ideas and is a locus classicus of his postulations concerning the superhuman and the divine. His beloved college mate, Arthur Henry Hallam, in noble attributes born before his time, appears as a forerunner of the way the human race can evolve through suffering and love to a spirituality that conforms to that of the Godhead. Time is essential to this eventuality; but whereas in The Princess Tennyson presents such development as inevitably occurring without interruption, the speaker of In Memoriam recognizes that in the progress of the race to ethically higher states there will be setbacks:

No doubt vast eddies in the flood
 Of onward time shall yet be made,
 And throned races may degrade. . .

Yet he believes that “mysteries of good” will still be at work and declares, “I see in part / That all, as in some piece of art, / Is toil coöperant to an end.”

Moreover, the spiritual enhancement of humanity is not simply a matter of determinism to be left to chance and to faith in a teleological universe. There is a place for individual effort, and every person can become

 The herald of a higher race
 And of himself in higher place,
If so he type this work of time

Within himself. . . .

In other words, if the individual reproduces within himself the refining struggle that time enacts for the race, he can aid human advancement and can himself, “Move upward, working out the beast, / And let the ape and tiger die.” As in biblical typology Adam in the Old Testament prefigures Christ of the New Testament, each individual has the potential to be the type of the crowning race.

In Memoriam trusts in the eventual purification of the race, in its finally reaching a stage that compared to man at present is superhuman. This trust stems, of course, not from Christian revelation (though the poem is hospitable to resonances of Christianity) but from something else. One silent summer night on the lawn of the Rectory at Somersby the speaker reads to himself by lamplight the letters that his friend had written to him. Lyric XCV in In Memoriam expresses his sense of an elevation of his spirit to an illuminating union with the soul of Hallam and with the world-soul:

So word by word, and line by line,
 The dead man touched me from the past,
 And all at once it seemed at last
The living soul was flashed on mine,

And mine in this was wound, and whirled
 About empyreal heights of thought,
 And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world,

Aeionian music measuring out
 The steps of Time—the shocks of Chance—
 The blows of Death. . . .

This visionary penetration into ultimate reality, though it lasts only briefly, finds confirmation in the dream in lyric GUI, which occurred on the night before the Tennysons left the poet’s childhood home in Lincolnshire for a new residence at High Beech, near London. In the dream the speaker dwells beside a river in a hall that rings with maidens singing “of what is wise and good / And graceful.” He receives, by a dove that flies in at the open window, “a summons from the sea.” The maidens, forms of the muses, who according to Tennyson represent “human powers, talents, and hopes”— that is, the artistic, cultural, and moral values of life, lament that he must go; but they accompany him, descending from the hall to the bank of the stream. There he and they, like the Lady of Shalott, enter a shallop and glide down the river, with the maidens in full song. These words describe this journey by water:

And still as vaster grew the shore
 And rolled the floods in grander space,
 The maidens gathered strength and grace
And presence, lordlier than before;

And I myself, who sat apart
 And watched them, waxed in every limb;
 I felt the thews of Anakim,
The pulses of a Titan’s heart;

As one would sing the death of war,
 And one would chant the history
 Of that great race, which is to be. . . .

A reunion with Hallam aboard a ship that receives both the speaker and the maidens and that sails into the deep, the sea of eternity, concludes the dream.

Observe the way in which this dream authenticates the poem’s intimations of superhumanness. Anakim were giants in the Bible, who inhabited part of the land of Canaan. According to the spies (except for Caleb and Joshua) whom Moses sent to reconnoiter the land, Anakim were terrifying in size; and in comparison to them, ordinary men seemed like “grasshoppers.” Thews are muscles and sinews and represent strength and resolution. Titans were, of course, the early Greek gods, who ruled before the Olympian deities overthrew them. Thus by drawing upon both the Hebraic and the Hellenistic traditions, Tennyson through his imagery prophetically endows mankind with a future potential for vastly increased powers—physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

The epilogue to In Memoriam, based upon the marriage of Tennyson’s younger sister Cecilia to Edmund Lushington, a devoted friend of the poet from their days at Cambridge, imagines a child born of this union as symbolic of a scientific and spiritual progression to the superhuman:

 A soul shall draw from out the vast
And strike his being into bounds,

And, moved through life of lower phase,
 Result in man, be born and think,
 And act and love, a closer link
Betwixt us and the crowning race

Of those that, eye to eye, shall look
 On knowledge; under whose command
 Is Earth and Earth’s, and in their hand
Is Nature like an open book;

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. . . .

V

The Idylls of the King, what Mrs. Kathleen Tillotson has called Tennyson’s “serial poem,” initiated with “Morte d’Arthur” in 1842 and finally concluded in twelve books in 1885, illustrates the poet’s conception of the cyclical and reversionary nature of human progress. King Arthur, who stands for the soul or spirit, so inspires his knights, who are the passions, that together they turn chaos into cosmos. They create out of lawlessness and savagery a just, orderly, and civilized society. Moral weaknesses, however, as well as assaults from without, eventually undermine and destroy it. The zones of sculpture around Arthur’s hall figuratively speak of humanity’s aspirations for perfection and exaltation:

. . . in the lowest beasts are slaying men,
And in the second men are slaying beasts,
And in the third are warriors, perfect men,
And in the fourth are men with growing wings.

But in the end, with Arthur’s forces shattered and with himself severely wounded and removed by the three Queens to Avilion, the land appears, metaphorically speaking, to be reeling back into the beast.

As so often in the early poetry, in the Idylls the pursuit of a superhuman objective proves to be misdirected. The search for the Holy Grail, a presumably devout objective, accelerates the disintegration of Arthur’s kingdom because so many of the knights seek through the Grail immediate personal salvation and abandon their duties and their obligation of maintaining order and justice among the people. The King’s closing words in “The Holy Grail” convey Tennyson’s conviction that, though the spirit is a part of ultimate reality, the direct quest for individual spiritual self-aggrandizement is baleful and destructive of the common weal. As the poet is quoted as saying, “The Godlike life is with men and for men.” It does not reside in withdrawing from one’s responsibilities to grasp selfishly for immortality. For Tennyson, the way to the superhuman remains through the human and through commitment to one’s fellow men and women.

The monologuist in “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After” (1886), like the speaker of In Memoriam, conceives of the movement of history as often retrograde instead of progressive—

 . . . remember how the course of Time may swerve,
Crook and turn upon itself in many a backward
 streaming curve.

Evolution can be downward as well as upward:

Evolution ever climbing after some ideal good,
And Reversion ever dragging Evolution in the mud.

Yet, despite the speaker’s railing against the pettiness and brutishness of mankind, he can still, as in the original “Locksley Hall” (1842), utter the cry of forward—”Forward,” he says, “till you see the highest Human Nature is divine”; and his own life convinces him that “Love will conquer at the last.”

Two poems—”The Dawn” and “The Making of Man,” both published in 1892 and “written,” according to the son, “at the end of his life,” stress the evolutionary nature of man’s prospects and seem to embody an increased recognition of the vast stretches of time involved, if humanity is to achieve the final stage of spiritual regeneration—when its gradual transformation into the superhuman will be complete. Here are some lines from “The Dawn”:

Is it Shame, so few should have climbed from
 the dens in the level below,
 Men, with a heart and a soul, no slaves of
 a four-footed will?
 But if twenty million of summers are stored
 in the sunlight still,
We are far from the noon of man, there is time
 for the race to grow.

. . . . . . . . . but when shall we lay
 The Ghost of the Brute that is walking and
 haunting us yet, and be free?
 In a hundred, a thousand winters? Ah, what
 will our children be,
The men of a hundred thousand, a million summers
  away?

Here also are the two stanzas that constitute “The Making of Man”:

Where is one that, born of woman, altogether
 can escape
From the lower world within him, moods of tiger
 or of ape?
 Man as yet is being made, and ere the crowning
 Age of ages,
Shall not aeon after aeon pass and touch him
 into shape?

All about him shadow still, but, while the
 races flower and fade,
Prophet-eyes may catch a glory slowly gaining on
 the shade,
 Till the peoples all are one, and all their
 voices blend in choric
Hallelujah to the Maker “If is finished. Man is
  made,”

Although by no means lacking in conceptual vigor, Tennyson was not a systematic thinker, and he complained about the extent to which his contemporaries conceived of him not as a poet but as an author of “philosophical treatises.” As he wrote in In Memoriam, men might well scorn his lays if they were taken as purporting to solve “grave doubts” and give conclusive answers. Their purpose “is not,” as he put it, “to part and prove”: his muse simply “takes. . ./What slender shade of doubt may flit, / And makes it vassal unto love.” His faith in the perfectibility of man originated not in logical argument or scientific evidence, but in his own inner intimations of the divine element in human beings.

Of The Idylls of the King, now coming to be recognized as one of the Tennyson’s proudest achievements, the poet wrote in a letter to James T. Knowles: “It should have been clear to my readers that in the very title there is an allusion to the King within us.” The King within us is evocative of our best and potential selves—earnest of the highest in human nature as divine. Tennyson calls upon us to enhance that nature by intensifying our humanity, not by denying it through abortive attempts at divinity. The thews of Anakim express an ideal that challenges us to reach new heights of humanity—a humanity spiritually elevated and expanded in strength and love. If at last we gain those heights, then truly will mankind have attained to the superhuman—in the concluding words of In Memoriam, the “one far-off divine event, / To which the whole creation moves.”

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