Nature red in tooth and claw : Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 I’m sure that most readers of this blog are familiar with Lionel Tennyson, that inventive Captain of Hampshire and England

but what is, perhaps,  less well known is that his grandfather, Alfred, was quite a well-known poet.  Lionel was immensely proud of his grandfather’s poetry, though his knowledge of it was a little shaky.  According to Jeremy Malies he is said to have “laid all-comers 10 to 1 that his grandfather had written Hiawatha” at a Gentlemen v Players match.

I was reminded of Tennyson this week by references made by the chap in the punk rock t-shirt on Springwatch to “Nature red in tooth and claw”.  This is, of course, (or not of course if you don’t happen to know it) a quotation from Canto 56 of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.

At this point I have to hold my hand up in the manner of the unfortunate Robert Green and admit that I have not read the whole of In Memoriam (not all 133 cantos of it).  Dipping into it is a little like wandering around a vast overgrown Victorian cemetery. 

It was written over the space of seventeen years, was published in 1849, and was intended as a memorial to his great friend Arthur Henry Hallam.  Though it was published several years before Darwin made his theories known in On the Origin of Species, among the questions posed by the poem is why it is that those fittest to survive are often the least attractive (cockroaches, for instance, or some Victorian industrialists) whereas the likes of his friend Hallam, whom he considered the best of men, faced extinction.  

In these cantos (55 and 56) he considers the question of extinction in relation to the fossil remains of dinosaurs (“Dragons of the prime”).


The wish, that of the living whole
   No life may fail beyond the grave,
   Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

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,

I falter where I firmly trod,
   And falling with my weight of cares
   Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

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.


“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.



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