The Poets of Epicurus, VI: Tennyson

2012-12-21

In addition to the other poets of Epicurus highlighted so far, I've found some Epicurean influences in Alfred Tennyson. Two poems especially loom large here: The Two Voices and Lucretius.

The Two Voices is almost a meditation on Vatican Saying 38 of Epicurus:

Anyone with many good reasons to leave this life is an altogether worthless person.

Tennyson wrote this consideration of suicide after the death of his good friend and fellow poet Arthur Henry Hallam. T.J.B. Spencer called it "the closest thing to Lucretius in English literature". Several Epicurean and Lucretian themes make their appearance here: the power of reason ("mind, the lordliest proportion"), the infinite scope of the universe ("yonder hundred million spheres"), the simple necessities for happiness ("a healthy frame, a quiet mind"), the pursuit of knowledge unencumbered by culture and tradition ("to carve out free space for every human doubt, that the whole mind might orb about"), the possibility of rivaling the gods for blessedness ("I cannot hide that some have striven, achieving calm, to whom was given the joy that mixes man with Heaven"), the importance of banishing gloomy thoughts and instead rejoicing in one's precious little time on this earth. Although the narrator's call back to life comes from a heavenly voice that knows of a "hidden hope", it is in teeming nature that he finds cause for joy:

And forth into the fields I went,
And Nature's living motion lent
The pulse of hope to discontent.
I wonder'd at the bounteous hours,
The slow result of winter showers:
You scarce could see the grass for flowers.
I wonder'd, while I paced along:
The woods were fill'd so full with song,
There seem'd no room for sense of wrong.
So variously seem'd all things wrought,
I marvell'd how the mind was brought
To anchor by one gloomy thought;

Tennyson's poem on Lucretius is, given the subject matter, even more clearly Epicurean. It's true that Tennyson uses as his background St. Jerome's calumny that Lucretius died from the effects of a love potion; yet the contrast is sharply drawn between the consequent madness of Lucretius and his former good life:

O ye Gods
I know you careless, yet, behold, to you
From childly wont and ancient use I call --
I thought I lived securely as yourselves --
No lewdness, narrowing envy, monkey-spite,
No madness of ambition, avarice, none;
No larger feast than under plane or pine
With neighbors laid along the grass, to take
Only such cups as left us friendly-warm,
Affirming each his own philosophy
Nothing to mar the sober majesties
Of settled, sweet, Epicurean life.

As with Swinburne, I have not yet read all of Tennyson's works, so I do not yet know if The Two Voice and Lucretius are representative of his views, but they are in any case evocative of a certain Epicurean sensibility. If I find further corroboration or contrary evidence, I'll be sure to update this post.


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