Edward Aveling, Modern Thought, January 1882

An Atheist on Tennyson’s Despair

Source: Modern Thought, January 1882, pp.7-10;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

All freethinkers owe a debt of gratitude to Alfred Tennyson. His latest poem is an invaluable aid to the cause that they hold dear. To study “Despair” will repay them not only from the literary side. They will derive from its study so much encouragement, so much new strength for their daily battle. The dramatic monologue named “Despair” is headed thus:- “A man and his wife, having lost faith in a God and hope of a life to come, and being utterly miserable in this, resolve to end themselves by drowning. The woman is drowned, but the man is rescued by a minister of the sect he has abandoned.” At first, as we read these words, we are tempted to imagine that Mr. Tennyson wholly misunderstands freethinkers, after the fashion of the many. And, indeed, there is no doubt that he does not fully understand the beauty and the joy of Atheism. The man and woman have lost faith in a God. They have lost, also, the terrible idea of an individual immortality, with all its inevitable confusions, contradictions, irreconcilabilities, unhappinesses. Thus far they represent Atheism, and may be taken as types. But when our poet represents them as utterly miserable in this life, we know, and we half suspect he knows, that here they cease to be types. This circumstance is chosen for dramatic effect, but is, of course, no consequence of the loss of religious belief. For the Atheist is not inclined to be miserable in this his only life. He loves it, joys in it, revels in it. He is not blind to its pains and sorrows. Bearing these cheerfully as he may, he concentrates his attention on the pleasures and sweetnesses of life, and on the task that ranks foremost amongst those pleasures – the task of lessening the aggregate of the world’s misery. The man and woman of “Despair” have in truth no little reason for sadness. Their eldest born has forged his father’s name. Another son is dead. The girl that might have been the solace of their saddened age had never looked upon the sun. In a line of surprising strength we are told she “had passed from the night to the night.” He is ruined, and the wife has a horror of bodily disease upon her. But sorrows even such as these should not – nay, actually do not – drive the Atheist to suicide. Rarely or never do we encounter instances of those who are without God taking their own lives. The suicides are amongst the possessors of a religious belief. In truth, they are often in consequence of such a belief.

Yet further evidence is furnished by the poem in favour of my view that the two central figures are not Atheists to the heart’s core. The man uses the name of God. Four times the cry, “Ah, God!” breaks from his lips. He that has wholly abandoned the older creeds is always very careful to use no phrase that in any sense, however remote, implies them. He studiously avoids to-day the use of the word “religion.” I am not ignorant of the fact that Thomas Paine, a hundred years ago, wrote: – “To do good is my religion;” but at this hour the conscientious Atheist should strive to employ none of those words and phrases that through long usage have acquired a stereotyped meaning, and have become, as Wendell Holmes puts it, “polarised.” Hence, even under strong emotion, when most likelihood exists of a reversion to the old habits of thought and expression of the earlier times of the individual or of the race, even then the man who has struggled out of ordinary beliefs should not use even interjectional phrases that would imply, however indirectly, recognition of deity.

And, again, in the lines that speak of

“a life without sun, without health, without hope, without any delight
In anything here upon earth,”

there is proof that these two unhappy ones have not grasped the fulness of the comfort of Atheism. Had their faith in man been stronger, their eyes had pierced the gloom surrounding their individual lives, and had seen the brightness of the face of man that is to be. “Without health,” alas! man may be. “Without hope “ man has no right to be. Because my little fragment of life is a failure, because my attempted contribution to the world-building is only some small modicum of dust, blown away by the breath of time and not a portion of enduring stone or marble, am I to despair of all? Nay, truly, let me rather behold the effective life-work of my stronger, better brothers, and, taking heart of grace, struggle on again. “Without any delight in anything here upon earth.” Each had still that other dear one left, and there is always for all, unless the mind fail, the delight of old memories. Was she not “always loyal and sweet?” And whilst loyalty and sweetness shine out in the one life most dear to us, who shall say that all delight is fled? “A world without sun.” I answer Mr Tennyson in the words of our Atheist poet, Algernon Swinburne, singing to Nature under the old name Apollo: –

“For thy kingdom is passed not away,
Nor thy power from the place thereof hurled;
Out of heaven they shall cast not the day –
They shall cast not out song from the world.
Is the sun yet cast out of heaven?
Is the song yet cast out of man?”

In one other passage, also, the speaker of the monologue shows himself as one who fails to grasp the rich significance of evolution. “Come from the brute, poor souls! – no souls, and to die with the brute.” Come from the brute assuredly, we hope. If “soul” retain its old meaning, and is the immortal something supposed to exist when the body has returned to the mineral kingdom in the form of salts and gases – “No souls!” we cry, with rejoicing. But “to die with the brute?” No – a thousand times, no! Man no more dies with the brute than he lives with the brute. As his life is far nobler, more manifold, more rich than that of the lower forms of animals, so his death is more full of pathos, of instruction, of hope. For even when face to face with that mystery of death, and beholding it through our tears, we comfort our hearts with the knowledge that the life thus ended is still at work. The gentle words, the kindly acts, the high thoughts of that life, are yet busy in the world through the lives they touched directly, and they will be busy this many a day, and all days through the unborn lives to be moulded in their turn by these. For each human thought or phrase or deed is as the proverbial stone dropped into the proverbial water. The ripples spread more widely, and ever more widely, and are doomed, perhaps, to strike upon the shores of continents yet to be. The brute form at best leaves its record in the rocks, or haply in some footprint deciphered by the eager eye of man oeons after it was made. But the human life leaves its record upon human life, and even when it is ended the impress of it is visible on the family or on the society, party, sect – perhaps on the history of the country, it may be of the world.

But as Atheists we must be for ever thankful to Alfred Tennyson in that he has stated some part, at least, of our creed clearly and strongly. The first four lines of stanza iv., and even part of the last two lines, will make plainer to some who misunderstand us what we think and hope:-

“See we were nursed in the dark night-fold of your fatalist creed,
And we turned to the growing dawn, we had hoped for a dawn indeed,
When the light of a Sun that was coming would scatter the ghosts of the Past,
And the cramping creeds that had madden'd the people would vanish at last.
And we broke away from the Christ, our human brother and friend,
For he spoke, or it seem'd that He spoke, of a Hell without help, without end.”

For “had hoped” in the second line read “do hope,” and you have the heart’s desire of the Atheist. Nay, we have passed beyond the stage of hoping for the dawn. The dawn, and something more than dawn, our very eyes have seen. Our hope is for the more and more perfect day. As Mr. Mallock has written, there must occur “the sort of break which takes place when a man awakes from a dream and finds all that he most prized vanished from him.” Man is awaking from a dream centuries long. He is even now finding that all that he most prized is vanishing from him. But that which thus vanishes is that which was most prized in a dream. In the brighter, workful, real day that is past its dawn even now, he will smile tenderly, pitifully, at the strange fancies that were his in the dim, slumberous night fast fading away before the coming of the better time.

From Christ, save as God and as preacher of hell, we do not break away. He is in very truth our human brother and friend. I think we love him with a love that cannot be understood by Christians. He is so very human to us even in what seem to us his blunders and bad teaching. No glory seems added to his remarkable character by naming him divine. Indeed, that would appear to take away at once all credit from him, and to destroy his chief excellence. It is a matter of no interest that omnipotence should have lived a good life. But consider the world of comfort and instruction to be drawn from the knowledge that a man of passions and infirmities like our own lived so pure a life! From his teaching, as from the teaching of all great men, we strive to draw that which is of practical value for our life to-day, and though we find much – very much – of that teaching so other-worldly as to be useless at this hour, yet for that which is of value we are very grateful. We do not break away from Christ. We draw close to him as our human brother, unmarred by any touch of the divine. We call him comforter, and in large sort our guide.

In stanza vii., moreover, and in its last line, we have a fine summing up of man’s resources when the gods have failed him: –

“Till you flung us back on ourselves and the human heart and the Age.”

These are the only rocks whereon man may find secure foothold. Too long has he had preached to him that doctrine of reliance on God that is in greater or less degree fatal to reliance on self. And that this latter is the more necessary is shown by the fact that in emergency it is upon self we have to rely, as no aid comes from without, or from the supernatural powers. Hence it is that to us the utterances of those who may have escaped some great peril that has engulfed others, their fellows, seem so very terrible. In the narratives by survivors from some great disaster of the sea, as that of the Clan Macduff, nothing is more common than to hear that those who are saved ascribe their better fortune to God. But in thus doing, these men and women, by implication, are ascribing the worse fortune of their companions to God. For it is inconceivable that those whose lives are lost are not as anxious for life as those that are saved. Without doubt they supplicated in as great an agony of earnestness as those that escaped. And yet the deity to whom the survivors ascribe their safety so willed it that these should perish!

We are willing to be “flung back on the human heart and the Age.” In man, and in man alone, do we find comfort. When all else fails us, we find in the history of man in the past, and in his growing strength to-day, hope for the future such as no other creed gives. To this age, and the spirit of it, we cling. We are unwilling to be drawn back once more to the thought of dead and gone times. That has had its day, and done its work right well. But we should have a stronger objection to casting aside the thought of this nineteenth century and embracing that of the first than to discarding railway travelling for any of the older methods of locomotion.

In stanza xix. is expressed, although in words hardly possible for our use, one consciousness of the Atheist: –

“Ah yet I have had some glimmer, at times, in my gloomiest woe,
Of a God behind all – after all – the great God for aught that I know.”

It does seem that, on the whole, in the process of evolution, evil is slowly eliminated, and good grows more predominant. There is “a tendency that maketh for righteousness.” The whole of this deeply interesting question has been of late dealt with by Herbert Spencer, and in the Nineteenth Century (October, 1881), James Sully has put, with admirable clearness, the optimistic view of Spencer, that would be, I take it, shared by all Atheists. But it must be clearly understood that, while we believe that we recognise this gradual elimination of the bad, and gradual strengthening of the good, we have no conception of a being who is in any sense the personification of this principle.

Very strongly, also, in words to whose intensity no comment of mine could add, does he place one aspect of our case before those who ask us to worship the God of Christianity. I quote stanzas xvii. and xviii.: –


“What! I should call on that Infinite Love that has served us so well?
Infinite wickedness, rather, that made everlasting Hell;
Made us – foreknew us, foredoom'd us, and does what he will with his own;
Better our dead brute mother who never has heard us groan? .


Hell? if the souls of men were immortal, as men have been told,
The lecher would cleave to his lusts, and the miser would yearn for his gold,
And so there were Hell for ever? But were there a God, as you say,
His love would have power over Hell till it utterly vanish'd away.”

Perhaps some cause for a tinge of regret is to be found in the lines where this present time is stigmatised as “the new dark ages .... of the popular press.” It might almost seem ungrateful for one thus to write who owes to that very press so much of his own fame, and so much of that which he values far more highly – the power of doing good by making music in many homes. But the words occur in a dramatic monologue, and in dramatic writing the author is merged in the character he portrays. Therefore, we may, without much exercise of charity, believe that the diatribes against the press, and that very “honest doubt” which he himself has told us is “the noblest kind of faith,” are of purpose placed in the mouth of one who names himself as madman, and who has very clearly not fought the good fight of enquiry right through to the restful issue that always awaits the victor in that conflict.

It would be ungracious, it would be unjust, to pass from the consideration of this notable poem without paying tribute to its remarkable power. Once grant the central idea of the blackness of despair that Alfred Tennyson seems to think may seize upon the Atheist mind – once grant this, and no words are too strong in praise of the vigour wherewith the sombre tone of the poem is maintained throughout. Especially one notices his power of producing great effects by very simple means. In the very first stanza, observe the second line as instance of that to which I refer:-

“Follow'd us too that night, and dogg'd us, and drew me to land?”

“That night!” The horror of it, and the shudder that runs through the words! And consider the tremendous story told by the use of the two pronouns. You dogged us. You brought to land me alone.

Or, in stanza ix., line 5, the force of the first word is another illustration: –

There was a strong sea-current would sweep us out to the main.”

Or yet, again, the pathos of the lines: –

“Never a cry so desolate, not since the world began!
Never a kiss so sad – no, not since the coming of man!”

and of the phrase, “She is all alone in the sea.”

I repeat that to Alfred Tennyson we that are Atheists are in some measure indebted. He has possibly misunderstood us, and if he really thinks that our creed can lead only despairwards it is assured that we are not comprehended by him. But I am inclined to consider that he has here put into most musical language the conception of the man who is still a Theist, but who strives to picture the universe without God. The stage of negation is here portrayed; but that is only a transition stage leading to the positive aspect of Atheism. This aspect Tennyson has in no sense understood. Be his thought in this respect what it may, he has placed in the mouth of his semi-suicide, in language very memorable and musical, many of those terrific arguments against supernatural religion, answers to which have never yet been forthcoming. Those who read these arguments in this his latest poem, despite that which I must venture to call the misrepresentation by which Atheists are portrayed as loathing life and light, will begin to understand something of the reasons why so many men and women of pure conduct, high thinking, and keen intellectual life, have rejected all beliefs founded upon the supernatural, and find a peace that very literally passes the understanding of many in that creed that deals only with this earth, and with the great brotherhood of man.