How many a father have I seen,
A sober man, among his boys,
Whose youth was full of foolish noise,
Who wears his manhood hale and green:
And dare we to this fancy give,
That had the wild oat not been sown,
The soil, left barren, scarce had grown
The grain by which a man may live?
Or, if we held the doctrine sound
For life outliving heats of youth,
Yet who would preach it as a truth
To those that eddy round and round?
Hold thou the good: define it well:
For fear divine Philosophy
Should push beyond her mark, and be
Procuress to the Lords of Hell.
Tennyson is working in this poem towards a positive doctrine of imperfection. He knows from his loss of a unique friend that life is not perfect, and he holds that truth against all the optimism of his age; insisting that the facts are against perfection and even against perfectibility. The truth he seeks must be comprehensive rather than exclusive, double rather than single. Hence his readiness to concede some value to the sowing of wild oats, at least in the case of men.(!)
But having tempted himself and his readers with this permissiveness, he steps back, insisting that the good should be clearly defined and valued. His fear that a slack morality might be “procuress to the lords of hell” is shared by many traditional working class communities today in Britain.