Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
Yes, here Tennyson begins to articulate his doctrine of imperfection: it happens, it is willed, but it is also wrong, antithetic to the good which opposes it and will ultimately defeat it. His language here is both general in scope and particular in detail. So we have the strangely moving, “that nothing walks with aimless feet” matched by “not a worm is cloven in vain.”
And his confession of inadequacy – in intellect, in faith, in poetic imagination- places his own imperfections along with all the others which will be perfected when “every winter turns to spring.” The last stanza succeeds because its language is plain and accurate; children alone and in the dark do cry because they have no other language. A situation known to every parent is made an metaphor of human pain and bewilderment.
His grief has brought him to a very chastened confession of faith which refuses to let go of either the darkness or the light. My own grief led me to leave behind some of the easy pieties of my faith, especially the comforts which were not comforting, and to discover something darker and more questionable in Jesus’ saying, “He that shall endure to the end, shall be saved.”