That which we dare invoke to bless;
Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt;
He, They, One, All; within, without;
The Power in darkness whom we guess;
I found Him not in world or sun,
Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye;
Nor thro’ the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun:
If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep,
I heard a voice `believe no more’
And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumbled in the Godless deep;
A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason’s colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answer’d `I have felt.’
No, like a child in doubt and fear:
But that blind clamour made me wise;
Then was I as a child that cries,
But, crying, knows his father near;
And what I am beheld again
What is, and no man understands;
And out of darkness came the hands
That reach thro’ nature, moulding men.
This stanza moves a huge distance from a rejection of revelation and natural theologies to the ancient image of the divine potter.Classical proofs of God’s existence used the existence of the solar system; more recent proofs had picked on the impossibility of evolution producing wings or eyes to serve a purpose; Tennyson rejects these as “petty cobwebs.” The horror of a universe without God is expressed in the metaphor of “an ever-breaking shore”- I’m not sure why this works, but I think it does. It reminds me of H G Well’s darkened beach at the end of the Time Machine.
The next stanza is crucial for the understanding if the poem. His human reason gives him no faith; but his human capacity to feel guides him forward. He does not mean he has felt a faith and will not let it go. He means that the human being is endowed with emotion just as much as with reason. His poem has been about his feelings- of delight in the company of Hallam and of sorrow at his death – and these reject the supremacy of reason: the “heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing.”
His comparison of himself to a crying child is splendid, except what child even now knows his father near? A Victorian refusal to think of God as (also) female forces this unlikely bit of gendering.
But he comes back to the theme. “What I am” is the human being who feels and thinks, who cries out to the unknown God, and is rewarded by the assurance that he is moulded by divine hands. These hands do not magically create persons, rather they reach through nature. At no point does Tennyson reject the evolutionary science he respects; it is a tool in the hands of God.
This one canto brings knits up the threads of the poem, so that even the weakest ones have a place.