Lord Tennyson – Poet of Cosmic Horror?

Tennyson

Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish’d face, 

Many a planet by many a sun may roll with a dust of a vanish’d race. 

Tennyson – Vastness

Do these words sound strangely familiar to you? Do they trigger thoughts and impressions in your memory of something similar? They were written by the great Victorian poet Tennyson in a poem called Vastness (1885). Compare and contrast them with some of the most well-known lines in Lovecraft’s lyric repertoire. 

I have seen the dark universe yawning, 

Where the black planets roll without aim; 

Where they roll in their horror unheeded, 

Without knowledge or lustre or name. 

H P Lovecraft – Nemesis

These words are from the second stanza of Lovecraft’s poem Nemesis (1918), as quoted at the start of his short story, ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ (1936). Some of the words are identical: dark, planets, roll. Lovecraft’s poem also includes the words: vast, sun, past. Tennyson ends his poem like this. 

What is it all, if we all of us end but in being our own corpse-coffins at last, 

Swallow’d in Vastness, lost in Silence, drown’d in the deeps of a meaningless Past? 

Tennyson – Vastness

I don’t mean to imply that Lovecraft copied Tennyson or even that he was inspired by Tennyson. I merely point to a similarity in theme and expression. But noticing this overlap did set me wondering. What other verses in Tennyson could we classify as the poetry of cosmic horror? Here are three other samples for you to examine.

The Two Voices 

This poem was written by Tennyson between 1833-4. It was prompted by the suicide of a close friend. In it, two alternative viewpoints argue over the question of whether life is worth anything. One voice is optimistic, idealistic, Socratic. The other is pessimistic, realistic, Dionysian. It is this second voice that speaks these words of cosmic horror. 

“This truth within thy mind rehearse, 

That in a boundless universe 

Is boundless better, boundless worse.

“Think you this mould of hopes and fears 

Could find no statelier than his peers 

In yonder hundred million spheres?”

“Forerun thy peers, thy time, and let 

Thy feet, millenniums hence, be set 

In midst of knowledge, dream’d not yet.

“Thou hast not gain’d a real height, 

Nor art thou nearer to the light, 

Because the scale is infinite.” 

Tennyson – The Two Voices

In Memoriam 

The writing of In Memoriam was triggered again by the death of a friend. This time it was the death of his twenty-two-year-old friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died of cerebral haemorrhage. The cruelty of nature – seemingly both random and scientific at the same time – is a key theme of the poem. 

O Sorrow, cruel fellowship, 

   O Priestess in the vaults of Death, 

   O sweet and bitter in a breath, 

What whispers from thy lying lip?

‘The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run; 

   A web is wov’n across the sky; 

   From out waste places comes a cry, 

And murmurs from the dying sun:

‘And all the phantom, Nature, stands— 

   With all the music in her tone, 

   A hollow echo of my own,— 

A hollow form with empty hands.’

And shall I take a thing so blind, 

   Embrace her as my natural good; 

   Or crush her, like a vice of blood, 

Upon the threshold of the mind? 

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair, 

Such splendid purpose in his eyes, 

Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies, 

Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed 

And love Creation’s final law— 

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw 

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills, 

Who battled for the True, the Just, 

Be blown about the desert dust, 

Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream, 

A discord. Dragons of the prime, 

That tare each other in their slime, 

Were mellow music match’d with him. 

Tennyson – In Memoriam (III & LVI)

Maud 

Tennyson’s 1855 poem is a strange mix of lament and pastoral themes. It was not well received upon publication. But there are some lines that in my opinion are of the highest order and shine some light – or some darkness – on the themes of human insignificance when measured by a cosmic scale.  

For the drift of the Maker is dark, an Isis hid by the veil. 

     Who knows the ways of the world, how God will bring them about? 

     Our planet is one, the suns are many, the world is wide. 

A sad astrology, the boundless plan 

     That makes you tyrants in your iron skies, 

     Innumerable, pitiless, passionless eyes, 

     Cold fires, yet with power to burn and brand 

     His nothingness into man. 

Tennyson – Maud (IV-8 & XVIII-4)

You could argue these while these poems have a bleak and pessimistic turn, they resist an obvious classification of horror, including cosmic horror. However, I would draw your attention to their cosmic nature. A boundless universe, a million spheres, of infinite scale. There are definite horror elements too. A vice of blood, tooth and claw. And, if you listen carefully, there are Lovecraftian sounds too. Monsters in slime, with numerous eyes!

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

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