Tennyson, Swinburne, and the spirit of parody

In 1867 (and 1869), the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson published a poem attempting to reconcile pantheism with Christianity of the traditional “God the Father” variety.  The poem was entitled “The Higher Pantheism,” a title which itself indicates that plain pantheism was to Tennyson a “lower” sort of religious thing.  Due to the poem’s being already published elsewhere on the Internet, I am able to give you the whole of this contrarious and sometimes confused-seeming poem, and though it is long for my page, I will do so in order that you can see for yourself the “knots” Tennyson tied up his religious logic in to form a “basket” to hold his beliefs.  The Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria obviously had a duty to God and country which came above poetic quality, though his parody writer Swinburne (writing in 1880) had good things to say about the writing while finding the thought muddy (the version of Swinburne’s parody which is published online at the University of Toronto Press T-Space by Professor Ian Lancashire has notes about a letter of Swinburne’s containing some lines of the parody, though in order not to violate Professor Lancashire’s online copyright, I am reprinting Swinburne’s parody from an edition which occurs elsewhere on the Internet on free sites without the letter.  Those who are interested in reading the letter and comments can do so at T-Space ).  Here is Tennyson at his elevated and obfuscational best in “The Higher Pantheism”:

“The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains–/Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?/Is not the Vision He, though He be not that which he seems?/Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?/Earth, these solid stars, this weight of body and limb,/Are they not sign and symbol of thy division from Him?/Dark is the world to thee; thyself art the reason why,/For is He not all but thou, that hast power to feel ‘I am I’?/Glory about thee, without thee; and thou fulfillest thy doom,/Making him broken gleams and a stifled splendor and gloom./Speak to him, Thou, for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet–/Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet./God is law, say the wise; O soul, and let us rejoice,/For if He thunder by law the thunder is yet His voice./Law is God, say some; no God at all, says the fool,/For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool;/And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;/But if we could see and hear, this Vision–were it not he?”

Actually, the poem is rather fine in many respects, though its singsong quality can be an annoyance, and the tone is of one trying a bit too hard to make ends meet spiritually.  But his poetic successor Swinburne, who was also his occasional imitator (in metrical terms, though not in spirit) made much of Tennyson’s little weaknesses in “proving” God’s existence, and did so partly by tactical repetition of meter and rhyme in the same style of singsong, no mean feat for the average poetaster but probably quite easy for Swinburne, who had a gift of meter, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance on his side anyway, to name a few only of his poetical qualities.  Here’s his delightful parody of Tennyson, entitled “The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell”:

“One, who is not, we see; but one, whom we see not, is;/Surely this is not that; but that is assuredly this./What, and wherefore, and whence? for under is over and under;/If thunder could be without lightning, lightning could be without thunder./Doubt is faith in the main; but faith, on the whole, is doubt;/We cannot believe by proof; but could we believe without?/Why, and whither, and how? for barley and rye are not clover;/Neither are straight lines curves; yet over is under and over./Two and two may be four; but four and four are not eight;/Fate and God may be twain; but God is the same thing as fate./Ask a man what he thinks, and get from a man what he feels;/God, once caught in the fact, shows you a fair pair of heels./Body and spirit are twins; God only knows which is which;/The soul squats down in the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch./More is the whole than a part; but half is more than  the whole;/Clearly, the soul is the body; but is not the body the soul?/One and two are not one; but one and nothing is two;/Truth can hardly be false, if falsehood cannot be true./Once the mastadon was; pterodactyls were common as cocks;/Then the mammoth was God; now is He a prize ox./Parallels all things are; yet many of these are askew;/You are certainly I; but certainly I am not you./Springs the rock from the plain, shoots the stream from the rock;/Cocks exist for the hen; but hens exist for the cock./God, whom we see not, is, and God, who is not, we see;/Fiddle, we know, is diddle; and diddle, we take it, is dee.”

Aside from enjoying the beard-tugging going on in the parody, one of the first things one notices is that the parody is about one-fourth again as long as the original poem.  Clearly, Swinburne was enjoying himself, and the very forthright and yet absurd ridiculing going on is part and parcel of his own vision.  For example, it’s not so much only an exaggeration of Tennyson to say “The soul squats down in the the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch” as it is a combination of the two poets’ attitudes in their poems, Tennyson more or less an apologist for the “higher” view, that the body is a “sign and symbol” of the soul’s division from God, hence a sort of “dirtier” thing which must be excused or apologized for, Swinburne a celebratory poet of things earthly, who yet feels their transitory nature as an impetus to memorialize them in poetry.  And this, the exaggeration of what one can take away from another’s poetry added to one’s own ingenious inventions in a similar meter and rhyme, is the very spirit of parody.  One could perhaps say that the best way truly to understand a poet or writer is to attempt a substantial and stylistic parody–after all, one must get the gist of the thought and tempo in order to make fun of it:  one must know what both oneself and the other are about.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

2 responses to “Tennyson, Swinburne, and the spirit of parody

  1. D. James Fortescue

    Swinburne’s respectful mockery was quite a fun read. Trying to make sense of things through religion will never work, because it is so contradictory.

    What would it add if you imagined the British Army outside Tennyson’s house, awaiting his final draft? He may have attempted to befuddle everyone with his mobius loop of a poem, so everyone got so confused they accepted the poem because he was who he was =P


    • This post and the one after it (on Yvor Winters) are actually tied in together because after I’d done the one on Swinburne and Tennyson I remembered the two lines “God knows what all this means!/The mortal mind is slow” and got confused, because I’d originally thought of them as a part of Swinburne’s poem! So then, I just had to do a post on Winters, to establish for my own memory and that of my readers just what the difference actually was. Funny, because the meter isn’t even exactly the same! But the sentiment was at least related, and I think that’s what I was remembering.


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