Alfred Lord Tennyson was the son of an Anglican clergyman; he grew up with a sturdy faith in God. But his earlier idealism crumbled under the weight of life’s disappointments and disillusionment. The untimely death of his close friend (and his sister’s fiance) Aurthur Hallam (which gave rise to what was perhaps his greatest poem, In Memoriam A.H.H.); the staggering quantities of human and animal suffering; his observations of corruption in the church; these and other experiences tested his faith. Some would argue they destroyed his faith.
But no one will argue that Tennyson lived much of his life in the twilight regions where faith and doubt intersect. Much of his philosophical poetry found its source in these shadowy lands.
One such poem, my personal favorite, is The Ancient Sage. Penned in 1885, toward the end of Tennyson’s life, the poem decries certitude, and extols the virtues of healthy doubt. But the real theme is hope. Hope that does not demand certainty at the outset. Yet, hope that, in the words of the Apostle, does not disappoint. Hope that sets its bearer upon a search that will, in Tennyson’s view, prove fruitful.
The Ancient Sage speaks a profound message to me, particularly in light of my two previous posts on Natural Theology. I posted this poem in its entirety last year; today I reproduce only the final stanza:
Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son,
Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:
Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no
Nor yet that thou art mortal—nay my son,
Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,
Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith
She reels not in the storm of warring words,
She brightens at the clash of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’,
She sees the Best that glimmers thro’ the Worst,
She feels the Sun is hid but for a night,
She spies the summer thro’ the winter bud,
She tastes the fruit before the blossom falls,
She hears the lark within the songless egg,
She finds the fountain where they wail’d ‘Mirage’!
The seeds of faith can prosper in the ground of doubt. Their germination requires no certainty of persuasion. I accept a starting place for faith which demands no proof. Cleaving ever to that “sunnier side of doubt”, clinging to a faith “beyond the forms of faith”, I choose to seek rewards the skeptic has already ruled out. I choose to hope that what looks like an oasis actually is. I choose to savor the promise of fruit, to listen for the lark not yet hatched.
Wail “Mirage!”, if you will, and linger in the waterless waste. I’m off to find the fountain!