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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Tennyson and the concept of evolution in Victorian poetry before 1859 Elliott, William Brent


This thesis attempts to examine the use of pre-Darwinian evolutionary concepts in Victorian poetry by concentrating on the works of Tennyson, who gave fuller expression to them than any of his contemporaries. Works by other poets are examined for significant comparisons and contrasts with his; various works by Browning, Bailey, Arnold, and Bell Scott receive particular attention. The introduction distinguishes between Darwin's theory and pre-Darwinian evolutionary schemes, finding the latter to be characterized by the notions of teleology, progressivism, and vertical hierarchy. The historical development of evolutionism is traced from its origins in Romantic theories of the organic unity of nature, and the major varieties of considered positions on the subject available to a poet in the early nineteenth century are enumerated. Tennyson's early work is shown to develop from a basically static, non-evolutionary world-picture to a progressive one, making use of images of development drawn from embryology, astronomy, and reincarnation. The stages of composition of In Memoriam reveal the impact of Lyell, who emphasized the struggle for existence and necessary extinction, and later of Chambers, who proposed a concept of the progressive transformation of species. It is proposed that Tennyson found in Chambers' theory a way of transcending the bleak world-picture offered by Lyell, by uniting it with his conception of a spiritual reality behind (not immanent in) the material world. The final arrangement of In Memoriam develops the idea of evolution as the progress of the natural world toward the spiritual, a position analogous to a number of poetic and philosophical trends in the early nineteenth century. This process of evolution can be voluntarily aided by "typing" the higher, emergent forms in one's own life. Expanding on this notion, Tennyson's poetry of the late 1340's and 1350's demands the conscious participation of human society in the shaping of a higher being. With this development, Tennyson's philosophy of evolution is substantially complete. His later works reveal a gradual attenuation of his immediate hopes for the process, pushing the improvement of the species into the increasingly distant future, but remaining consistently meliorist; otherwise, his principle continues to be the one set forth in In Memoriam. The study concludes with a brief examination of Darwin's influence on later poets, showing it to have been generally confused and the result of misinterpretation.

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