A Few Victorian Poets
By the Victorian Era in England, millions of years had been allowed to creep into Church doctrine, and many pastors embraced the Gap, Day-Age, Tranquil Flood and Local Flood theories. Liberal theology, teaching against the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, as well as denying the historicity of Genesis 1-11, had already begun to creep in. Then Darwin stepped onto the scene, and popularized evolution in his book "On the Origin of the Species, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." Already the church had begun to compromise, and the connection between man’s sin and human suffering was being blurred. The result? A time of personal despair and confusion, as people’s faith in God was being eroded away. The great poets of the time portrayed this trend. Thomas Hardy, Matthew Arnold and Alfred, Lord Tennyson all were affected by evolutionary beliefs and, as a result, felt confused or completely left their faith, especially after suffering from the loss of a loved one. There was one other major poet of the age, however, who was able to remain a bit more steady in his faith. He did not take to the lies of evolution and was able to write morally and religiously promising poetry, even after the death of his beloved wife (another poet). His name was Robert Browning.
Beginning with Thomas Hardy, we find a man who dearly wanted a reason to believe, but didn’t feel he had one. In Hardy’s day a popular Christmas story was that all the animals knelt before baby Jesus in the manger. This theme is used to make a rather sad point in "The Oxen":
"Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in heartside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,
‘In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so."
To Hardy, belief in Christianity is nothing more than this fairytale. Although he wanted to believe, he was not about to be taken in by children’s tales. Such was the result of his faith.
Then there is Matthew Arnold. In his well-known poem "Dover Beach," Arnold compares the ebbing of his faith and the misery of the world with the ins and outs of the tides. Here is an excerpt:
"The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world."
The result of this world, devoid of God, is described as “the world, which seems,”
"To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."
There you have it. Without God, the world is senseless. We live in a beautiful world, but there are still some crazy things. When you remove the Fall of Man from earth’s history, you are left with one of two choices: that God is the author of sin, or He doesn’t exist. Either way, we are caught up in a confusing existence.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson began his career with spiritually optimistic poems, such as "St. Agnes’ Eve." But after he experienced the death of a close friend, he faced serious doubt in his faith. Capturing his struggles in his poem "In Memoriam," he seems to replace his beliefs in the immortality of the soul, as taught in Scripture, as in the immortality of the human race. This is a belief founded in evolution – no matter what happens to an individual, life itself will carry on. Here is an excerpt from "In Memoriam":
"O yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
[. . . ]
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light;
And with no language but a cry."
According to Tennyson, we can only hope that all things work together for good. “We know not anything” – actually, that only logically follows from a rejection of Christianity. The Bible itself does not teach the concept of blind faith, but that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)
Finally, the desperation in that last stanza is particularly obvious. Tennyson feels like nothing more than an infant who doesn’t know if he will be heard or answered or understood. At the death of his friend, with no answer to the problem of death and suffering around him, he was left in hopeless despair.
Now compare these responses with the poem written shortly after Robert Browning experienced his own personal tragedy. Remember, he was not taken in by Darwinian evolution. In "Rabbi Ben Ezra," he uses the last seven stanzas to talk about the Potter and the Clay metaphor. Here, he begins by painting a picture of his own pot, being shaped in God’s hands:
"What though the earlier grooves
Which ran the laughing loves
Around thy base, no longer pause and press?
What though about thy rim,
Skull-things and orders grim
Grow out, in graver mood, obey the sterner stress?
Look not thou down but up!
To uses of a cup,
The festal board, lamp’s flash and trumpet’s peal,
The new wines foaming flow,
The Master’s lips a-glow!
Thou, heaven’s consummate cup, what need’st thou with earth’s wheel?
But I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I, - to the wheel of life
With shapes and colours rife,
Bound dizzily, - mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst:
So take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!"
Here, Robert Browning describes that no matter what circumstances God uses to shape him, he is to focus on what he is made for: a human being made to live forever and ever, glorifying God, in heaven. Browning knows he must rely entirely on the Lord to guide him; only God can carry him through difficult circumstances.
Scripture says in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.” It also says in Matthew 13:20-21, as Jesus is explaining the parable of the sower, “But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but [cares] for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.” When Christians properly understand Scripture, they understand that trials ought to bring us closer to God. Let us not damage our faith and sow seeds on stony ground. Let us “Look not…down, but up” and, as the Bible tells us: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.” (Col. 3:1)