Tennyson's Progressive Geology


  • E. E. Snyder (University of Sheffield)




In Tennyson's poem In Memoriam“, geology provides one potential means to make sense of the experience of grief, by supposing a divine meaning inherent in the physical world that can be discovered through human knowledge. However, Lyell's non-progressive hypothesis challenges this interpretation. Extinction supports natural theological arguments that find seeking traces of God's divine plan within the world problematic, particularly when used for individual comfort in the face of loss. Where grief is concerned the theory of progressive development also requires dramatic alteration. Whilst there is the promise of transcendence, this requires the death of the known and beloved human, and the potential loss of the individual soul in a general self. The sacred dust of the body becomes merely mechanical, employed in creating continents by the action of laws with no divine guidance, and geology proves incapable of speaking to spiritual purpose.

Tennyson's poem separates spirit from the world, positing that, while God directs geological change, it is impossible for humanity to understand his plan through the study of geology. It reaches this conclusion through a reconsecration of the world, seeing the beloved soul as extant in geological time and possessing the ability to take physical action by virtue of its spiritual power. This change is animated by Hallam's transformed but individual spirit and progressive development once again becomes a mechanism for understanding change within the world. Tennyson affirms the primacy of the spiritual, through continued use of geological language to show God's presence in the world. Resolution of the role of human knowledge and its ability to understand God's plan through study of Nature is deferred, the province of the "crowning race".