Assignment for Thurs 3 Nov 2016

I’m not going to be in class this Thursday (Nov 3) because I’m attending the annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA). This is the largest conference in the scholarly field of Victorian studies, so it’s kind of a big deal. Rather than cancel class on Thursday, I thought I would give you a brief assignment on Tennyson’s In Memoriam, instead. Yes, I’m cruel. I know you would rather have a cancelled class. I get it. But this is your chance to show me what you know!

The paper I’m presenting at NAVSA is entitled “Victorian Studies in Hard Times.” Essentially, I’m analyzing a passage from Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, in which the novel’s third-person narrator takes a moment to intrude upon the narrative to develop a critique of Victorian Utilitarian political and economic principles as they apply especially to factory systems. Here’s what Dickens writes:

 So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, for ever. – Supposing we were to reverse our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these awful unknown quantities by other means!

Notice that last line and its reference to the “awful unknown quantities.” Dickens’s reference here is not completely clear, but we can extrapolate a little bit. The passage’s emphasis on governance suggests that these “unknown quantities” are the souls of the “quiet servants” whose hands operate the machinery of the Victorian era’s industrial factories. Dickens’s speculation is that it is possible to imagine a scenario in which Victorian political and economic doctrines govern bodies in different ways than they currently do. Dickens does not provide an alternative, but leaves the speculation open-ended as a critique of Victorian Utilitarianism’s tendency to reduce bodies of citizens to numbers and statistics in the great arithmetic of political governance. Clearly, Dickens’s narrator assumes, there must be an alternative. But where and how does a culture begin to “govern” the unknown quantities of bodies and souls?

This question is of the Victorian age, but it’s also prominent in our own age of “big data” and algorithmic quantification (which is beside the point for the purposes of this mini assignment). Here’s my question, though, for each of you this week: to what extent is Tennyson’s In Memoriam making similar speculations about the limits of Victorian political and economic systems?

Here’s your assignment: reread the poem’s opening prologue. Pay attention to the stanza about how “Our little systems have their day.” And then write a response to the following questions, either as a comment on our course blog (see the + sign below) or through the assignment link in Blackboard. I would prefer that you comment through the course blog, but I realize that some students do not want to put their thoughts into the public realm.

Here are the questions: how does Tennyson develop his critique of little systems in the prologue and elsewhere in the poem? What images/metaphors does the poem develop as a way of critiquing the “little systems” of Victorian economic and scientific thought? What do you think of the poem’s many references to roots, webs, hands, networks, and nervous systems? How do all of these images/metaphors reflect a critique of scientific and political thought?

These are big questions, but I know you are up to the task. There’s no need to worry about the quality of your writing in your responses. I just want to see if you can recognize this major thematic element of the poem.

I’m looking forward to reading your responses!

18 thoughts on “Assignment for Thurs 3 Nov 2016

  1. The “little systems” Tennyson refers to encompasses the systematic factors of the Victorian political and social environment. These “little systems” refer to the trivialities of society, such as the dogmatic aspects of religion, where there is one way, through strict rituals and intermediates, to express faith; the capitalist mentality that begins to take form in Victorian society, where importance lies in the accumulation of wealth; and, the development of the scientific industry, where knowledge begins to overpower faith. This reference to the “little systems” is often regarded as “broken lights,” where the illuminations of faith, trust, and knowledge are broken by the presence of greed, control, and selfishness. Tennyson recognizes that, for their time, the vices of the “little systems” of Victorian society are all-consuming, but, eventually, like the continuity of the web of life, these “little system” will “cease to be” until another all-consuming system will enter society. The systems are connected to the webs or networks that are present within the society of the Victorian era, and represent the connectivity of the individuals and the systems, where there is a cycle of faith to knowledge, knowledge to faith, but never a balance between the two.


    • In the poem “In Memoriam A.H.H,” Tennyson critiques what he coins as “little systems” of Victorian society. LIttle systems are essentially matters in society that seem significant in contemporary society, but pale in comparison to spirituality and one’s relationship with God. Tennyson alludes to the irrelevance of these systems (i.e political, economic) in the grand scheme of things by comparing them to broken lights. This comparison is symbolic because broken lights don’t emit a significant amount of light, and tend to dim over time. In contrast, the light of God is bright and shines on through eternity. Tennyson seems to be concerned that the legacy of his friend will merely fade away with his passing. He also uses imagery of petty cobwebs to imply the irrelevance of contemporary interconnected societal institutions that bear no long lasting importance, in contrast with religion and man’s relationship to God.


  2. Similar to Charles Dickens’ criticism of Victorian utilitarianism in “Hard Times,” Alfred Tennyson critiques the scientific thought, the political systems, and arguably the social constructs of his time in both the prologue of “In Memoriam,” and elsewhere throughout the poem. In the prologue the speaker states that “Our little systems have their day;/They have their day and cease to be:/ And thou, O Lord, art more than they” (Tennyson, lines 17-20). In the second section of the poem, the speaker then claims that “the clock/ Beats out the little lives of men” (section II, 7-8). These statements highlight the transience of both human life, and the scientific, economic, political, or social fluctuations that we undergo, and clearly reveal the speaker’s belief that these human-made constructs, and human lives themselves, are utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of deep, geological time. This idea, of course, causes Tennyson to grapple with the grief he feels in the wake of Arthur Hallam’s death. The speaker puts forth the idea of God as an overarching guide, law, and source of meaning, that renders human-created systems obsolete and ephemeral.

    The speaker’s continual references to webs, roots, networks, and other entangled systems contributes to the speaker’s condemnation of scientific and political systems. The roots of the yew tree that “are wrapt about the bones” (section II, 20), the “web [which] is wov’n across the sky” (section III, 6), and the “empty hands” (section III, 12), could all be alluding to the encumbering, unnecessary, and empty nature of the systems that we oppose on ourselves politically, economically, and socially. These intermingled systems that the speaker references would be difficult to disentangle oneself from, much like human-made constructs. Perhaps the speaker’s continual mention of webs, and the like are representative of the entrapment of humankind in the unnecessarily complex society we have created.


  3. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” refers to these “little systems” (17) as bad replicas of the faith which comes as a “beam in darkness” (24) from God. This faith is different from knowledge because it is not something concrete, but based on trust. The systems themselves could be anything made by man: politics, economy, religious practice and mechanics are all knowledge-based, calculated, rigid things which, like concrete, they crumble. As strong as these things seem when thy are new, they need constant maintenance to keep them standing that’s why they are “broken lights” (19) which are man-made, and need changing every so often to keep them glowing, as opposed to the beam of faith which doesn’t have a visible source and is accessible and always lit to those who trust in it. The roots are in the middle of the two concepts. not divine, and not entirely influenced by man, they represent nature and science in all of its cruelty and indifference to suffering. The roots of the yew tree feed on the bodies of the dead to grow, and thus nature continues on independent of human suffering or loss. while God and man operate on love and trust, nature “red in tooth and claw” (LVI 14) has no worries of such things, and just continues working in its broad strokes, skipping over the little details of human sorrow, and reaching into every aspect of life.


  4. Tennyson’s In Memoriam outlines his critique of the “little system” in his prologue by acknowledging the systemic order of the universe of both God and man. Tennyson presents the depiction of man’s constructed system of religion as being both foundational, but also temporal. The poem is clearly to be based on, and explore the “little systems” that are intrinsically connected with the unexplored knowledge around man’s relationship and ties to God. The image of the “invisible hand” came through most profoundly as an aspect of Victorian economic systems. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations had been written nearly one-hundred years prior to Tennyson’s In Memoriam and may have largely influenced the writing. Tennyson’s constant references to the roots of systems and creating imagery of a web-like nature, but guided by elements he called the “invisible hand”. It is clearly indicative of Adam Smith’s influence of economic theory which during the time In Memoriam was written would have outlined the various impacts of the economic theory. The constant referencing of things and objects that all represented interconnectedness demonstrates the connectivity of various social and economic aspects of Victorian culture. Moreover, a religious reading of Tennyson’s text also reveals a more complicated esoteric view of the interwoven nature of man’s rational with faith and God. Tennyson sets out to rationalize and quantify the loss of his friend through both scientific method and religious influence. The result is a complex interwoven nature of scientific inquiry, religion, political, and economical social structures. While Tennyson does not provide a definitive conclusion to his exploration of these connections the use of metaphors outlines the cross cutting nature. However, it was not Tennyson’s objective to solve these questions, but rather an ideological exercise dressed in poetic diction.


  5. The temporary little systems of the poem remind me of Cranford with all it’s little social systems that are strictly adhered to and then discarded when they become too ridiculous to follow. “They are but broken lights of thee,” as technology and society changes (19). The rapid change of the Victorian era could make any new system seem like a fad. These “broken lights,” are only a small portion of the evolving collective conscience of humanity. “We have but faith: we cannot know,” expresses the limits of human intelligence (21). These systems can only go so far because of the limits of human existence. The referral to “the little lives of men,” further downplays the constructions of humanity (2.8). One line catches my eye as Tennyson refers to a yew tree he “grow[s] incorporate into thee” (16). I think of the networks created by society that incorporates everyone into them. Everyone person plays a part in their world and as people participate in these systems they are drawn further into them. Tennyson recognizes this tension of a modern society that progresses by creating more and more obligations that link people to the systems of the time.


  6. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” suggests that the little systems within society are meaningless as they will eventually no longer exist. Like these “little systems”, human lives, too, will eventually be forgotten in time. He is concerned with the emptiness of life, and searches for a meaning, but is weary in his response, as he reflects upon it’s potentially sinful projection. Tennyson is concerned with the dichotomy of scientific progress and religion. He critiques the extent to which we should rely on faith or fact, and this dichotomy allows him to respond in a unique way that emphasizes the intertwining of the two concepts.
    The multiple images of nature provided within the poem critique scientific and political thought by suggesting that God creates everything on the earth, and humans create the scientific thought, but eventually the humans will die, and only God’s nature will prevail. Human life’s constructions are only temporary, and will eventually fuse with nature, whether nature be a divine gift from God, or a scientific study. The poem suggests that both God and scientific nature are intertwined and everlasting, but that humankind and it’s “little systems” are temporal.


  7. The “little systems” that Tennyson writes, and the Dickens’s line of “so many hundred Hands in this mill; so many hundred horse steam power,” both seem to be a criticism of the Victorian era’s industrial revolution. The workers of the industrial revolution “have their day and cease to be” (18) with many of the young workers living a “wasted youth” (42).
    Within In Memoriam, the many references to nature and science are representative of the idea that science and nature are two sides of the same coin. They are also reflections of the different ways that Tennyson is grieving. He applies his grief through physical symptoms, such as referring to the nervous system and hands. Through the natural world, he expresses his grief in a more profound manner. His grief is intertwined with his body and with the Earth itself.
    As a critique of the Victorian society’s scientific and political thought, Tennyson is arguing that the politics of his society should embrace both scientific thought and religion rather than remaining pious. At the same time, his writing within the poem exemplifies that he is aware of the tensions between the two schools of thought.


  8. Tennyson uses the “little systems” to describe various aspects of the poem relating it to nature or beyond, either way he points out how insignificant our lives may seem individually when looking at the bigger picture of the world. And these systems whether it be in the form of webs or roots continue through the stages of life, death and rebirth, meaning that nothing truly ends and everything is interconnected. Both religious and scientific images emphasize these systems and their interconnection to each other creating a form of harmony where faith becomes intertwined with science. Tennyson makes references to “broken lights” and the “confusions in a wasted youth.” Both of these quotes represent the Industrialization period where many were forced to work in factories or in unbearable conditions, and although death may have seemed like a way out from this suffering, the burden would only be passed onto their relatives and friends. These images reveal the inability for people/individuals to understand why they have to live like this, feeling as though they should be thankful but are unable to see why they endure life’s harsh trials.


  9. Tennyson uses the “little systems” to describe various aspects of the poem relating it to nature or beyond, either way he points out how insignificant our lives may seem individually when looking at the bigger picture of the world. And these systems whether it be in the form of webs or roots continue through the stages of life, death and rebirth, meaning that nothing truly ends and everything is interconnected. Both religious and scientific images emphasize these systems and their interconnection to each other creating a form of harmony where faith becomes intertwined with science. Tennyson makes references to “broken lights” and the “confusions in a wasted youth.” Both of these quotes represent the Industrialization period where many were forced to work in factories or in unbearable conditions, and although death may have seemed like a way out from this suffering, the burden would only be passed onto their relatives and friends. These images reveal the inability for people/individuals to understand why they have to live like this, feeling as though they should be thankful but are unable to see why they endure life’s harsh trials.


  10. The way in which Tennyson introduces the “little systems” into the poem make it seem as though he detests them. The words read as though they leave a foul taste in his mouth. Before the introduction of the little systems in the Prologue, he discusses life and death and divinity in which over power that of these menial systems that mean nothing. Tennyson criticizes the importance people put on daily lives such as Dickens in the excerpt discussing workers and national debt. Tennyson’s poem however reminds me of the Book of Ecclesiastics where one of the main concepts in this section of the Christian Bible is the question of “what’s the point”. Although very cynical, both texts have justifications.
    The concept of networks, roots, ands webs also relate to the Book of Ecclesiastics as well. One of the main ideas in the book is that of continuality and connectivity. This book follows through a lot of King Solomon’s struggles with mortality, much like Tennyson in In Memoriam. This is significant because of the culture and importance on the Bible in the Victorian Era. Solomon’s concept of webs goes through the idea that everything is linked together and therefore will never end. But the idea of connectivity is strongly used in both Tennyson’s text and the Book of Ecclesiastics where living is not an individual experience only mortality is. However when in regards to the little systems, the connectivity follows that we’re all in this together in a sense that we can’t get caught up in all the fuss of life without any consideration of death.


  11. The prologue of Tennyson’s In Memoriam often alludes to something “vaster” than what may be perceived from a political or capitalist point of view (29). By stating, “Thou madest man, he knows not why, / He knows he was not made to die,” Tennyson implies that there is a vast breadth of purpose and meaning in life that cannot be explained through political or scientific means (10-11). The quote by Charles Dickens, referenced by Dr. Martin, also suggests that reducing man to capitalistic instruments places limits upon their capacity to explore life to its fullest and most meaningful potential. Tennyson remarks upon the futility of “our little systems,” describing them as “broken lights of thee,” meaning that these political systems that we invest so much into will inevitably end (17-19). Yet while systems end, faith and knowledge can increase infinitely, as “a beam in darkness: let it grow” (24). Tennyson uses the analogy of light and growth to emphasize the endless potential for human beings to increase in faith and knowledge until “mind and soul, according well, / May make one music as before” (27-28). His description of political system reflects a critique of the limits within man’s constructs.


  12. Science, economics, and politics are themselves “little systems,” and it seems to me that Tennyson transcends the topics rather than indulges them in In Memoriam A.H.H.. The images of roots, webs, etc., for me, are motifs of inter-connectivity, and not negative critiques of “little systems,” as some of my classmates have offered. If anything, Tennyson points out that the things we come up with as humankind, including science, are “little” and insignificant in the shadow of life as a holistic movement. Beyond the above, however, I am failing to see In Memoriam A.H.H. as anything other than primarily personal—mostly unconcerned with the “little systems” it mentions.


  13. The major underlying theme in this eulogy is one of blindness and the lack of appreciation for life. Tennyson refers to death and “these leaves that redden to the fall” as a way of coping with his loss and his friend’s untimely death. Within these stanzas, he also draws attention to the methodical life of people surrounding him and of nature itself. He criticizes the “fools of habit” who don’t take a moment to appreciate life and their loved ones but rather, chase worldly gains and praises. There are also instances of self-critique as Tennyson realizes that he also had been captivated by capitalism and scientific development without appreciating the real wonders of the world and nature. In part 12, he wishes to fly away and abandon his “weight of nerves without a mind,” seeking to purify his knowledge and gaining wisdom for the purpose of enlightenment.
    Regarding the use of science, my assumption is that Tennyson is implying evolution or progress does not really matter as everyone dies eventually. His friend’s death reaffirms this fact that knowledge is not a shield against nature or death and that death has the power to stun people from the “power to think.” These ideas are shaped as critiques of science and the mechanical chase to obtain answers to daily problems and challenges.


  14. In lines 17-20 of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” Tennyson describes how “Our little systems have their day;/ They have their day and cease to be:/ They are but broken lights of thee,/ And thou, O Lord art more than they”. Tennyson goes on to further describe and critique these social, economic and scientific little systems throughout the poem. From the above four lines though, it is evident that Tennyson views all these systems as fads that essentially go in and out of style or relevance and then disappear entirely. Tennyson describes these little systems essentially as broken lights from God, who is “more” than all these little systems will ever be. In this sense, Tennyson sees all these little systems as taking away from, and lesser than the light of God.

    For example in part II, the narrator describes the Yew tree in a graveyard, its “roots are wrapt about the bones” (4) of dead people. Here Tennyson contrasts the transience of human life, “the little lives of men” (8), to that of the hardy Yew tree, which will oversee the birth and death of many generations. In this sense the life of a human seems insignificant to that of the “stubborn” (14) tree. Human life on Earth can even be seen as one of these little systems when compared to the eternity of afterlife. The narrator reflects in part XXXIV that, “My own dim life should teach me this,/ That life shall live for evermore,/ Else earth is darkness at the core,/ And dust and ashes all that is (1-4). Essentially, from this passage, it is the idea of eternity that makes life worth living; otherwise it is nothing more than just “darkness” (3) and “dust and ashes” (4). As well, the narrator describes his life as somewhat small and diminished when he refers to it as “my own dim life” (1). In these few lines it would appear that even mere mortal existence, without afterlife, can be seen as one of the “little systems” mentioned earlier. Throughout the poem there is evidence of human existence being portrayed as its own insignificant little system.


  15. The “little systems” in Tennyson’s in memoriam are systems are evident in everyday life. God has his systems but so do the people. A person’s system may be different from a community’s system. Human systems last only as long as they do. Each person’s daily rituals, a society’s social mores. When those people and that society are gone, the systems cease to be. However, god is eternal. The systems keep turning, the end describes a marriage, which will lead to the birth of a child. Life goes on. This is seen in how when Tennyson visits the places that he and Hallam used to visit, he feels the loss of his friend strongly. Tennyson continues on as society deems he should, following the laws of those “little systems”. He believed that society should be infused with faith, ignoring cynicism coming from people who view humans as simply set types.


  16. Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam is filed with imagery and metaphors that elude to the “little systems” that plague society. In the prologue Tennyson writes, “Our little systems have their day;/They have their day and cease to be:/ And thou, O Lord, art more than they” (17-20) while elsewhere also a liking these systems to a clock and how they beat out the lives of men. Similar to that of Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times” Tennyson is critical of these systems and the way in which people depend on them while drawing attention to how insignificant they are. The references to “roots, webs, hands, networks and nervous system” highlight how intertwined and dependent these systems are. They are everywhere socially in religion, politics, and science. Because of this, like Dickens’ take on these little systems, the poem is also critical about the dependence people have on these systems. Like the previous example with the clock that “Beats out the little lives of men” (II, 7-8) which implies the insignificance of the life that people lead; that these systems just continue on in the the lives of men and women who blindly follow along. These systems are real and everywhere but both works argue how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things. Overall, all of these systems are man made and hold no significance in relation to God’s plan for man kind which they argue do not have these little systems. They challenge people to consider and question these systems in relation to their own insignificant life.


  17. (I’m sorry this is late, I had forgotten about it)

    Dickens develops his critique of little systems through metaphors and word choice such as “hundred”, “capacity for good or evil”, “love and hatred”, “patriotism or discontent” and “decomposition of virtue into vice” and so on. These word choices give a painful weight to the little system. I like how he describes the degradation of virtue, a valued and necessary thing, to vice which is sinful in a way. It is very good writing, but anyone can tell you that about Dickens. His metaphors have the same effect as his word choice. The soul of the quiet servants that are composed and regulated gives feelings of oppression and restricted pain of these people because, they may not be allowed to show suffering, therefore, they must remain stoic. This is a heartbreaking image. His images of roots, webs, hands, networks and nervous system enhances that feeling of oppression and restricted pain because these things are all structured, rigid, powerful, necessary and essential to survival. But there is a hidden contradiction in these things like there is in restricted pain. These things are all fragile and if the webs, networks and nervous systems are disturbed, they fail and deteriorate and utterly kill the things that rely on them. Just how restricting pain may seem noble and communicate strength, like enclosed pressure in metal casing, it will explode and destroy. All of this is an image to politics and treatment of people in the industrial period.


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