All art says Coomaraswamy, interprets life. Literature, a highly developed form of art aims to solve the mystery of existence and is therefore, thought of as a form of philosophy. Though some critics like George Boas very bluntly refuse to accept this (1963:110). Still poets like Browning, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Whitman reveal primeval truths which have struck readers as revelatory. These revelations are the essential spiritual truths to which no one person or age can make exclusive claim. They are universal and manifest themselves in different forms of universal traditions. Only, the truths communicated need to be explicated. For example, The Bible speaks of the fall of man, while the Vedanta speaks of the Fall of God from an absolute state of perfection to an apparent finitude. The concept of Superman of Nietzsche points out to the Jivanmukhta* Jina* and Boddhisatva*.The Catholic Church has preserved the idea of motherhood embodied in the voluptuous bodies of Hindu deities. The concept of Trinity—Father, Son and the Holy Ghost –in one Godhead is not very different from the Vedic One Divine Being seen as Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh. The importance of the inscription KNOW THYSELF that ran at the Greek Temple of Delphi has been acknowledged by Shankaracharya. Concept of a personal God is universally set over against the human soul and stands with man in different relations— as a beloved to a lover ( Radha saw Him as a lover ), a servant to a master (Brother Lawrence and Tulsidas regarded themselves as God’s servants), a son to a father ( to Jesus, God was a father and to Ramakrishna God was a mother), a friend to a friend (Arjuna saw God as a friend)and a husband to a wife ( Meera took her God to be her husband).
Artist does not create but discovers the truths. The faculty which helps him reach the truth is called imagination or genius. Tennyson was a genius. He belongs to a class of poets whose work has a two fold value _a value that rests on the simple beauties of life and nature when he is all eyes and ears and a value and interest that draws on the experiences of life and his own mystical experiences. Entirely different from the tradition of mystics and visionaries, his work, nevertheless, contributes to the spiritual heritage of man. In his attempt to unravel the mystery of life and death, Tennyson reveals some eternal truths and strikes a similarity with Vedic* philosophy. Though a man of radically different milieu and convictions, Tennyson is able to secure the same results of moral quickening, peace of mind and rapport with the central spiritual reality as could the ancient sages of India. Hindu philosophy in its different form and varying degrees pervades the atmosphere of his work. The present paper attempts to bring to surface the embedded Hindu thought in Tennyson’s poetry.
Some of Tennyson’s poems are primarily symbolic. BREAK, BREAK, BREAK an example of poet’s oblique expression of his deep anguish over the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, presents poet’s vision of death.* The oblique operates at a level of pure suggestion. The scene of the rolling waves lashing themselves on the rocky coast opens up the vision of vast cosmic flux. The waves made up of the same atoms and molecules as the sea, emerge from the infinite ocean, take on individual shapes, have full play on the rocky shore, break on the hard stones and are sucked back into the shapeless vastness of the flux. The shaped congregation of particles we call humans are separated from Brahman* by a permeable membrane called life. Like the waves they maintain their identities until the moment they break on the cold gray stones of death and merge once more in the flux till they are ready and willing to take new identities. The show goes on eternally. This whole picture is the show of Maya; behind its veil lays the eternal Reality.
The image of sea stands for the vast cosmic flux again in DE PROFUNDIS to bring out the distinction between body and soul –one perishable, belonging to the gross elements and the other indestructible ,entirely free from the clutches of material world yet fused in one life .The poet’s child son Hallam who comes out from the vast “great deep” is hailed by two greetings. His coming into the world is his exile into mystery of this “divisible-indivisible world.” The physical being is made up of the atoms from the same ever changing flux of atoms. The atoms change but stay through all the vagaries of growing and ageing until death which releases the atoms to join the flux.
The different systems of Vedic philosophy with little variation present the same vision of death. Shankara like Tennyson believes that Brahman becomes divided into many individual souls like sea breaking up in many waves. He argues if all the souls are one jiva, then when the first case of liberation occurred , mundane existence should have come to an end which is not the case but he adds The Brahman is real , the universe illusory or Maya . The Sankhya* system recognizes the same reality and names it Purusha, the Self and Prkriti the non Self. Prakriti is one, all pervading, eternal and can never perish, the products are many in number, limited in space and time. It, however, recognizes the impossibility of deducing Purusha or the self from Prakriti. It describes the world in terms of one homogenous substance of which all things are different configuration resulting from the different combinations of its ultimate constituents. The evolution of Prakriti is with a purpose “an arch wherethro’/ Gleams that untravell’d world.”
Ramanujan too believes that God is real and independent and the souls like waves are real too and their reality is utterly dependent on that of God like the reality of waves is dependent on that of the sea. But the relation of the individual souls with the Brahman is not he same as those of the waves with the sea. Brahman is eternally free from all imperfection and the individual souls are subject to ignorance and suffering. Yet they form a unity because Brahman is the controlling power.
The reality of these cosmic visions transcends our rational powers of conceiving as well as comprehending reality. Only if we resort to the spiritual insight can we be certain of the reality of spiritual universe beyond the physical universe. Mystics and sages perceive it through their visionary powers and transcendental imagination. Tennyson acknowledges that intellect is impotent to realize the ultimate reality:
For knowledge is the swallow on the lake
That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there
But never yet hath dipt into the abysm,
The Abysm of all Abysms,…
(THE ANCIENT SAGE)
The Vedic scriptures declare the illusory dualistic veil as Maya* referred to by Tennyson as “the surface shadow” and “shadows of a shadow world”. Knowledge has its limitations. Tennyson himself reached at these truths through a process which was an assimilation of his deep interest in metaphysics and his own mystical experiences. Biographies and memoirs tell us that he had had long discussions on profound subjects like life and death ,the next world, God, man and many other transcendental subjects with friends so distinguished and so diverse as Carlyle, Mr. and Mrs. Browning, Jowett, Huxley, Spedding, Gladstone and many others. His wide range of study enabled him to think with clarity the great philosophic and religious problems. Above all he was gifted with mystical powers, the earliest hint of which is given in Memoirs of Hallam where Tennyson remembers himself standing as a child on the gale-swept lawn of his house and crying in wild delight “I hear a voice that’s speaking in the wind.” This mystical exhilaration celebrated long ago in ARMAGEDDON was known to Tennyson in some degree from time to time all his years: “A kind of waking trance, I have often had, quite from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me through repeating my own name two or three times to myself silently, till all at once, out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individual itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being: and this not a confused state, but clearest of the clearest and the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest. Utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming not extinction but the only true life” (1899:358). Again at one place he informed Mrs. Bradley ,”Yes, it is true….There are moments when this flesh is nothing to me, when I feel the flesh to be the vision , God and the spiritual the only real and true…(1968:385).The poet here conveys the essence of Advaitya Vedanta *, the central tenet of which is the melting of the self in one cosmic consciousness; the individual soul is no other than the universal soul. An identical parallel of this condition is found in the AUTOBIOGRAPHY of Sri Yogananda “The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before I had been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body but embraced the circumambient atoms…. An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The Spirit of God, I realized, is exhaustless Bliss” (1990:141-142). The strange glow that the poet sees across the water in MERLIN AND THE GLEAM–
There on the border
Of boundless ocean,
And all but in Heaven
Hovers the Gleam.
is the same mellow radiance in the Yogis vision: “the dazzling light beyond the sharply etched global outlines faded slightly at the farthest edges; there I saw a mellow radiance, ever undiminished” (1990:142).
Evidently this state is not confined to the oriental mind only. Plato regards this divine madness to be a spiritual blessing granted to man. Moses heard the voice of the Eternal Spirit at Mount Horeb. Paul is reported to have fallen into the same ecstatic trance. Tennyson reports to have its experience as early as at fifteen:
My mind seemed winged with knowledge and the strength
Of holy musings and immense Ideas,
Even to Infinitude. All sense of Time
and Being and Place was swallowed up….
By the time he wrote THE ANCIENT SAGE the transcendental vision was distinct;
Sat all alone, revolving in myself
The world that is the symbol of myself
That mortal limit of the self was loosed
And past into the Nameless, as a cloud
Melts into Heaven.
In Hindu philosophy this mystical trance is known as ‘Samadhi’* which is described by the sages as seeing with the soul when our bodily eyes are shut. In this stage a person gets the highest kind of intuitive knowledge which simultaneously embraces the past, present and the future. Super-sensuous visions, strange to human eyes, emerge. With a Yogi’s vision Tennyson reveals the grandeur and sublimity of the astral universe in VASTNESS and juxtaposes it with the short-lived, ever-changing gross matter:
Many a planet by many a sun may roll
with the dust of vanish’d race.
Hindu mystics talk of three orders of universe –physical, astral and causal. Like a painter, Tennyson paints the dream-like beauty of the physical world. Like an Indian yogi he transports us to the bliss of infinitely magical astral world. The three dimensional physical world is cognized by the five senses; the astral spheres are perceptible to the all inclusive sixth sense–intuition:
Ye were yet within
The narrow circle: he had well-nigh reached
The last, which hath a region of white flame,
Pure without heat, into a larger air
Upbringing, and ether of black hue,
Investeth and ingirds all over lives .
Is the above picture very different from the description of the astral universe given below by a resurrected Indian Yogi?
“The astral universe, made of subtle vibrations of light and colour, is hundreds of times larger than the material cosmos. The entire physical creation hangs like a little solid basket under the huge luminous balloon of the astral sphere. Just as many material suns and stars roam in space, so there are also countless solar and stellar systems….The astral luminaries resemble the aurora borealis ….Astral worlds abound in opal lakes and bright seas and rainbow rivers” (1990:410).
THE ANCIENT SAGE seems to emerge straight from the pages of hoary Vedas. It refers to the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu but the philosophy rendered there is the poet’s own –a wonderful assimilation of more than one Eastern philosophy and his own spiritual experiences:
If thou woulds’t hear the Nameless, and wilt dive
Into the Temple-cave of thine own self,
There, brooding by the central altar, thou
May’st haply learn the Nameless hath a voice
(THE ANCIENT SAGE)
“Dive into” and “brooding” metaphorically indicate the process of introspective meditation into the temple-like cave of the self. In Hindu philosophy this is the basic foundation towards God realization. In Kathopnishad, the god of death tells Nachiketa that the supreme person, the size of a thumb dwells forever in the hearts of all beings. In GEETA the same version comes from the mouth of Lord that He is seated in the region of the heart of all beings. Mystics and enlightened yogis tell us that the kingdom of heaven is within us. Vivekanada , a savant , says : “After long searches here and there , in temples and churches , in earths and in heavens, at last you come back completing the circle from where you started , to your own soul and find that He, for whom you have been seeking all over the world, for whom you have been weeping and praying in churches and temples ,on whom you were looking as the mystery of all mysteries shrouded in the clouds, is nearest of the near , is your own self” (1953:85). Patanjali, an ancient sage, prescribes systematic steps leading to the communion with the Ultimate*. A persistent withdrawal of consciousness from outward activities leads to undisturbed brooding and culminates in intense concentration and meditation and eventually Samadhi- a state where the sense of identity is lost and body and mind become inert to all external impressions. Vedanta recognizes such a man as –though in the world he is not of the world and Tennyson expresses it in PRINCESS as
Seeing I saw not, hearing not I heard.
In Kathopnished the entire chain of the process is made clear. It says, above the senses is the mind, above the mind is the intellect, above the intellect is the ego, above the ego is the unmanifested seed, the primal cause and beyond the unmanifested seed is Brahman. None can behold Him with the physical eyes. Yet in the heart is He revealed through meditation, when all the senses are stilled, mind at rest and intellect wavers not. In such a calm state the vision of God is perceived by Tennyson: “God is love, transcendent, all pervading: We do not get this faith from nature or the world …we get this faith from ourselves, from what is highest within us” (1899:314).
The universally acclaimed IN MEMORIAM and the poet’s swan song CROSSING THE BAR* which in Henry Hallam’s words is his father’s crowning work, reveal poet’s firm conviction in the immortality of soul and in the existence of one Divine Spirit. This is the quintessential of Vedantic philosophy– that soul never dies. Just as the man discards his old, shattered clothes, the soul discards the old, foul body. Both the poems are above the pantheistic religious humbug. The confusion and grief of THE TWO VOICES yields to sparkling joy and immense peace. The change in mood from
-Thou art so full of misery
Were it not better not to be?
(THE TWO VOICES)
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
From those that here we see no more;
is due to a change in conviction. Dead Hallam becomes a symbol of life. The first flush of grief sees him forcibly snatched away from the visible scene but the faith in the immortality of soul makes him indestructible .The cause of joy in CROSSING THE BAR is the happy occasion of his meeting face to face with his Pilot :”That Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us”(1887:367). The death of physical body liberates the soul to meet the “Nameless of the hundred names” of THE ANCIENT SAGE. In CROSSING THE BAR the Nameless has been addressed as the Pilot.
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
(CROSSING THE BAR)
The concept of God as Guide or Pilot is accepted in Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhists believe that He guides us out of compassion. The reality of God when seen as :
He, They, One, All, Within, Without
it dispels all confusions. The One Reality is spoken of in various ways according to the diversity of human mind called in Hindu philosophy as Matibheda*. DE PROFUNDIS
exerts the same God as
These ejaculations of joy repeat themselves in Eastern doctrines. Immense joy and ecstasy when filled with the spirit of God make the words fumble. Shankara hails God as Satchitanand—Infinite Truth, Infinite Consciousness, infinite Bliss.
IN MEMORIAM was criticized as unchristian and the poet’s creed as “Christian Agnosticism” because it contains no definite Christian dogma and no assertion of Christian faith. But the poem takes us to the core of spirituality because it contains the eternal truth of all religions. It originates from a belief in one God:
That God, which ever lives and loves
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.
The poet shows a spiritual growth. He travelled away from any kind of dogma but clung passionately to a few basic ideas believing that man is in some way an embodiment of the eternal spirit and “that Christ , for whose teaching he had the most profound reverence, was in some way, perhaps not exclusively , an incarnation of the Divine(1968:486).” In AKBAR’S DREAM he declares that religions are one – a truth realized by the great Indian king Akbar too who inaccurately but lovingly attributed the following saying of Christ inscribed on the Victory Arch in his new city of Fatehpur Sikri: “Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The world is a bridge; pass over it, but build no house upon it.” Tennyson’s poetry is a fusion of personal theism and the philosophy of the Absolute-the crux of Hindu thought. For him religion and philosophy are one which again is a Hindu concept which believes that the goal of philosophy may be truth and the goal of religion God but their ultimate experience –God and Truth –are the same reality.
Tennyson has the Kierkegaardian faith in the existence of God. He is totally confident like a child who “crying knows his father near.” This kind of belief assures Tennyson to return to a life of intense activity. After experiencing the reality of spirit, the ancient sage bids the poet to return to the human city where he may realize his true self in a life of service. Written soon after the passing away of Hallam- ULYSSES is an expression of the poet’s “feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life.”
The Vedantic philosophy is not the outcome of meditation in the forests only. Its very best parts thought out were expressed by brains which were busiest in the every day affairs of life. The doctrine which stands out luminously in every page of GEETA –the best commentary we have on the Hindu philosophy—is action with no desire of its fruit. The emphasis in Shankar is not on the retirement from the world but on renunciation of the self exemplifying the age old metaphor of lotus flower that is in the mud but remains untainted. Similarly in DE PROFUNDIS the physical body is entangled in contradictions and confusions of the material world but ‘will’ which is a fragment of the Divine is free:
This main- miracle, that thou art thou,
With power on thine own act and on the world.
So long as man’s actions are determined by his impulses, they are not free. The infinite dawns upon him when the free self “that thou art thou” governs the acts, man is free.
The apex of Vedanta is the realization of the truth –“I am Brahman”. Tennyson reached the culmination of Hindu thought when he told his son Hallam “but you never, never can convince me that the “I” is not an eternal Reality, and that the spiritual is not the only true and real part of me”(1899:493).
HINDU THOUGHT IN THE POETRY OF TENNYSON was presented by me at TENNYSON INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE conducted by the Tennyson Society of London, University of Nottingham, England 24th-27th July 1992.
*Jivanmukhta (occurs in Vedas) When the illusory distinction between self and Brahman disappears, the person is liberated here and now and is called a jivanmukhta
*Jina(occurs in Jainism) liberated in life.
*Boddhisatva (occurs in Buddhism) one attaining Supreme Enlightenment
*Vedas – Vedas literally means knowledge. The Vedas are oldest literary monuments of the Aryan mind. All orthodox Hindu recognize in them the origin of their faith.
*Vedanta– The Vedas are four in number .Each of them is divided into two parts: work and knowledge. The first is mainly made up of hymns with instructions regarding rituals, ceremonies and code of conduct. The second is concerned with knowledge of God and the highest aspect of religious truth and is called Vedanta or Upanishad. These are the works of various saints and seers who reported their insights which came to them in thoughts and visions to their disciples.”
*Brahman-The Highest Reality
*See F.E.L. Priestley LANGUAGE AND STRUCTURE IN TENNYSON’S POETRY
*Sankhya- Sankhya means number. It is a system of philosophy which aims at a right knowledge of reality by its enumeration of the ultimate objects of knowledge.
*Maya- Is said to be the cosmic principle which hides reality from the vision of man.
*Advaitya Vedanta- Ultimate Reality, according to Shankara, is Brahman. The two are identical.
*Samadhi- It is the ecstatic condition in which the connection with the outer world is broken.
* The eight rules and practices which according to Patanjali we must observe in order to clear the mind of its impurities—
- Yama-various forms of abstention from evil doing
- Niyam-the various observances
- Asana—correct posture: a physical help to concentration
- Pranayam-breath control by which stillness of mind is attained
- Pratyahara- withdrawal of mind from sense objects
- Dhyan- concentration is sustained at its fullest for short time only. Meditation is the resulting state of an even current of thought
- Samadhi- absorption in the Atman
*Although written in 1889, the poem closes all editions of the poet’s work according to his own request.
* Matibheda-difference in outlook towards the world and the Reality due to ignorance.
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- Radhakrishnan, S.1966. INDIAN PHILOSOPHY. London: Unwin Brothers Ltd.
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- Wellek, Rene &Austin Warren. 1963. THEORY OF LITERATURE. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.
- Yogananda, Paramhansa. 1990. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A YOGI. Bombay: Jaico Publishing House.