I spent my sixty first birthday wandering around places on the Isle of Wight with Victorian literary connections, and thinking about the great ideological debates that divided nineteenth century Britain.
We began by taking a left along Bonchurch Shore, walking away from Ventnor…
…and then found a pathway that led up the hill to the Eastdene estate where Algernon Charles Swinburne grew up. Admiral Swinburne clearly wasn’t short of cash:
Very close by is Winterbourne where Dickens stayed in the summer of 1849 and wrote some of David Copperfield:
The Old Church dates from 1070 …
….but Swinburne’s buried in the grounds of the Victorian update….
The burial here was controversial, for good reason.
He was strongly anti-Christian, and espoused some form of Paganism. He certainly didn’t die in sure hope of resurrection:
Though one were strong as seven,
He too with death shall dwell,
Nor wake with wings in heaven,
Nor weep for pains in hell…
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
(Garden of Proserpine, 1866)
After paying our respects, we drove along the military road, stopping off at St. Catherine’s Oratory, a medieval lighthouse that looks like an Erich Von Daniken style protype rocket ship …
We were on the way to the beautiful bay at Freshwater:
A quick look at the outside of Dimbola Lodge, where the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron once lived…
Julia Cameron’s carbon print of Tennyson in 1869
…and at strangely adjacent statue celebrating Jimmy Hendrix’s appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival…
…and then the climb up to Tennyson Down, with wind so strong that I was glad it was blowing me inland, but walked well away from the cliff anyway, in case it suddenly changed direction. The approach to the memorial cross seemed to take much longer than it should have:
…but I got there eventually:
The wind died down and the descent was much quicker, with plenty of time to admire the cross-island views:
Then a short drive to Farringford, where Tennyson lived between 1853 and his death in 1892:
When I was at college, I was influenced by F. R. Leavis’s view that the Victorian poets tended to escape from a reality that was becoming increasingly ugly (literally and metaphorically) by constructing a beautiful but unreal dream world. There’s some truth in this, but what I was most aware of as I wandered around the haunts of two of these poets was the vigorous part they took in the ideological debates of the nineteenth century. Swinburne and Tennyson were, to put it mildly, very different men: the first was, as Wikipedia so learnedly puts it, ‘an algolagniac’, while the latter seems to have remained celibate during his rather long (almost 14 year) engagement, and after he married in 1850 became the archetype of the upstanding Victorian paterfamilias. And in the great religious debate that dominated so much of nineteenth century intellectual life they seemed to take opposite sides. I’ve already quoted Swinburne’s views on life after death, and here he is on Christianity and sexual repression:
Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,
The laurel, the palms and the paean, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake;
Breasts more soft than a dove’s, that tremble with tenderer breath;
And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before death;
All the feet of the hours that sound as a single lyre,
Dropped and deep in the flowers, with strings that flicker like fire.
More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things ?
Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.
A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?…
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death…
And from the same poem a hint as to what Swinburne thought of the kind of iconography he saw in Bonchurch Old Church:
O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods !
O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted Gods !
Though all men abase them before you in spirit, and all knees bend,
I kneel not neither adore you, but standing, look to the end.
(Hymn to Proserpine, 1866)
This once sounded (and was meant to sound) deeply controversial. Tennyson, as we would expect, does not seek to shock the bourgeoisie, whose enthusiasm for his poetry enabled him to buy Farringford, but he too found orthodox Christianity hard to stomach.
Unlike Swinburne he hated the idea that humans were ‘only cunning casts in clay’ claiming that he ‘would not stay’ (In Memoriam, 1850, 120) if science ever proved such a strictly materialist view, but he wasn’t so sure which ‘spiritual’ belief system would provide him with refuge from this nightmare possibility. Obviously, his first thought was Christianity – he’d been brought up in a Lincolnshire Rectory – but like most decent people he found the idea of eternal torture repugnant.
In an 1842 poem The Vision of Sin, he works up to a tremendous image that expresses the hope that all humans will be saved from hell by a terrifying but ultimately merciful God:
At last I heard a voice upon the slope
Cry to the summit, “Is there any hope?”
To which an answer peal’d from that high land.
But in a tongue no man could understand;
And on the glimmering limit far withdrawn
God made Himself an awful rose of dawn.
A poem from In Memoriam (1850) calls this idea of universal salvation ‘the larger hope’:
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
Tennyson’s friend F. D. Maurice lost a university post at London because of such universalism (see e.g. http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/article_universalism_bauckham.html), one of the countless victims that we’d do well to remember when we hear Christians today whingeing about an almost always imaginary ‘discrimination’.
Christian behaviour in the nineteenth century further disillusioned Tennyson. In Locksley Hall Sixty Years After he wrote:
Christian love among the churches look’d the twin of heathen hate.
Although he remained opposed to any form of materialism, it’s hard to say what his positive alternatives were: his later beliefs have been called pantheist, agnostic and unorthodoxly Christian.
In any case, these debates are all long settled, which isn’t to say there’s not still a lot of fuss made about such things by those with nothing better to do with their lives. Christianity, universalist or otherwise, is ignored by every important English poet, and we are all materialist neo-pagans who commune with nature and think highly of sex now:
Thou hast conquered, erm, O shock-haired Bonchurchian…
Anyway, you could say that debates about religion are as dead as the arguments we used to have about the best ‘road’ to socialism (I know, I know, it’s far too obvious where I’m going.)
To Ventnor, of course which we skirted on our way back, driving close to the place where Karl Marx convalesced in the winters of 1882 and 1883. Marx wrote to his friend Frederick Engels:
The beauty of this part of the coast makes it all the harder for me to bear the ugliness of the lives of the proletariat. The gentleness of these winters in the far south of England makes it even more painful than usual to contemplate the brutality with which the bourgeoisie extort surplus value from their toiling wage-slaves. We must redouble our efforts to replace capitalist commodity production with a communist system based on production for need not profit.
Well, to be honest I made that up. In reality Marx wrote:
One can stroll here for hours enjoying both sea and mountain air at the same time.
That didn’t seem like much of an observation from one of the greatest ever European thinkers. I mean, if Socrates had holidayed on the Island and shot off a postcard to Plato saying, ‘Mrs. Hodgkin at no. 44 is a stickler for the rules but she does do a delicious full English breakfast with all the trimmings’ you’d expect me to provide you with something a bit more interesting, wouldn’t you?