The hills are shadows…

I made a promise in my last blog to continue my thoughts on the universe as an image of God, but this blog will be a slight sideways step as a result of being on holiday last week in the west highlands of Scotland, near Poolewe. The area is popular with geology students because it is composed of sandstone and quartzite resting on a bed of gneiss, an order which is occasionally inverted due to the phenomenon called the Moine Thrust, and to volcanic events. In particular, near Poolewe there are huge outcrops of gneiss, which are immnsely old, perhaps 2.5 billion years old. To touch something that old is in itself moving, not least in the realisation that this ancient rock and one’s own contemporary humanity are products of the one process of evolution. The gnarled surface of the rock is somehow familiar to someone like me whose own surfaces are getting a bit gnarled with age.


The gradual discovery of the ages of the rocks of which the earth is composed, took time and intellectual daring on the part of the first geologists, not least because the notion that the earth was only some 6000 years old was derived from the Bible and therefore sanctified. Together with those who studied the origin of species, these investigators not only questioned the factuality of Genesis but more importantly the notion of a benficent creator God. For embedded in the sandstone, for example, were the fossils of thousands of species that no longer exist. It began to look as if the creator was a bit careless with his creatures. There were clergy who claimed that the fossils could be of animals drowned in the flood, but the evidence suggested that there had been repeated extinctions over time.

The poet Alfred Tennyson was aware of the work of geologists, such as Buckland and the Scottish pioneer, Lyall, who patiently noted the evidence of the antiquity of the earth and the vast number of extinct species. In his poem, In Memoriam, in which he reflects on the death of a dear friend, Arthur Hallam, he includes, for the first time in English literature, the facts proposed by geology:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

Of course Tennyson is not simply reporting these facts; he fashions them as part of his language of feeling; even as he defines their intellectual shock, he embodies their mystery in clear images. Earlier in the poem he had wondered at nature’s preservation of the ‘type’ or species and her carelessness with individual lives, but later he realised that the truth was a good deal worse:

So careful of the type?” but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, “A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

“Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.” And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.


The fate of extinct species suggests the possible extinction of humanity. Tennyson gives the troubling facts full value by representing them in eloquent and witty verse, allowing the reader to grasp how painfully they have entered his consciousness, and how unassailable seems their argument against religion and humanism.

It is startling to realise that what Tennyson sets against the challenge of these facts, is the one fact of his grief. Throughout the poem he gives so many instances of his tender love for his friend, and as many of his profound woe at his absence, that more than one contemporary reviewer wondered if such feelings were appropriate between men. Tennyson is less concerned with the propriety of the relationship than with discovering his identity as the one who has felt these emotions for  a person subject to natural processes. The death of Arthur Hallam does not invalidate the relationship or his emotions: they are as real as the processes of change. His identity as a friend of the dead man becomes the turning point of the poem:

That which we dare invoke to bless;
         Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt;
         He, They, One, All; within, without;
The Power in darkness whom we guess;
I found Him not in world or sun,
         Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye;
         Nor thro’ the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun:
If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep,
         I heard a voice, “Believe no more,”
         And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumbled in the Godless deep,
A warmth within the breast would melt
         The freezing reason’s colder part,
         And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answer’d, “I have felt.”
No, like a child in doubt and fear:
         But that blind clamour made me wise;
         Then was I as a child that cries,
But crying, knows his father near;
And what I am beheld again
         What is, and no man understands;
         And out of darkness came the hands
That reach thro’ nature, moulding men.
Once upon a time I thought that Tennyson was just opposing his emotions to the facts. But no, the whole poem has built up the author’s identity with his feelings: he is the one who, in this place and time, loved this other man who has died and is unwilling to relegate his grief to the waste bin. The relationship and its emotions just as much defines his identity as do the new scientific discoveries: they too are fact. The entire poem is a way of saying, “I have felt”. It is in the confidence of this identity that the poet can face reality:
“And what I am beheld again
what is,”


The human being who loves, sees in the darkness the ‘hands’ that mould humanity. He is not referring to a natural process but to a personal creativity that transcends nature.
It is a momentous claim somehow modestly made. The reader does not think that Tennyson has gone beyond the facts he has presented. The immense vulnerability of this male mourner who can characterise himself as widowed, his very fragility, begets trust. His openness to his dead friend tempts the reader to share his faith in its importance. For we realise that his identity is not that of the isolated subject but rather of the person-in-relationship. The heart insists that it should not be considered as a mechanical pump but as an organ of love and sorrow.
This is a wisdom that comes from a close acquaintance with death, the brevity of life and the incomprehensible injustice of nature. It is “blind clamour” that makes him wise enough to see his individuality as dust, but his self-in-relation with human beings and God, as diamond.
Tennyson does not insist upon, indeed he may not have noticed, the similarity between this awakening and the classic Christian faith described by St. Paul
Jews demand miracles and Greeks look for wisdom but we are announcing a crucified messiah, offensive to Jews and foolish to Greeks; but to those who are called  by God, a messiah who is the power and wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
Through his continuing love of a person who has died an untimely death, and his broader awakening to a universal process of change and decay, Tennyson rediscovers a robust faith; in his bond with Hallam he has found something like the weakness of God, which gives him reason to assert that the “spirit is more  than breath.”
I would not like to claim the wisdom of a great poem for myself but only state that my own love of the Scottish landscape has been increased rather than diminished by the science which tells me that “the hills are shadows and they flow / from form to form, and nothing stands.”

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