You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.
I know not: one indeed I knew
In many a subtle question versed,
Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true:
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone,
But in the darkness and the cloud,
As over Siniai’s peaks of old,
While Israel made their gods of gold,
Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.
Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem
Doubt is not unbelief. It is a friend of Truth because honest Doubt is a seeker and Truth welcomes investigation. Tennyson wrote his famous In Memoriam as a response to and journal of grief following the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. In it he lays bear the devastation which led to a crisis of faith, but to our benefit he carries us through to a better conclusion.
In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite writes:
Towards the end of In Memoriam Tennyson addresses those who condemn doubters as weak, and suppress or demonize their own doubts. He shows instead that a mature and balanced faith is not one which has refused the agony and the wrestling but one that has been through them and grown from them. Paradoxically this famous passage about ‘faith in honest doubt, is also a place in which he makes one of his most explicit appeals to scripture, to the darkness and cloud of Sinai, contrasted with the sparkling certainties of the Golden Calf.
Has doubt ever brought you closer to God?
Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
24Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
25When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!”
Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy
(1809–1892) The most popular English poet of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, the son of a country rector. He and his brother began to write verse and published a volume titled Poems by Two Brothers in 1827, the year Alfred left for Cambridge. He remained there until 1831, when financial need obligated him to return home, where he devoted himself to the craft of poetry. At Cambridge he developed a close friendship with Arthur Henry Hallam, who later became engaged to Tennyson’s sister. Hallam’s sudden death in Vienna at age twenty-two led to the publication of a long sequence of elegies by the poet in tribute to his friend. Finally completed and published in 1850, In Memoriam, is generally considered to be Tennyson’s finest work. Some parts of the poem have been made into hymns. Also in 1850 Tennyson was appointed Poet Laureate as successor to William Wordsworth.
His earlier poems—“Mariana,” “The Palace of Art,” “The Lotus Eaters,” “The Lady of Shalott,” “Ulysses,” and “Locksley Hall”—won for Tennyson wide acclaim. His poetry is always touched with the spirit of romanticism that early reminded critics of Keats. With the publication of In Memoriam Tennyson was secure, his income substantial, enabling him to buy a house in the country and to marry Emily Sellwood. Idylls of the King, a twelve-part narrative poem based on the Arthurian legends, occupied much of the latter part of Tennyson’s life. A good portion of Tennyson’s work is idealistic and morally high-minded. His religious convictions were expressed in terms of hope for an afterlife, but these hopes were rarely supported by strong doctrinal commitment. “Crossing the Bar,” his best known single poem, was written when the poet was eighty years old. Tennyson’s “Strong Son of God, Immortal Love” (1850) found its way into Christian hymnody when it was set to music by Leo Sowerby in 1941. He was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Robert Browning.
P.M. Bechtel, “Tennyson, Lord Alfred,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 664.
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.
Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.