In section 52 of In Memoriam, the poet says that he feels intuitively that all suffering must have its just reward: "good will be the final goal of ill." He tries to believe this, yet his intellect will not let him hold such a notion with certainty. "We know not anything," he says. Man on earth knows nothing of the afterlife, nothing of God, nothing of some greater scheme. He does not even know if any of these things exist. In this poem Tennyson tries to reconcile his faith with his doubt, his religious belief with the material world. If he can prove that life has purpose and that pain and suffering have some meaning in the afterworld, then he can prove that his friend, Arthur Hallam, did not live and die in vain. Again, Tennyson's thinking here seems profoundly influenced by the burgeoning evolutionary theories of his time. The scientific evidence gathered in the nineteenth century — particularly Charles Lyell's discovery that some of the Earth's rocks had formed during hundreds of millions of years — trivialized man's existence. This new knowledge proclaimed that, yes, most likely people, worms, moths and everything else live futile lives. A single man, or even the whole race of man, cannot hold much importance over enormous tracts of time.

In this particular poem, however, Tennyson does not reach a definite conclusion. He defers the problem. That life contains meaning is but a "dream," as he says, and "dream" here has two meanings: first, hope; and second, a subconscious thought. His intuition tells him that life possesses purpose, but still he requires more concrete knowledge. The image of the infant crying evokes utter helplessness and inexperience. Since the poet cannot communicate with the dead or God, he has "no language but a cry," or just an unheard plea for answers. This poem concludes with a religious image, of an infant reaching for light, which we take as the poet grasping, not only for knowledge, but for salvation as well. These images of the last stanza stand in marked contrast to the those of the earlier lines, which drew from just earthly material — moths burning and worms split in half. The line "That nothing walks with aimless feet," for example, elicits the drawing of man walking through evolution, from ape to Homo sapiens. The combination of these images foreshadows Tennyson's eventual solution: that man evolves spiritually as well as physically and so will one day be united with God.

Like Tennyson, Brontë expresses some of the same doubts about man's significance in Jane Eyre, but she does so in a less explicit manner. When Jane beaks free of Thornfield and travels on her own through the wilderness, the reader begins to wonder here, too, if nature, God, and man do not all stand in conflict. "I have no relative," Jane says, "but the universal mother, Nature: I will seek her breast and ask repose" (284). Jane instinctually believes in the goodness of Nature and God in the same way that Tennyson does. But the common image, that of the infant, works differently for Jane. Jane expects to find succor where Tennyson does not. She naïvely believes that Nature will work in her favor — a good reason why she starves. Ironically, it is man, from whom Jane anticipates only "mistrust, rejection, insult," who ends up saving her (285). Brontë depicts this scene expertly, for she attacks Jane's more childish and romantic beliefs with a powerfully subtle anecdote. Jane of course moves through this episode obliviously, totally unaware of Nature's indifference. She thinks of Nature as a mother, yet Nature causes her to starve. Even worse, Jane believe she finds God present in the natural setting: "It is in the unclosed night-sky...that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence" (285). This notion of God revealed through the natural world interested the Evangelicals of Brontë's day. Undoubtedly, since the Evangelical party "dominated many aspects of English life" in 1789 to 1850, Brontë would have known of its elaborate systems for interpreting the natural world as Christian symbol. Where Tennyson laments the lack of spiritual contact with Earth, Brontë attacks the people who try to find it. She assaults the Evangelicals' beliefs through Jane's futile attempts to find salvation in natural surroundings. Jane cannot find solace in the material world any better than Tennyson. Luck seems to bring her to the doorstep of Morton, not God.

Last modified 25 November 2004