The Two Voice: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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      Written towards the end of 1893, the year of Hallam's death - The Two Voices is closely connected in its arguments and mood with In Memoriam. The sentiments of The Two Voices are echoed at every turn in the Elegy. The debate between the Voice of Faith and the Voice of Doubt — the Everlasting Yea and the Everlasting Nay of Carlyle — is carried forward and diffused through In Memoriam. The debate between Faith and Doubt in the poem will be clear from the analysis given in the critical summary.

One might almost regard The Two Voices as continuing in a philosophic key with the melancholy musing of Locksley Hall. There is a similar disconsolate protest against the vanity and emptiness of life; there is the feeling of doubt and disillusion, a sombre self-examination; and that same vague longing for the battlefield as remedy for the morbid sensibility that haunts so many studious men, which reappears later in Maud. And the poem ends like In Memoriam, with a revival of faith and hope under the influences of calm natural beauty, of house-hold affections, and the placid way of ordinary humanity. It is a soothing doctrine, and a wholesome media for the moodiness and ailments, the weariness of mere brain-work, that occasionally disturb a sequestered and uneventful existence; though it would hardly minister to a more perilous mental disease, or relieve the perplexities of a Hamlet.
The Two Voices


      The poet is torn in a conflict. A voice — signifying negation — speaks to him. It says it is better not to live than to live a life of misery. But there is another voice which points out that it is worth living. The dialogue between the two voices may be considered as a dialogue between the voices of doubt and that of faith within the poet. The dialogue takes place along the following lines.

      DOUBT (D) Your thoughts so full of woe — there is only one way of ending them, and that is death.

      FAITH (F) How can I consign to irredeemable destruction this body of mine, which is so wonderfully made?

D. Well, so are dragon-flies beautifully made.

F. But man with his lordly intelligence is the very crown of creation. He is not like the dragon-fly.

D. Man is not the highest life. How could you think that in the myriads of suns in space, there is no being statelier than man with his bounded hopes and fears? Even if you are gone there are plenty better than you.

F. But no two men are alike.

D. Who will miss you? The world will be none the poorer by your absence.

F. How should we know? What hope of answer or redress?

D. Death is the only way of allaying your anguish.

F. Not necessarily; the years might change the aspect of things.

D. No, your disease is past cure.

F. But I should contribute something to, at least witness, some part of the unfolding drama of Man's ever-growing knowledge.

D. For all that, you must die and know little of the wonder that will be.

F. Yet, for a brief while I can strive and watch man's development.

D. Well, don't live in a fool's paradise—the ultimate truth of life and the world will never be found, least of all by you, with such a weak frame and racked mind.

F. A selfish death is dishonour.

D. A loathsome life is worse. By prolonging your life you will only be adding one fear to another—the fear of men to the fear of ill.

F. But I might realize yet a part of my youthful dream to add to the realm of Truth or to die for a great cause by stepping into the breach.

D. Good intentions! Such dreams are but the device of Nature to induce a young man to live on in hope. But everything fades away with life. Man has no faculties to solve the riddle of life. Truth will always elude him—with a flight faster than his. You mistake shadows for reality. To die is best.

F. I know that theories and schools of thought are but cobwebs. But there have been some saints like Stephen, who had a vision of the Reality.

D. It does not mean that great seers and saints had grip of the actual Truth; it simply means that they had a happy mental organization.

F. Death may be worse than life.

D. The dead are at rest. Neither sorrow nor joy can touch them.

F. Yet in that sleep of death what dreams may come? Our yearning for immortality is the one sure proof of immortality.

D. Where were you before your birth? To begin implies an end.

F. Man's soul moves on to higher and higher states of being. That we forget our past lives is no proof that we did not exist before. Don't men awakening from a trance forget their dreams? Though the haunts of memory echo not, I might have lived as an essence. I have often intimations of past life.

D. These are but dreams. I am concerned not with your dreams, but with the reality; and the reality is your pain.

E. But you have not told me what will betide this soul of mine? Our cry is not for death but for life; more life and a fuller one.

D. Behold, it is the Sabbath morn.

F. There is nothing we can call our own but love.

      As the dialogue goes on, the voice of faith has achieved increasing self-confidence. It influences the poet much more than the voice of doubt. Hence, when the voice of doubt scornfully reminds him that it is Sunday morning, the poet gets up and opens the window to let in the fresh light of dawn. The church bells are ringing. People are going to church. He specially notices a man, his wife and their little daughter walking along to church. They seem to represent excellent unity, peace and hope. The poet blesses the family. The dull and bitter voice of doubt is silenced. The voice of faith with greater strength encourages the poet: "Be of better cheer". The poet is convinced that life has a positive side and that good will ultimately triumph, that the universe is governed by the principle of love and that there is no cause for despair.

      The poet walks into the fields and finds hope in the life of Nature. The sight of flowers and the sound of birds makes him feel that he is not justified in entertaining a sense of wrong. He is surprised at having been overwhelmed by gloom and letting the voice of doubt affect him. He should have firmly listened to the voice of faith which gave him hope and comfort and told him to "Rejoice"


      One might almost regard The Two Voices as continuing in a philosophic key with the melancholy musing of Locksley Hall. There is a similar disconsolate protest against the vanity and emptiness of life; there is the feeling of doubt and disillusion, a sombre self-examination; and that same vague longing for the battlefield as remedy for the morbid sensibility that haunts so many studious men, which reappears later in Maud. And the poem ends like In Memoriam, with a revival of faith and hope under the influences of calm natural beauty, of house-hold affections, and the placid way of ordinary humanity. It is a soothing doctrine, and a wholesome media for the moodiness and ailments, the weariness of mere brain-work, that occasionally disturb a sequestered and uneventful existence; though it would hardly minister to a more perilous mental disease, or relieve the perplexities of a Hamlet.

      With two biological concepts which everyone today connects with the doctrines of Evolution, Tennyson was familiar and anxiously concerned: the theories, that is, of the prodigality of nature and of the struggle for existence. And though Charles Darwin later in the century made the most famous application of these two ideas to biological science, Tennyson earlier gave to them their best-known phrasing, and impressed them most forcefully on the popular mind.

      One can hardly doubt that Tennyson had come into contact with both concepts by the middle of the 1830's, if not before. The first appearance of the former concept in Tennyson's work is in The Two Voices, and of the latter in the famous section LVI of In Memoriam. Like In Memoriam, this poem counterpoises in striking contrast man's belief, or desire to believe, that God is love indeed, and love is creation's final law, with the dark fact in nature of universal struggle, warfare and death which 'shrieked against his creed'. There is another passage in The Two Vocies that immediately suggests to a later generation, the mutation of the species. The poet is speculating three possible modes of pre-existence, either our state may have been the same before birth as now, or we may have lapsed from a nobler place, or finally:

If through lower lives I came—
Though all experience past become
Consolidate in mind and frame.

      But Tennyson is writing about the transmigration of souls, and the lines refer not so much to material as to spiritual progress — a sort of semi-evolutionary idea. The idea of past experience becoming consolidate in the Frame as well as the mind is distinctly important and injects the idea of physical change into these speculations concerning the soul. But from the lines themselves, we cannot be at all sure whether Tennyson was thinking of changes in species, or of the idea that the human body in its embryonic stages has resemblance to lower organisms. It is wrong to suppose that everybody in the nineteenth century connected the doctrine of mutability in species with the same phenomena and generalizations that students of science do at the present time. Tennyson's attitude towards ideas like these and his mental processes when dealing with them, were very much like those which any highly educated person living in those years would have had, if he had studied the subjects that Tennyson studied. Tennyson was not seeing by a mystic intuition the proofs of organic evolution that Darwin was to produce later: nor was he jumping past the factual evidence by the light of a transcendental metaphysic. He was following, in a sane and clear headed fashion, the most enlightened scientific thinkers of those decades; taking the results of his study into his own mind, and there struggling to mould them into some satisfactory working philosophy of life. If we keep all these facts in mind, we can turn to Tennyson's verse with some comprehension of the ideas which he was acquainted with, in natural science, rather than those which we know best today. And then one fact becomes clear; that not every statement of Tennyson's which suggests "evolution" to us meant the same thing to him when he made it.

      In The Two Voices, in spite of its happy illustrations from Nature and its well-turned, sinewy phrases, dialectic overmasters poetry. We read it far more in lines such as:

The furry prickel fire the dell,
The foxglove cluster dappled bells

      And the terse felicity of lines that sum up the urge and aim of Science and the discursive intellect:

Some bidden principle to move
And reach the law within the law.

      With the same felicity, it hints of the limitations of human enquiry in regard to the knowledge of Reality:

For every worm beneath the moon
Draws different threads, and late and soon
Spins, toiling out his own cocoon.

      In our search with logical instruments we only 'strike shadows', 'embracing cloud, Ixion-like.' The phrasing strikes home.

      Though the poem lacks the "fine frenzy" that raises it to poetry, the octosyllabic triplets on one rhyme move on with ease, and box the compass of the entire argument. No stanza gives us the sense of merely versified debate. The poem should be read as a companion In Memoriam.

      The good Christian in him has urged him perpetually to believe that life and its creator are good, and that he himself must play his humble but God-given part in making life better. The other side of his nature saw in life, "lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong" over which a good God could not preside; it urged him personally away from all commitment, towards the enjoyment of peace and beauty in which alone he could find certain good.

      The same division is to some extent reflected in The Two Voices. In this the poet argues within himself on the question whether life is worth living. At first, it is hard going but eventually the balance of argument turns in favour of hope; the 'gloomy' voice finds it harder to think of replies and ultimately, as daylight comes, it sullenly withdraws from the fray.

      The Two Voices is one of Tennyson's most impressive poems. The arguments are vigorously and memorably expressed on both sides. The three-line verses are wonderfully sustained, each group of lines' bunched like a knot of thought to be attacked by the idea which is its negation. The poem at times evokes derision —

These three made unity so sweet,
My frozen heart began to beat,
Remembering its ancient heat.

      There is something comical about them, it is true: that gravely smiling father, the mother who leans on him, and their pure, demure little daughter. In fact the 'bad' voice begins to protest within the reader. 'Pious prigs', it says, 'The old man probably commits a hundred crimes a week in the name of business'. He probably pays his employees starvation wages; the old girl is probably narrow-minded and a terror to the housemaids. May be so; Tennyson has unwittingly called cynicism into play by making his family so very, and so Victorianly, perfect. But the cynical commentary is not necessarily the true one and in any case it misses the point. The church-goers are (were) a common enough sight, but now, under the emotional stress of a night that has brought the thinker to the verge of suicide, he looks at them afresh, is moved even to 'bless' them (as the Ancient Mariner finds himself blessing the water snakes), and a new hope takes charge of his heart. The three people stand in his mind for goodness in mankind, and more specifically for the goodness which is prompted in society around him by a well ordered family life. The 'bad' voice may have things to say about that too. But it cannot argue such goodness out of existence, and in the emotional condition which the poem records, the knowledge of such goodness is sufficient to confirm a new hope that has come in the place of despair:

I wonder'd while I paced along:
The woods were fill'd, so full with song,
There seem'd no room for sense of wrong;
And wherefore rather I made choice
To commune with that barren voice,
Than him that said, 'Rejoice! Rejoice'!

      There is a valid criticism of The Two Voices. Buckley says of its argument that it "moves by delays towards its preconceived solution". In other words, although the counter-arguments of the 'bad' voice are fully expressed in the various stage of the poem, Tennyson really knew from the start that he was going to make the 'good' voice triumph, and you can see him manipulating the arguments to that end; the poem, then, is a consciously thought out piece of dialectic; one does not feel that the material took charge of the imagination, rather that the determination to come to an optimistic conclusion took charge of the writer. The Two Voices, in fact, has somewhat the same relationship to The Palace of Art as The Lotos-Eaters has to The Lady of Shalott. The Two Voices and The Palace of Art both argue a case, using imaginative poetic means to do it. The Lotos-Eaters and The Lady of Shalott are creations of a different kind. Here the imagination is in charge, and the conscious mind (arguing things out in verse) is in abeyance or is all taken up in the business of creating. But these two poems, by the richness of suggestion that is in them, offer more to the mind than: the consciously 'intellectual' pair. In The Lotos-Eaters, Tennyson has the mask of Ulysses' sailors; he can say: 'This is not me talking; it is these men'. In The Lady of Shalott he has the mask of the story-teller: he can truthfully say: 'I am not moralising, I am telling you a story'. But in The Palace of Art and The Two Voices, he is Alfred Tennyson standing in his own person before the nineteenth century public. In both poems, he exposes his own spiritual dilemma with wonderful frankness, but in both his solution is the one which the public wanted of him. He was not being hypocritical in arriving at these conclusions; they were the answers he thought to be right. But deeper in him were feelings beyond the grip of the consciously arguing mind, and we are closest to these in the poems where the creative imagination is most in control.


      1. L. 79-93. The highest mounted mind.....scale is infinite: The poet's mind is in conflict. At the moment, the voice of negation has greater influence than the forces of faith. The voice of negation here points out that even the most well-equipped mind is not capable of acquiring all knowledge. Nature's mysteries are not revealed even in thirty years. Even if the poet were to acquire the knowledge that would be available to mankind in a millennium — a thousand years hence, he would not have achieved much, for knowledge is limitless in the universe. Thus, the poet's life has no importance says the voice of negation. In these lines, Tennyson voices a doubt felt by the thinkers of his times, because of the knowledge gained by scientific discoveries.

      2. L. 184-200. Cry, faint not.....remedy for all: The poet in the course of conflict between faith and doubt hears the strong voice of doubt in these lines painting a metaphorical picture of human failure. The voice compares a human being, trying to seek the basic truths of life, to a mountain climber. The mountain climber sees the distant peaks covered by thick clouds. As the clouds clear a little and the summit becomes slightly visible, the climber feels hopeful. But the very next moment, the clouds cover the peaks again and the mountain climber is lost. He does not know if his path is straight or crooked and full of difficulties. In fact, says the voice of clouth, a human being knows very little more than beasts but considers himself just a little inferior to angels. He feels wretched and helpless. But there is no use of grumbling and striving hard to gain ever-eluding knowledge and truths of life. It is better to die at one stroke than to move slowly towards the darkness of death which is in any case inevitable.

      3. L. 220-225. He heeded not.....on the face: Prompted by faith, the poet cites the instance of Saint Stephen to counter the voice of doubt Stephen was cursed and scorned, rebuked and hit with stones. But his dauntless spirit did not allow him to submit. With courage, he went on his chosen path. He was eventually rewarded with God's grace. The poet says that ceaseless efforts without despair would certainly be rewarded.

      4. L. 280-303. Why, if man not.....thing he would: The poet cannot quite accept the argument put forward by the voice of doubt that after death man simply rots in the grave. Death may be supreme but there is a spark of divinity within us which urges us not to believe the evidence of the senses only. Some spark of immortality in man refuses to accept death as a finality. There seems to be a voice calling from beyond the grave that the human soul has a definite goal. Man may be beset with doubles, perplexities and problems. There seems to be something low and base in each one of us fighting the good in us. But the feeling of immortality is strong. The poet, it is seen, is already countering the voice of doubt and negation.

      5. L. 349-354. As old mythologies.....trance again: According to ancient myth, man drinks of the water of Lethe, a river, and forgets his past. Perhaps man passes from one life to another and, in the process, forgets his previous life completely. Life and death are compared to a man waking from a trance and then falling into it once again. Thus, a man may go on through a series of lives, forgetting each one as he enters the next one.

      6. L. 394-399. Whatever crazy sorrow.....that I want: Towards the end of The Two Voices, the voice of faith has gained more confidence. The poet thus counters the voice of doubt by offering this argument. A man may experience deep grief but even in the most intense moments of grief, he does not really want to die. Human beings want life, not death. They want, but a fuller life. These lines could be considered the climax or turning point in the poem. At this point, thoughts of suicide are replaced by a strong desire for life, indeed a fuller life. The poet speaks out in favour of hope and faith against despair and negation.

      7. L. 409-423. On fo God's house.....heat. The sight of a family of man, wife and child going to church produces a wholesome effect on the poets mind. His heart which had so long been frozen now melts and he blesses the family. The voice of negation is finally silenced.

      The picture of domesticity — the father, mother and child going in perfect peace to pray — has been criticised as typical of Victorian hypocrisy and complacency. However, we must accept it as a part of Tennyson's view of life. One recalls the Ancient Mariner blessing the water-snakes and realising salvation when we read of the poet here blessing the family and silencing the voice of doubt.

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