Sick of life: Tennyson and Carlyle's faith through illness and isolation

Hawker, Maximilian T. (2012) Sick of life: Tennyson and Carlyle's faith through illness and isolation. (MA(R) thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis examines the impact of physical and spiritual sickness in the lives and works of Alfred Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. Where the tendency for 20th century scholarship has been to emphasise the secularisation of Tennyson and Carlyle, this study asserts the existence in each writer of a strong, private faith developed through a preoccupation with personal and societal illness. Sickness is not simply a background note to Tennyson and Carlyle's biography; it is a fundamental concept that was at the forefront of their thoughts for their entire lives, considered by them noth throughout their struggles with faith and doubt. Their personal suffering, whether physical or psychological, prompted each man to an acute awareness of his own mortality, and to questions over the relevance and purpose of theology, whether traditional and orthodox or, in their cases, new and unorthodox. A constant awareness of their own frailty acted as the counterpoint to their certainty of the existence of a spiritual reality, producing a dichotomy to which each man dedicated a lifetime of intellectual endeavour. This thesis therefore traces the development of Tennyson and Carlyle's faith in its relationship with sikness, referring notonly to the relevant literary works of each writer, but also to their extensive catalogue of private letters. Throughout my thesis I have made a conscious effort to engage with the texts of each writer that have received less scholarly attention, especially in the case of Tennyson. Carlyle, in his own right, deserves more critical attention across all his works. Chapter 1 of this study examines Tennyson and Carlyle's views on spiritual sickness in society, specifically their views on the Evangelicals and sceptics, respectively. I explore the use of sickness as a metaphor for religious turmoil in tennyson's 'St. Simeon Stylites' and 'Sea dreams', and in Carlyle's 'Characteristics'. Chapter 2 focuses on Tennyson and Carlyle's active attempts to destabilise the importance placed on the life of senses, and how the mortal body is simply a diseased shell for the healthy soul, the soul itself united with the 'cosmic unconsciousness'- a singular existence where God is unified with all mankind, and the physical dimensions of time and space are irrelevant. I explore this idea in Tennyson's 'The two voices' and 'The ancient sage', and in Carlyle's 'Characteristics' and 'Sartor Resartus'. Finally, Chapter 3 describes how Tennyson and Carlyle ended their spiritual journeys in deliberate physical and emotional isolation, in an attempt to quarantine themselves from the sickly influence of society, and strive beyond their own physical selves towards the 'cosmic unconsciousness'. I explore this concept in Tennyso's 'Mariana', 'The mystic' and 'The dead prophet', and in Carlyle's 'Sartor Resartus'.

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