Could you please help me analyze stanzas 54, 55 and 56 in ' "In Memoriam" by Tennyson?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Dedicated to his deceased friend of five years, Arthur Henry Hallman Alfred Lord Tennyson's "In Memoriam" loosely follows the pattern of a pastoral elegy. Thematic of this elegy is Tennyson's examination of the trials that all humans must suffer in life, trials that challenge people's theological beliefs and the overriding existential question of man's purpose on earth. Written in abab stanzas of iambic tetrameter, the tonal quality of "In Momoriam" has been characterized both as one of mourning, but has also been critized for being rather monotonous in its rhyme and conflict of faith with doubt. Certainly, Cantos 54,55, and 56 exemplify this conflct.

In Canto LIV [54], Tennyson writes that Christians trust that all souls will be gathered together into one soul, yet the speaker is doubtful:

I can but trust that good shall fall
At last--far off--at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

In Canto LV [55], Tennyson's speaker attributes this desire for the survival of every soul after death to Love--"God within the soul." But, he raises the question,

Are God and Nature than at strife
That Nature lends such evil dreams?

So often Nature is careless of species--...finding that of fifty seeds/She often brings but one to bear--but trusting as a Christian, he "faintly trust(s) the larger hope."

Then, in Canto LVI [56] the poem's speaker continues the idea of the carelessness of Nature,

..."A thousand types are gone; 
I care for nothing, all shall go.

An often-quoted passage is that of this canto:

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

With this passage, Tennyson brings into question the controversy between ideas of evolution published in 1844 in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and "the truths that can never be proved" that Christians "faintly trust" because they are "the larger hope."

Further, the speaker asks if man is no more than the animals, another species on his way to extinction, then he is merely a beast in shape and a momentary vision since he has no eternal life: "A monster then, a dream,/A discord." If this be true, then life is hopeless, futile:

What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

The poet wonders if there is any answer to this existential question on the life of the soul; he is left with his doubts at this point, but in the end, Tennyson's speaker concludes,  

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Sources:

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