The Poem from In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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(Poetry for Students)

Free Will
In line 16, the speaker of Tennyson’s “Proem” tells God, “Our wills are ours, to make them Thine.” One of the central beliefs of the Judeo- Christian tradition, within which Tennyson wrote, is the understanding that human beings are able to make their own decisions and are not just the sum of their genetic predisposition and experiences. Without free will, humans would not be responsible for their sins or their good deeds but, like machines, would only behave according to external influences.

The poem asserts that humans have free will, and points out how this freedom, which could lead to bad behavior, is ultimately to God’s benefit. Humans have the ability to choose to do God’s bidding, which makes their worship of Him more significant than it would be if they had no choice. Being omnipotent, God does not need this explained to Him by Tennyson; the poem’s description of free will may be phrased as an explanation, but it serves more as an acknowledgement of the responsibility humans have to actively, consciously obey the will of God.

The emphasis on free will fits in with the poem’s overall analysis of the symbiotic relationship between knowledge and free will. If humans could have concrete knowledge of the nature of God and what God wants, then the obvious thing to do would be to follow God’s bidding. Without any certainty, though, humans are able to, as the poem observes, mock God or fear Him. Worship becomes a greater achievement, one that is accomplished only through disciplined faith.

The poem begins with strong praise of God, mentioning strength, love, and immortality in the very first line. Though it continues its praise, there is emphasis on the fact that reverence is based on uncertainty. In effect, the poem puts forth the idea that to revere God, one by definition does not know what one is talking about. Awkward as this position seems, it is one with which the poem is comfortable. Tennyson explains faith and how it contrasts with knowledge, and how there is much to existence that extends beyond humanity’s limited...

(The entire section is 726 words.)