Some time after the publication of his book The Principles of Psychology in 1855, Herbert Spencer wrote to Alfred Tennyson:
I happened recently to be re-reading your Poem “The Two Voices,” and coming to the verse
Or if thro’ lower lives I came-
Tho’ all experience past became
Consolidate in mind and frame-
it occurred to me that you might like to glance through a book which applies to the elucidation of mental science, the hypothesis to which you refer. I therefore beg your acceptance of Psychology which I send by this post.With much sympathy yours,Herbert Spencer 1
Spencer’s motives for sending this letter, and a copy of his book, to Tennyson are unclear; perhaps he simply wanted to borrow a little of Tennyson’s cultural prestige by associating his work with that of the Poet Laureate. But it is significant that one of the most influential psychologists of the Victorian period should perceive a connection between his theories and a poem that was written two decades before the publication of those theories. His letter indicates that the investigations of the mind in Tennyson’s early work continued to resonate with readers throughout the nineteenth century, and that Tennyson’s poetry could be read by his contemporaries as making a contribution to the study of the mind.
Having said this, it is important to keep in mind the differences between Spencer’s theories and the conception of “mind and frame” that Tennyson puts forward in “The Two Voices.” In his desire to appropriate the poem to his cause, Spencer gives a selective reading of Tennyson’s lines. The triplet that he quotes forms part of a passage in which the speaker of “The Two Voices” attempts to fight off his suicidal misery by arguing that his existence transcends his earthly life, that he is an “old soul in organs new” (l.393).2 The predominant focus of this passage is on the progress of the soul rather than on any sort of physical development. The Principles of Psychology, conversely, is a rigorously materialist account of psychology, presenting the mind as the product of physical evolution. Spencer claims that thought and behavior are “determined by those psychical connections which experience has generated—either in the life of the individual, or in that general antecedent life whose accumulated results are organized in his constitution.”3 These different emphases may explain why the “sympathy” that Spencer expresses in his letter to Tennyson does not seem to have been reciprocated. There is no evidence that the poet ever replied to the letter, and his copy of The Principles of Psychology, now at the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln, is not exactly well-thumbed: apart from those of the first section, all of its pages remain uncut. It appears that although Tennyson started to read the book, he did not get very far with it.
It is hardly surprising that Tennyson, a writer whose approach to human nature was based on questioning and doubting, should find Spencer’s sweeping systemization of the development of the mind unsatisfactory. Yet there are genuine affinities between “The Two Voices” and the account of the mind presented in The Principles of Psychology. The language of the lines quoted by Spencer pulls against the seemingly metaphysical stance of the passage as a whole: the concluding emphasis on the word “frame” highlights the physical dimension of the speaker’s hypothetical progress, and the empiricist reference to “experience” implies that development, both psychological and physiological, is directed by interaction with the sublunary world. The phrase “lower lives” suggests the continuing influence of the evolutionary theories in which Tennyson was interested as an undergraduate in the late 1820s. Hallam Tennyson comments that, while at Cambridge, his father held the opinion that the “‘development of the human body might possibly be traced from the radiated, vermicular, molluscous and vertebrate organisms’” (Memoir, 1:44). In “The Two Voices,” the speaker’s claim that he has not always existed “in human mould” (l.342) implies the existence of a preceding physical “mould” rather than an immaterial soul, and his collocation of “mind and frame” suggests that human psychology is...