Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

The quote “Nature red in tooth and claw” comes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s very long series of poems “In Memoriam A.H.H,” completed in 1849. Many evolutionists quote this phrase in support of their ideas of natural selection. When he began to write this poem, Tennyson questioned God’s love and sovereignty over nature because of the death of a beloved friend. Parts of the poem comment on the pre-Darwinian writers who were beginning to promote man’s reason and to shove God out of the Life Sciences. Tennyson might not be the best person to quote on the subject of crowding God out of Science, however, and here’s why, from the appendix of our e-Book Antidisestablishmentarianism.

The phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” comes from In Memoriam, A.H.H., a long group of poems written over many years by Alfred, Lord Tennyson completed in 1849. In it Tennyson struggled with his grief over Arthur Henry Hallam, a dear friend who was engaged to Tennyson’s sister but died at age 22. The section containing the often-quoted phrase appears below. The complete work is many pages in length and can be viewed in various literature textbooks or online.


So careful of the type? but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, `A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

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;

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,

Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

These poems chronicle Tennyson’s struggle to understand how death fit in with the God of life. In them he also tried to deal with philosophical questions in areas including the newly-named science of Biology.

Darwin had not yet made a name for himself, but other writers were beginning to put together theories of evolution. These were based on ideas like inheritance of acquired characteristics, spontaneous generation, and vital fluids flowing through living things that forced them to undergo evolutionary changes.

All of these ideas were disturbing to thinking men like Tennyson, trying to embrace Rationalism and rely on man’s reason to solve life’s great questions. They also wondered how the so-called “discoveries” of randomness and chance could co-exist with the orderly Creator and loving Sustainer of the Bible. The theories listed above have all since been discredited but more have sprung up to replace them.

Tennyson’s final conclusion in the same set of poems, finished in 1849, includes the section below. It is usually placed first in the published versions but was probably written last. The emphasis is added to show what Tennyson thought of his earlier doubts about how “Natural Law” fit in with a loving creator God. The text comes from

For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness:
let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before, But vaster.

We are fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear:
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

Forgive what seem’d my sin in me;
What seem’d my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.

Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

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