I N the spring of 1869 Tennyson assisted James Knowles, the journalist and architect, in the founding of a Metaphysical Society for

the free discussion of the old faith and its relations to the new science.1 Whether or not, as one less reverent member suggested, he desired to "consult the experts" about the possibility of his having "such a thing as a soul," 2 the Laureate most certainly wished to discover the means by which the intellectual leaders of his time were seeking to reconcile "advanced knowledge" wi th the spiritual purposes of man. And a like impulse clearly inspired many of the Metaphysicians of diverse creeds who met throughout the seventies for monthly debate. Among the orthodox, or at least the theologically minded, Manning the Romanist, Hut ton the Anglican, and James Martineau the impassioned Unitarian strove most conscientiously to meet wi th respect the "great argument" of science. Ranged against them, Huxley the "agnostic," Clifford the "free-thinker," Tyndall wi th his awe of nature, Harrison wi th his Religion of Humani ty3 — all, for their part, confessed to the need of some moral code, an ethic to be rescued from the immoralities of ancient dogma. Few, however, achieved the compromise of Gladstone, who remained both conservative and radical; for few could match his strange "impartiality," 4

his talent for "being furiously in earnest on both sides of a question." Each member followed the logic of a differing mind with dutiful attention, only to return, perplexed but unshaken, to his own first premises of fact or faith. Tennyson had been convinced that "modern science ought at all events to have taught men to separate light from heat." Yet the light of a completely disinterested philosophy seldom illuminated the meetings. And the Society died, after ten years of heated eloquence — perhaps, as Huxley said, "of too much love," but more probably, as the poet suspected, of its failure to define the term "metaphysics." 6

Defending "the scientific method" at a select Metaphysical symposium, or on a public lecture platform, or in the columns of the great liberal reviews, the Victorian "rationalist" had behind h im the known and the knowable, the tangible evidence of the laboratory, the apparent and immediate drama of empirical research. Confident that he had found the key to all things relevant to human life, he could enter controversy wi th a buoyant assurance denied to those who

asked some sanction beyond sense experience. His optimism knew no bounds; to the free intelligence the ful l truth would at last be fully revealed. Harrison, therefore, could dismiss Christianity wi th its "pessimism as to the essential dignity of man" as a "degrading superstition," for which he might substitute his own "rational" dogmas.6

Morley could assail Carlyle's unreasoned emotion, to demand in its stead, as the prime need of his generation, "intellectual alertness, faith in the reasoning faculty, accessibility to new ideas." 7 And Huxley could rebuke all forms of "clericalism" as the chief impediment to free inquiry, "the deadly enemy of science" and so of all that was demonstrably true. Indeed, to his debate wi th Bishop Wilberforce in 1860, he had brought a moral earnestness which made the clergyman's effort to "smash Darwin" seem frivolous and vain, i f not utterly depraved. He would rather, he had told the crowded Oxford Meeting, have a poor ape for an ancestor than a creature of human intellect who would deliberately employ a great gift of persuasion "to discredit and crush humble seekers after truth." 8