Little Flower, If I Could Understand


Spiritual Sunday

Yesterday, for Earth Day, a number of my science colleagues marched in Washington protesting the administration’s attacks on empirical science. Donald Trump’s contempt for the scientific method and established scientific fact has galvanized people who have never before engaged in political action.

In an unholy alliance, Donald Trump has allied himself with rightwing Christians and large corporations as he goes after climate science, air and water standards, pesticide regulations, and the academy generally. It is therefore good to remind the public that not all of us who call ourselves Christian see a conflict between science and religion. Many of us are like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose poetry explores both the material and the spiritual realms.

Tennyson kept up with the latest scientific discoveries of his age. In Memoriam, where he struggles with his faith following the death of his best friend, alludes to recent geological discoveries. Idylls of the King, as the Victorian Web observes, sees God working through evolution:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world…

In “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” today’s poem, Tennyson uproots a flower in order to study it. It’s not enough to simply gaze and gaze, as Wordsworth does with daffodils, the pansy at his feet, and the meanest flower that blows. Like a scientist, Tennyson wants to scrutinize the root as well as the petals:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

While he may study the flower like a scientist, however, Tennyson is not a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Hawking, striving to find scientific explanations for what we call God. He wants to understand “all in all” in addition to “root and all”—which is to say, the place of this fragile thing in the overall scheme of things. The poet, attuned to both beauty and botany, is so amazed at this tiny life form that he compares it to the complexities of divinity and humanity. He may hold the flower in his hands but it is beyond him.

Put another way, he’s not saying, “Through scientific observation I will figure out God and humanity,” but rather, “Truly understanding this flower is as far beyond me as understanding God and human beings is.” The poem does not signal arrogance but amazement.

The scientists I admire most are those that operate out of reverence and awe. While they seek to uncover the secrets of the universe, they do so out of divine curiosity. They search not for mastery but enlightenment.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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