The speaker hears a voice in his ear telling him that he is so miserable that perhaps it would be better not to live, but he says he should not throw away what God has made. The voice replies that he saw a dragonfly come from the well where he was waiting, and burst out of his “old husk” into sleek brilliance. The speaker replies that when the world began man was created on the sixth day and was given mind and dominion. The voice scoffs at him and says he is blinded by pride and that there are sure to be better creatures than men in the “hundred million spheres of the universe.” The speaker says all men are unique, but the voice says it would be irrelevant if one man were removed from the world.
The voice repeats that the speaker is clearly so miserable that perhaps it would be better not to exist. His anguish will prevent him from sleep as well as his exercise of reason. The speaker says that if he cuts his life short now he would potentially not get a “happier chance.” He thinks maybe his “sickness” will turn. The voice replies that the speaker will grow old and gray. The speaker says that every month of life brings some new development, and perhaps it is better to wait and bide his time to see if things change. The voice says that remaining on earth will not illuminate its mysteries no matter how long one remains; he suggests the speaker “forerun thy peers,” to go beyond the sublunary life and “be set / In midst of knowledge, dream’t not yet.” The voice reminds the speaker he is not close to the infinite yet and that it would be better to cease to exist than grow weak and continue to seek on earth but never find.
The speaker wonders if other men will think ill of him for not waiting until his time to die, and the voice replies that it is viler to live and loathe then to die because he wants his pain to end. He tells the speaker he is a coward because he cares what other men think, and that his memory will fade much faster than he thinks it will. The speaker cries that it is hard to pull up his resolve from this emptiness. He remembers his earlier days when he was fearless and happy and wanted to “War with falsehood” and “not to lose the good of life.” He wanted not to rot “like a weed” but achieve some glorious goal. He does not want to die for a “merely selfish cause”; he wants to die like a noble warrior hearing his country’s war song.
The voice mocks him and says that was a valid dream when he was young, but now it is not; he explains that there soon comes a check and a change and the fall, and pain replaces pleasure. Death is the only remedy. The voice tells the speaker he has not “dissolved the riddle of the earth,” and his labor has been in vain. He tells the speaker that he must journey to knowledge, that he should cease his wailing and his protesting and take that one remedy now. The speaker mournfully calls the voice “dull, one-sided,” and wonders “wilt thou make everything a lie, / To flatter me that I may die?” He says he knows life is difficult and it is sometimes “rowing hard against the stream” but that the man who does this hard work and toil in life can gaze upon God’s glory when it is his time to die.
The voice is sullen, but the speaker continues, saying that he toils under the curse of humanity but says that since he does not know precisely how the universe works he wonders if ending his life will take him from “bad to worse.” Perhaps undoing one riddle will open hundreds more, or the potentially transient pain he feels now might ossify into permanence. The voice evokes the memory of the speaker’s dead friend, saying that the man is gone and cannot answer, cannot feel emotion, and is “chill to praise or blame.”
The speaker listens and responds, commenting that the “vague voice” cannot truly prove the dead are dead. The speaker says he knows the signs of death and he knows about the realities of life. He knows about the sense of mystery and eternity, the war of baseness and good, and the heaven within oneself. After a brief pause, the voice replies that the speaker’s father’s life, like many lives on earth, was full of “nothings, nothing-worth, / From that first nothing ere his birth / To that last nothing under earth!”
The speaker tells the voice his words are ambiguous, and he proceeds to wonder at his own origins. He wonders if he came from a “nobler place, / Some legend of a fallen race” or rather “thro’ lower lives.” He feels like something remains for him on earth; there are glimpses of dreams and something not yet done. The voice laughs and says he is concerned with not dreams but the reality of the speaker’s pain. The speaker realizes that no man that “breathes with human breath / Ha ever truly long’d for death,” and he decides he wants a full life. He falls quiet. The voice says scornfully it is the Sabbath morn.
The speaker sees the freshness of dawn and hears the pealing of the church bells. He observes people passing on their way to church, particularly a grave man with his demure and gentle wife and his charming child. The family “made unity so sweet” that the speaker’s frozen heart begins to beat again. The voice is gone. Another voice whispers to him to be cheerier. The speaker cries out, wondering what that new voice knew; it replies, “a hidden hope.” The speaker glories in his realization that every cloud has revealed love, and Nature has lent the “pulse of hope to discontent.” The speaker marvels at the flowers and the rain and feels like there could be no wrong. He cannot believe his mind was captured by that “one gloomy voice” and that he did not instead listen to the one that said, “Rejoice! Rejoice!”
“The Two Voices” is a difficult poem; its subject matter—wondering whether or not to commit suicide out of grief for a loved one’s death—is easily accessible, but the images and metaphysical arguments are often quite complex. The poem is also one of Tennyson’s longer works, featuring 154 stanzas of three lines each. The poem was written between 1833 and 1834 but published in the 1842 volume of Poems. It was written after the death of Tennyson’s closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. Tennyson explained, “When I wrote ‘The Two Voices’ I was so utterly miserable, a burden to myself and to my family that I said, ‘Is life worth anything?’”
The poem is set up, as the title suggests, as a debate between two voices in one man’s head. The speaker wonders whether he should commit suicide, but he maintains that it is probably not the right thing to do for various reasons. The voice persuasively encourages him to end his suffering by ending his life. The speaker has lost his religious convictions and thus feels like he has lost his artistic productivity and his reason for existence. He remembers when he was young and felt noble stirrings in his blood; those are now gone. The poem is renowned for the tension between his two voices; even though by the end it appears that the speaker has chosen life, that conclusion is not entirely predictable throughout the conversation.
In particular, the speaker tries to provide reasons to live: the uniqueness and grandness of the human will (“No compound of this earthly ball / Is like another, all in all”); his hopefulness that his misery will eventually abate (“Some turn this sickness yet might take, / Ev’n yet”); that it is better to wait because each month brings changes (“Each month is various to present / The world with some development”); that other men will look down upon him for departing before his time (“men will say / Doing dishonour to my clay”); that dying now might be selfish and he should wait for natural death; that dying nobly is better (“But looking upward, full of grace, / He pray’d, and from a happy place / God’s glory smote him on the face”); and that maybe he does not truly wish for death (“Whatever crazy sorrow saith, / No life that breathes with human breath / Has ever truly long’d for death”).
The Mephistophelean voice, which critics and modern readers tend to argue is more persuasive, has its own arguments to combat the speaker’s hesitation and hopefulness: the misery is so great that it is better not to exist; that one human being is meaningless in the grand scheme of things (“Or will one beam be less intense, / When thy peculiar difference / Is cancell’d in the world of sense?”); that he should go before his peers and discover great knowledge (“Forerun thy peers, thy time, and let / Thy feet, millenniums hence , be set / In midst of knowledge, dream’t not yet”); that growing old and infirm is terrible (“’Twere better not to breathe or speak, / Than cry for strength, remaining weak”); that men will barely remember his name after he is gone (“Do men love thee? Art thou so bound / To men, that how thy name may sound / Will vex thee lying underground?”); that death is the only remedy for pain; that dreams of glory on earth are for the young; that Truth can be found beyond the confines of earthly life only; and that the speaker should join his deceased friend in the beyond. The voice’s last words are nihilistic and extreme: “A life of nothings, nothing-worth, / From that first nothing ere his birth / To that last nothing under earth.”
At the end of the poem the speaker is able to throw off the insidious voice urging him to end his life by using his senses to observe the happy family attending church and to listen to the melody of the church bells. A new “sweet” voice offers a “hidden hope.” He wonders why he let one evil voice hold sway over him when other voices urge him to rejoice. The Victorian Web argues, “If the tomb and suicide are valid symbols, so are the family and the church. The very fact that they are balanced, in this world, is cause for joy.” Indeed it seems that the speaker has more than hope to go on; he can cleave to the actual, present joy of human relationships.