The speaker had a vision late one night. First there was a youth riding toward the palace gate. His horse had wings and could have flown, but the rider was too heavy. The palace door opened, and a “child of sin” came out and took the youth by the curls, bringing him to the company within. They were waiting for a fountain to arise from the floor. They looked peaceful and sleepy as they lay about languidly and idly amid fruits and wine.
The speaker says he heard a “mellow sound” rising up, a “low voluptuous music.” The men and women sighed and panted, replying to the sound in low tones. Suddenly it burst up and showered sleet glimmering like diamonds and pearls, the music rising and falling in vibrant tones. The “tempestuous treble” filled the room, as did the sparkling colors and hazes. The people moved about violently, clasping each other in fervent embraces and flying about the room. Their eyes, hair, and limbs whirled about “like Furies” until, finally, the melody died with a “luxurious agony” and fluttered back to the sky.
The speaker then looked up to the mountain trail that circled the region and saw that every morning God “made himself an awful rose of dawn.” He then saw a heavy and cold vapor moving ominously down the mountain, otherwise unnoticed. He wanted to warn them but could not speak because this was his dream. The cloud arrived at the palace gate. The speaker then saw a feeble and gray-headed old man riding across the heath and arriving at an inn. The man began to speak.
He tells the ostler, a man who takes care of horses and mules, to take his “brute” in and give him hay. He then tells the barmaid to make sure that there are sheets on his bed, and he jeers at her spinsterhood. He tells the waiter that he wants a quiet hour, that he is old and wants to drink. He tells someone to sit down before him and that he cares not for the trappings of names, orders, or degrees. His intent is to “screw thee up a peg” and give the person wine.
Following this settling in, the old man offers aphoristic words of wisdom. First, he says that you will not be saved by works because you are a sinner. Drink up, because every moment someone dies and someone is born. The old man says he is of “ruin’d blood,” but that means he is wise. Having a good “name and fame” allows one to move swiftly through courts, camps, and schools, but this is all accomplished by being bandied about by fools. Friendship is useless as well, as one of the friends always talks behind the other’s back. The virtuous heart is a mixture of warm dust as well as the “sparks of hell.”
The man continues: you and he could look virtuous like the priest, who hypocritically leers at his neighbor’s wife above his Bible. The parties are all filled with idle melancholy. The man who calls for liberty turns out to be the next tyrant. Men’s ways are merely dust that swirls up and falls down again. Freedom carries both a civic wreath and a human head in her hand; she is from an “ancient house.” She satiates her thirst from a river of blood and devours her first-born sons.
The old man also says he drinks to “lofty hopes” that cool down the hopes for a perfect State. He asks for a chant until courage runs out and “rheumy” eyes glow with the light of the grave. He tells his listener to speak and that the things that bother young people do not bother him. He asks for tales of first love and hope and chance until the noise of the grave and the dance of the dead take over. Men and women who stumble in with “hollow hearts and empty heads” are welcomed to the circle. He says they are all made of bones and have a skeleton underneath, regardless of how much flesh and fat is on top.
He finally proclaims that death is King. He drinks to fortune, chance, and ignorance. He observes that the night is long but a longer night is coming. The hopes of youth are no match for his “maudlin gall / and my mockeries of the world.” He calls for his cup to be filled and for scorn and madness to mingle. His last words are that they will not die forlorn.
The main speaker returns to the mystic mountain range where men and horses are devoured by worms and descend into the “lower forms.” Someone says, “Behold! It was a crime / Of sense avenged by sense that wore with time.” Another voice implores the mountain, “Is there any hope?” The answer comes from on high in a tongue no one can understand. A glimmering light emerges, and God makes himself “an awful rose of dawn.”
“The Vision of Sin” is a notoriously difficult poem, and it has not garnered much critical analysis or explication. It is often considered a companion piece for the poem “The Palace of Art.” It was first published in 1842.
The poem begins with the poet recounting his dream or “Vision of Sin.” The curly-haired youth’s humanness, perhaps his sin, despite having a winged horse, keeps him tethered to the earth. He is let inside by a child of sin, where there is a company of idle, languid, pleasure-seeking men and women. It is like a scene from pastoral Greece, with people lying about surrounded by wine and sumptuous fruit. They appear to be waiting for a fountain in the floor to erupt. Once it does, everything becomes swirling and sparkling and orgiastic. Tennyson is not usually a poet given to discussing blatantly sexual themes, but here his images of the people who “caught each other with wild grimaces” and “twisted hard in fierce embraces” in a whirl of “hair, and eyes, and limbs, and faces” suggests a drunken orgy. One critic has identified this passage as similar to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life,” with its wild dance and savage music and limbs of maidens flailing about in the air.
The critic John Curton Collins explains in his annotations to the poem that it is about “the callous indulgence in mere intellectual and aesthetic pleasures ... at first is ecstasy and intoxication, then come satiety, and all that satiety brings in its train, cynicism, pessimism, the drying up of the very springs of life.” A 19th-century critic, Stopford A. Brooks, writes that the poem “has long been to me the shadowing of an awful truth: and the way in which high feelings subside into the despair of self, or scorn of others, [which] is one of the terrible facts of humanity.” This coming down off of the high of sensuous intellectual and bodily fulfillment is symbolized by the eerie, heavy cloud that floats down off the mountain from God and arrives at the gates of the palace, foreboding and oppressive.
This reckoning is also symbolized by the grotesque old man and his monologue at the “ruined” inn. It is possible that it is the same building as before, with time having passed after the dreamer has looked up to the sky and back again. This strange narrative within the poem creates a figure to speak excoriating words about the destructive power of sin.
Among his many judgments, the man implies that sin can afflict all men regardless of their station in life. He states that “thou shalt not be saved by works,” comparing individuals to empty scarecrows (devoid of stuff inside) and to “fish ... that love the mud.” “Name and fame” are vain. Yet, he pokes holes in cherished notions of friendship and virtue; nothing is perfect. Even the priest shows hypocrisy, caught up in lust despite what his Scripture says.
In this vision of sin, the man suggests remembering humility, since “Every moment a man dies / Every moment one is born.” Tennyson altered these lines at the suggestion of the famous mathematician Charles Babbage, who wrote a letter to Tennyson about the earlier version in which Tennyson had used the word “minute” instead of moment. Babbage had gently corrected him with the more accurate statistic that “one and a sixteenth” people are born each minute. Tennyson decided to embrace the suggestion to be less specific, and therefore in all editions published after 1850, “minute” became “moment.” The difference is important because it emphasizes a sad stasis of mankind rather than, to be technically correct, a growing population.
The man also creates a picture of decadence and notes how it all fades into dust. The quest for freedom often turns revolutionaries into tyrants, and Freedom herself, personified to great effect, is liberating as well as violent. The old man mocks the hopes of the young and reminds his listeners of their mortality; beneath everyone’s skin is simply a skull. He proclaims that “death is king, and Vivat Rex!” (Latin for,“Long live the king!”). The ironic call to action is to “Drink to Fortune, Drink to Chance [and] heavy Ignorance,” which is what justifies drunken orgies and other sins.
The poem ends with the original speaker’s vision returning to the mountain, which symbolizes the good in contrast to this vision. Dead people are wondering what all this was about, and they are blaming the senses and the man, who seems to have been the Devil, but perhaps with just enough “conscience” to have a bad attitude about sin.
Although there seems to be a final divine reply to the final question, “Is there any hope?” it is inscrutable and terrifying. The poem has ended on an ominous note. In his writings for the Christian Socialist in 1851, the writer Gerald Massey claimed that the poem “is one of the deepest chords that Tennyson has struck—grand teaching that!” and is a “dream of dark reality.” He argued that Tennyson, “in thus holding up the deadly vice in such damnatory guide, that he is a true teacher, and has a lofty sense of the poet’s mission. He does not look upon poetry as a mere glittering foil ... but as a two-edged sword.” That is, “The Vision of Sin” is bold in its condemnation of pleasure-seeking and hedonism and judges the kind of poetry that indulges the senses at the expense of higher things. Yet, in this poem the higher things are unfathomable; God’s cold dawn comes each day but with a distant offer of hope and no direct answer about how to live well.