Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Beautiful Passage from Tennyson's "Idylls of the King"

I've loved the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson since I was a kid, including "The Passing of Arthur", the final section from his long narrative poem Idylls of the King. ("The Passing of Arthur" is often printed in anthologies. Although it comes at the end of the poem, it was actually the first section written.)

The poem is divided into twelve 'Idylls", each containing a separate story. I'm currently reading "The Holy Grail", which describes the quest by many of the knights of Camelot to find the Holy Grail. The sister of one knight, who is a nun, has had a vision of it. When King Arthur learns that many of his knights (in his absence) took vows to search for the Grail, he is horrified-- he tells them that this is not their mission, that they should have stuck to their own mission as knights of Camelot, and that the quest belongs to Sir Galahad and Sir Perceval alone-- both of whom were granted visions of the Grail.

That's all incidental. In his quest for the Grail, Sir Percivale speaks to a holy monk Ambrosius, whose evocation of his simple, local life is very moving. He is somewhat sceptical of the Grail Quest, since he has found no mention of it in his holy books. His participation in the life of the community contrasts with Percivale's experience; ever since embarking on the Quest, he has seen no people, only phantoms. 

"O brother," asked Ambrosius – "for in sooth
These ancient books – and they would win thee – teem,
Only I find not there this Holy Grail,
With miracles and marvels like to these,
Not all unlike; which oftentime I read,
Who read but on my breviary with ease,
Till my head swims; and then go forth and pass
Down to the little thorpe that lies so close,
And almost plastered like a martin's nest
To these old walls – and mingle with our folk;
And knowing every honest face of theirs
As well as ever shepherd knew his sheep,
And every homely secret in their hearts,
Delight myself with gossip and old wives,
And ills and aches, and teethings, lyings-in,
And mirthful sayings, children of the place,
That have no meaning half a league away:
Or lulling random squabbles when they rise,
Chafferings and chatterings at the market-cross,
Rejoice, small man, in this small world of mine,
Yea, even in their hens and in their eggs –
O brother, saving this Sir Galahad,
Came ye on none but phantoms in your quest,
No man, no woman?"

"That have no meaning half a league away"! Isn't that amazing?

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