Well, I've achieved a personal goal in finally finishing Lord Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a long poem I've intended to read for many, many years. I embarked on it several times in the past but never saw it through. I've read a lot about the poem, as well-- there is quite a wealth of critical writing devoted to it. This pleases me, as I love commentary of every kind.
I wrote a "report" on it for the "Whatcha Reading?" thread on the Irish Conservatives Forum, and I give a slightly amended version of that here.
From at least my early teens Tennyson has been one of my favourite poets. I've always loved "Ulysses", "The Chorus of the Lotos Eaters", "Locksley Hall", and (most relevant here) "The Passing of Arthur". "The Passing of Arthur" is a blank verse account of King Arthur's end which Tennyson wrote quite early in his career. Over many years, he added other stories to this to make Idylls of the King, which is a series of twelve narrative poems, set against the background of King Arthur's foundation of Camelot and its subsequent decline. Each of the Idylls tells a different story, and there is a narrative thread through them all, but it's not written as one continuous tale. The basic narrative thread is this: King Arthur, with the help of Merlin, founds the order of the Round Table and the city of Camelot in order to bring peace to a chaotic Britain, which is torn between the Roman legions (which he finally expels) and pagan tribes. The Idylls describes the Round Table's foundation, flourishing, and ultimate decline and dissolution.
It's hard to believe that the Idylls were an enormous success at the time of their publication (they were published over a period of years). It seems like nobody reads this kind of long poetry now, other than academics. I must confess I made several efforts in the past to read them and gave up. I'm glad I persisted.
The story is a very dark one. It's much more concerned with the fall of Camelot than with its splendour. As most people will know, Arthur's queen Guinevere commits adultery with his foremost knight, Lancelot. This original act of disloyalty spreads moral contagion through Camelot, and one by one almost all the characters are corrupted in one way or another.
The actual delineation of this corruption is very subtle. Here is one example. In one of the later idylls, "The Holy Grail", many of the knights of Camelot take a vow to seek the Grail, the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper, which a nun has seen in a vision. But this, too, is a symptom of degeneration, since King Arthur (who is absent when these vows are made) berates his knights for seeking spiritual excitement rather than following the knightly vows they had already taken. And, indeed, the Grail Quest is a terrible failure-- only a third of the knights return, and most of them never see the Grail.
Throughout the Idylls, King Arthur is blamed by various characters for demanding ideals which are too lofty, and which are even described as impossible to fulfill. Indeed, Arthur himself wonders at times if this is the case. Guinevere tells Lancelot that she falls in love with him, rather than the King, because Arthur is almost inhuman in his idealism; "For who loves me must have a touch of earth". It's interesting that the Idylls were written at the height of the Victorian era, since Victorian England has often been lambasted for its hypocrisy and double standards. This is a debate that seems to recur throughout history, in many different contexts: should we adopt exalted standards which are difficult to attain, and run the risk of hypocrisy, or should we be more realistic? As a romantic I am more on the side of King Arthur than his critics.
The poem dramatises the backlash against idealism when one of the Round Table's most idealistic knights, Pelleas, becomes so horrified at the corruption within Camelot that he embraces nihilism. He reinvents himself as the Red Knight and creates an anti-Camelot whose vows are all the opposite of Camelot, and declares war on King Arthur.
An even more interesting departure from Arthur's idealism is the knight Tristram, who is a proponent of naturalism and realism. I think Tennyson's insight into human nature must have been quite deep, because I've noticed that Tristram-like figures very often come along, in human history, after a period of idealism. The speech in which he admits his lack of belief in King Arthur's ideals is often quoted by critics. It reminds me of the fall from idealism after the winning of Irish independence, when the Irish people essentially gave up on the Irish language and other ideals of cultural renewal, and just concentrated on bread and butter issues:
[Arthur] seemed to me no man,
But Michael trampling Satan; so I sware,
Being amazed: but this went by--The vows!
O ay--the wholesome madness of an hour--
They served their use, their time; for every knight
Believed himself a greater than himself,
And every follower eyed him as a God;
Till he, being lifted up beyond himself,
Did mightier deeds that elsewise he had done,
And so the realm was made; but then their vows--
First mainly through that sullying of our Queen--
Began to gall the knighthood, asking whence
Had Arthur right to bind them to himself?
Dropt down from heaven? washed up from out the deep?
They failed to trace him through the flesh and blood
Of our old kings: whence then? a doubtful lord
To bind them by inviolable vows,
Which flesh and blood perforce would violate:
For feel this arm of mine--the tide within
Red with free chase and heather-scented air,
Pulsing full man; can Arthur make me pure
As any maiden child? lock up my tongue
From uttering freely what I freely hear?
Bind me to one? The wide world laughs at it.
This is reminiscent of Kevin O'Higgins, a very hardheaded Irish politician of the post-independence period, who insisted that the idealistic programme of the first Dáil was "mostly poetry."
In fact, it's reminiscent of the Irish people's attitude to the Irish Revival in general. The unspoken view common amongst the Irish people seems to be that cultural nationalism and Gaelic romanticism was appropriate to the struggle for independence-- "the wholesome madness of an hour"-- but is no longer relevant today, now that we have our own government. I just can't accept that. If Ireland doesn't continue to seek the ideal of Patrick Pearse and Eamon De Valera-- by which I mean a Gaelic, Catholic Ireland, reverencing and reviving its traditions as far as possible-- I don't know what the point of independence was in the first place.
Does it seem silly to apply the poem to twentieth century Irish history, since it was written in the nineteenth century? Just like Tolkien with Lord of the Rings, Tennyson insisted that Idylls was not a straightforward allegory. When asked if critics were right who interpreted the "three fair queens" who appear in one passage as the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, he said: "They are right, and they are not right. They mean that and they do not. They are three of the noblest of women. They are also those three Graces, but they are much more. I hate to be tied down to say: 'This means that', because the thought within the image is much more than any interpretation."
The sheer lyricism of the poem is a great part of its appeal. There are sublime passages throughout, but the best one to quote is probably the most famous, the exchange between the dying King Arthur and Sir Bedivere, the only other surviving knight of the Round Table, after everybody else has been killed in a battle against the traitorous knight Mordred and his supporters. Much in this passage is very relevant to conservatives:
Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."
And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
I'm very pleased that I've finally read the Idylls-- but I don't intend to simply put them on the shelf now. No, I hope to revisit them in the future, and to get to know them better over time.