Monday, November 6, 2017

Idylls of the King (I)

On the bus into work on Friday, I was suddenly seized with a powerful desire to read some long poetry. I get these sudden whims. I can't help them. They come out of nowhere and are almost impossible to resist. Then they very often disappear, in favour of the next thing.

All the same, I've loved poetry since my early teens, and I've been in love with the magic of words for as long as I can remember. However, it was short lyric poetry which I loved, and which I've loved ever since, and which I'm sure I'll love till the day I day.

Poetry, it seemed to me, should be as intense and concentrated as a flame, and it simply couldn't be sustained for any longer than a few pages at most.

Poetry especially shouldn't tell a story, unless it was a very simple story, because a story requires lulls and pauses, and accounts of people going hither and thither. Plot mechanics are far too vulgar for poetry.

I did make efforts to read longer poems, but they never appealed to me very much. All the same, I couldn't help feeling a certain unease about this-- after all, most of the great poets did not regard their lyrics as their masterpieces, but their long poems. Was seventy or eighty per cent of a poet's Collected Poems to be regarded as so much ephemera?

Of course, I have read some long poems, including narrative poems. I read Paradise Lost in my twenties, and enjoyed it well enough-- although, as Samuel Johnson, no reader ever wished it longer than it was. (I'd known some excerpts of the poem since my teens, and indeed I had some of Satan's speeches off by heart. I always a bit of a rebel, so I identified with Milton's Satan-- although certainly not in any kind of Satanist spirit. I was an agnostic at this time.)

(Incidentally, it's funny how propitious name associations can be-- when I first encountered the name Milton, I associated it with Milton's Fluid. Milton's Fluid is a liquid used to sterilized baby bottles and the like. I didn't realize this; I think I thought it was some kind of medicine or tonic, such as gripe water. In any case, I associated the name "Milton" with something medicinal or astringent, and that association turned out to be entirely appropriate! Milton's poetry can certainly give pleasure, but it is a cerebral and even austere pleasure.)

Aside from Paradise Lost, I can't really think of any other long poem I enjoyed-- with the single exception of Night Thoughts by Dr. Edward Young, a series of extended blank verse meditations on death and the afterlife, written from a Christian perspective. I liked this because, like Paradise Lost, it's extremely philosophical and meditative.

I read George Chapman's blank verse translation of the Odyssey, Dorothy L. Sayers's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton, The Wanderings of Oisin by W.B. Yeats, Autumn Sequel by Louis Macneice, the Canterbury Tales, and many others...I didn't really enjoy any of them as poetry, although I certainly appreciated passages from many of them.

In spite of all that, I decided, aged forty, that I was going to give long poetry another try. Not only reading it, but reading criticism about it.

I decided I would start with a long poem I had failed to conquer before-- that is, Idylls of the King by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

I've often written about Tennyson on this blog. "Ulysses" and "Locksley Hall" are amongst my absolute favourite poems of all time. I also like "Chorus of the Lotos Eaters", although it's a poem I very much associate with early puberty, when I remember being exhausted all the time. And there are even shorter pieces, such as "The Eagle" a six-line jewel of poetry.

Idylls of the King is the poem Tennyson regarded as his own masterpiece, and he wrote it over a period of decades. It's a set of linked blank verse narratives, set against the main narrative of King Arthur's Camelot, and its decline. The final "idyll", "The Passing of Arthur" is the most famous, and it's one that I've loved for many years. I've often quoted it on this blog. It includes these famous lines, which will speak to all conservatives:

"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.

So I've always wanted to tackle the entire thing. I've made one major effort before, and I gave up. But given this new gusto for long poetry, I thought Idylls of the King was a natural starting point.

Tennyson is an "eminent victorian" if ever there was one; in fact, one biography of him has the title The Pre-Eminent Victorian. He was bearded, patriarchal, serious-minded, liberal (in the old-fashioned sense), idealistic, and so on. When the Victorians became an object of scorn, Tennyson fell out of favour with them. As Samuel Butler famously wrote: "Talking it over, we agreed that Blake was no good because he learnt Italian at sixty in order to study Dante, and we knew Dante was no good because he was so fond of Virgil, and Virgil was no good because Tennyson ran him, and as for Tennyson—well, Tennyson goes without saying." Tennyson has been rehabilitated since then, but more in spite of his Victorianism than for it, or even regardless of it. I love him for many reasons, and his Victorianism is one of them.

Another reason I love him is for the sheer polish of his verse. There is never anything jarring in them, whether in terms of scansion, tone or language. Take this, for instance:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font. 
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danaƫ to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Verse this smooth is, in my view, unique to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It's hard to describe exactly what makes it so "smooth"; it's not only the lack of discordance, but the ambitiousness of the scansion and sentence structure, almost so that it could be read as either poetry or prose, and needs no allowances made for it.

Well, I've spent so long writing this blog post, over the last two days, that I'm going to publish it as it is, and return to the subject another time.


  1. Can´t say anything concerning Lord Tennyson and his poetry, other than "intuitively" to find him a very interesting figure from that interesting era. (Myself being an absolute dabbler to poetry.)
    Here is a link something you might try at your own risk for mixing his literary times with the musical times of a hundred years later... (Rick Wakeman, "The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, 1975)

    1. Ha! Thanks for that...I'm "digging" it so far!

      Interesting, the sword in the stone is a familiar feature of the Arthurian mythology that Tennyson decided to leave out...