Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Poetry Tuesday: Idylls of the King, Again

As I've explained in recent blog posts, two things have been much on my mind recently (even more so than usual, I mean): poetry, and tradition. This week, I decided to combine them by embarking upon Tennyson's Idylls of the King again, which I finally read all the way through last year, with the intention of making this an annual tradition.



I really like the idea of reading something once a year, or at some other regular interval. I've been doing this already to some extent, since I read the Confession of St. Patrick every St. Patrick's Day. (Admittedly, I've been reading portions of it for the last couple of years, rather than the whole thing.)

When I was about ten or twelve, my father told me that one should read Ulysses by James Joyce at the age of eighteen, and again at twenty-five, or something like that. I have since decided that I have no desire to read Ulysses at any age, but the suggestion appealed to my imagination at the time. And once, when I read Wuthering Heights (a book that didn't appeal to me much), I was much taken with the introduction, whose author contrasted her experience of reading the book as a girl with reading it again as a mature woman-- how her view of it had changed. I like the idea of an ongoing relationship with a literary text.

Why Idylls of the King?

Well, mostly because I've always loved the closing section, "The Passing of Arthur", which describes the undoing of the Round Table and Arthur's passing from the world. Some of its lines are quite famous-- some were quoted in the movie JFK. These lines especially (spoken by Arthur's last surviving knight) have always thrilled me:

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."


"The Passing of Arthur", though it's the last section of the poem in its final form, was actually the first written. Nothing in the rest of the poem rises to quite to same height, in my view, but that's not to say it isn't excellent in itself.




Idylls of the King was Tennyson's most ambitious work and he worked on its for a long time-- more than twenty-five years, publishing different parts of it as it went along. It's a deeply philosophical and symbolic poem, and I must admit that I never would have seen into many of its depths without the help of literary critics. The story is not one continuous narrative, but rather a selection of stand-alone stories told against the background of King Arthur's court, and chronicling its decline. Most of the stories follow a particular character or pair of characters.

The whole theme of Idylls of the King is "decline and fall". It begins with the coming of Arthur and the establishment of the Round Table. This section is full of hope and idealism, as shown in the moving description of the knights taking their oaths to the King:

Arthur sat
Crowned on the daïs, and his warriors cried,
'Be thou the king, and we will work thy will
Who love thee.' Then the King in low deep tones,
And simple words of great authority,
Bound them by so strait vows to his own self,
That when they rose, knighted from kneeling, some
Were pale as at the passing of a ghost,
Some flushed, and others dazed, as one who wakes
Half-blinded at the coming of a light.

  "But when he spake and cheered his Table Round
With large, divine, and comfortable words,
Beyond my tongue to tell thee--I beheld
From eye to eye through all their Order flash
A momentary likeness of the King."


"A momentary likeness of the King" is a significant line. King Arthur represents many things in the poem-- Tennyon was impatient with any attempt to a reduce the poem to a single allegory, where "this meant this", as he put it--  but one of the things he represents is the ideal, the conscience in every man, the principle of order.


Some of the knights are pale because the oaths King Arthur binds them to are so exacting. As the narrative develops, many characters suggest that the oaths are too exacting, and this criticism becomes more frequent the more the story progresses. The knight Tristram, who represents pragmatism and scepticism, puts it like this:

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 than elsewise he had done,
And so the realm was made; but then their vows—
First mainly thro' that sullying of our Queen— 

Began to gall the knighthood, asking whence
Had Arthur right to bind them to himself? 

Dropt down from heaven? wash'd up from out the deep?
They fail'd to trace him thro' 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.


 "The wholesome madness of an hour" is a phrase that often reminds me of the "post-heroic" era in recent Irish history, when all the high ideals of the 1916 Rising and the Irish Revival were accepted as admirable aspirations, ideals that should be honoured, but not to be taken very seriously once "the realm was made". It's also reminiscent of "liberal" Catholics who want to honour their "faith tradition" but insist that the actual requirements of Catholic teaching are too burdensome for flesh and blood. One wonders how Christianity would ever have survived if the martyrs and early Christians took such a lax view of it. (Although I should admit that Idylls can hardly be called a Catholic work, since Tennyson took a low view of monasticism, otherworldiness, and spiritual "enthusiasm"-- he saw this as the opposite and accompanying extreme to crass materialism. Arthur discourages his knights from seeking the Holy Grail, and the Grail quest turns out to be an utter disaster, except in the case of the pure knight Galahad.)

As I mentioned previously, Idylls of the King focuses upon the decline of Camelot and the Round Table. The first three stories are rather optimistic and have happy endings, but there are subtle foreshadowings of trouble to come even here. The majority of the tales show us the unravelling of the Order, and how the knights, ladies, and even Merlin himself, betray their ideals and their oaths. The story gets very bleak towards the end, although it ends on a note of renewal and the hope of Arthur's eventual return: "And the new sun rose bringing the new year". (A perfect line, in my opinion.)

As critics never tire of pointing out, Idylls of the King was anything but an escape into a medieval fantasy-land on Tennyson's part. The poem is very much concerned with the social issues of his day-- especially the materialism and utilitarianism that Tennyson, along with so many other Victorian writers, deplored. More broadly, Idylls dramatizes the perpetual battle of the spiritual against the material, idealism against cynicism, order against chaos. The fact that it is a losing battle certainly makes it a rather dark work. In fact, the theme of "the long defeat" associated with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien is also present here.



But this is part of the poem's appeal to me. I have always been inspired by those who battle against the odds, swim against the tide, and march uphill. In fact, even reading the poem resembles these actions, in a way. Idylls of the King is tough work, and I only read the actual text in short bursts, mixed with longer readings of literary analysis on the poem. But the exertion is part of the pleasure-- like the warm glow one gets from a hike, or from cutting wood. It makes me happy to read a long philosophical poem, written in stately blank verse, which draws on Arthurian legend. It satisfies my urge to leave the beaten path and to try to keep the unfashionable alive.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The First Blog Post on my Traditions Blog

Well, the first post on my Traditions Traditions Traditions blog is about popcorn at the movies. It's a pretty short post, just to set the ball rolling.

Since I draw on other websites, you might ask what the value added is. Well, hopefully the value added will be that the blog will be "traditions central", where you can browse through lots of posts about different traditions, for the fun of it. And I'll try to make them readable and written in a chummy style. This is the kind of thing I like in a website, such as Snopes (the urban legend site) in its heyday, before it became very politicized and changed its format.

My New Blog All About Traditions

I've started a new blog! It's called Traditions Traditions Traditions and it's going to be all about...traditions.
Yes, I realize I've started a lot of blogs beside this one, and they rarely survive for long. Maybe this won't, either. But I hope it does.

The first post is below. The link is here, but there's nothing else up on it yet! I will link to future posts here. 

Welcome to the Traditions Traditions Traditions blog!

What is this blog and why am I setting it up?

This blog is a blog about traditions.


What traditions, you ask?

Every tradition!

Literally, every tradition.



National traditions. Local traditions. Holiday traditions. Sporting traditions.  Religious traditions. Family traditions. Internet traditions. College traditions. Famous traditions. Obscure traditions. The whole shebang. Anything that can be called a tradition. I'm not excluding dead traditions, but the emphasis will be on living traditions.
 
I'm fascinated by traditions of every kind!


I mean "tradition" in its popular sense. So I'm talking about things such as holidays, customs, rituals, parades, pranks, and so forth. I'm not tying myself to any particular definition, but don't expect essays on the Marxist tradition of literary criticism, or the Jungian tradition of psychoanalysis.




This blog is for everybody. I'm a conservative Catholic who has been writing a Catholic-themed blog called Irish Papist since 2011, and who has published a book about Catholic saints entitled Inspiration from the Saints. I also moderate the Irish Conservatives Forum.

Nevertheless, my hope is that this blog will be enjoyed by all sorts of people, regardless of political or religious affiliation.

I want this blog to be fun. I've written some articles for Ireland's Own, a family and general interest magazine in Ireland, and I'm aiming for the same general style. I'm not going to go into tedious detail about any particular tradition.



To my great surprise, there doesn't appear to be a blog of this kind on the internet already. I know, because I've gone looking. Even if there is, I reckon there's room for another.

I hope you enjoy it. Keep it traditional!

Friday, November 2, 2018

An Enthusiastic Review of my Book

Here is an enthusiastic review of my book, Inspiration from the Saints, from a prodigious reader in Canada, and a top thousand reviewer on Amazon.

If that moves you to buy the book, well, you can do that here!

I love getting reviews. Of course, I much prefer good reviews, and I'm grateful most of the reviews have been good. But even the single bad review...I was quite pleased at that, too. It makes my book feel more of a thing, you know?