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Passions in PoetryChapter 7 - The Idylls Of The King Part 2
by Andrew Lang

 

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Classic Home > Articles > Chapter 8 - Enoch Arden, The DramasGo to next article
Lord Alfred Tennyson
Poetry | Biography | Resources
 
Chapter 7 - The Idylls Of The King Part 2
by Andrew Lang

The nature and origin of Merlin are something of a mystery. Hints and rumours of Merlin, as of Arthur, stream from hill and grave as far north as Tweedside. If he was a historical person, myths of magic might crystallise round him, as round Virgil in Italy. The process would be the easier in a country where the practices of Druidry still lingered, and revived after the retreat of the Romans. The mediaeval romancers invented a legend that Merlin was a virgin- born child of Satan. In Tennyson he may be guessed to represent the fabled esoteric lore of old religions, with their vague pantheisms, and such magic as the tapas of Brahmanic legends. He is wise with a riddling evasive wisdom: the builder of Camelot, the prophet, a shadow of Druidry clinging to the Christian king. His wisdom cannot avail him: if he beholds "his own mischance with a glassy countenance," he cannot avoid his shapen fate. He becomes assotted of Vivien, and goes open-eyed to his doom.

The enchantress, Vivien, is one of that dubious company of Ladies of the Lake, now friendly, now treacherous. Probably these ladies are the fairies of popular Celtic tradition, taken up into the more elaborate poetry of Cymric literature and mediaeval romance. Mr Rhys traces Vivien, or Nimue, or Nyneue, back, through a series of palaeographic changes and errors, to Rhiannon, wife of Pwyll, a kind of lady of the lake he thinks, but the identification is not very satisfactory. Vivien is certainly "one of the damsels of the lake" in Malory, and the damsels of the lake seem to be lake fairies, with all their beguilements and strange unstable loves. "And always Merlin lay about the lady to have her maidenhood, and she was ever passing weary of him, and fain would have been delivered of him, for she was afraid of him because he was a devil's son. . . . So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do. And so she departed and left Merlin." The sympathy of Malory is not with the enchanter. In the Idylls, as finally published, Vivien is born on a battlefield of death, with a nature perverted, and an instinctive hatred of the good. Wherefore she leaves the Court of King Mark to make mischief in Camelot. She is, in fact, the ideal minx, a character not elsewhere treated by Tennyson:-

  "She hated all the knights, and heard in thought
Their lavish comment when her name was named.
For once, when Arthur walking all alone,
Vext at a rumour issued from herself
Of some corruption crept among his knights,
Had met her, Vivien, being greeted fair,
Would fain have wrought upon his cloudy mood
With reverent eyes mock-loyal, shaken voice,
And flutter'd adoration, and at last
With dark sweet hints of some who prized him more
Than who should prize him most; at which the King
Had gazed upon her blankly and gone by:
But one had watch'd, and had not held his peace:
It made the laughter of an afternoon
That Vivien should attempt the blameless King.
And after that, she set herself to gain
Him, the most famous man of all those times,
Merlin, who knew the range of all their arts,
Had built the King his havens, ships, and halls,
Was also Bard, and knew the starry heavens;
The people call'd him Wizard; whom at first
She play'd about with slight and sprightly talk,
And vivid smiles, and faintly-venom'd points
Of slander, glancing here and grazing there;
And yielding to his kindlier moods, the Seer
Would watch her at her petulance, and play,
Ev'n when they seem'd unloveable, and laugh
As those that watch a kitten; thus he grew
Tolerant of what he half disdain'd, and she,
Perceiving that she was but half disdain'd,
Began to break her sports with graver fits,
Turn red or pale, would often when they met
Sigh fully, or all-silent gaze upon him
With such a fixt devotion, that the old man,
Tho' doubtful, felt the flattery, and at times
Would flatter his own wish in age for love,
And half believe her true: for thus at times
He waver'd; but that other clung to him,
Fixt in her will, and so the seasons went."

Vivien is modern enough--if any type of character is modern: at all events there is no such Blanche Amory of a girl in the old legends and romances. In these Merlin fatigues the lady by his love; she learns his arts, and gets rid of him as she can. His forebodings in the Idyll contain a magnificent image:-

  "There lay she all her length and kiss'd his feet,
As if in deepest reverence and in love.
A twist of gold was round her hair; a robe
Of samite without price, that more exprest
Than hid her, clung about her lissome limbs,
In colour like the satin-shining palm
On sallows in the windy gleams of March:
And while she kiss'd them, crying, 'Trample me,
Dear feet, that I have follow'd thro' the world,
And I will pay you worship; tread me down
And I will kiss you for it'; he was mute:
So dark a forethought roll'd about his brain,
As on a dull day in an Ocean cave
The blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall
In silence."

We think of the blinded Cyclops groping round his cave, like "the blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall."

The richness, the many shining contrasts and immortal lines in Vivien, seem almost too noble for a subject not easily redeemed, and the picture of the ideal Court lying in full corruption. Next to Elaine, Jowett wrote that he "admired Vivien the most (the naughty one), which seems to me a work of wonderful power and skill. It is most elegant and fanciful. I am not surprised at your Delilah beguiling the wise man; she is quite equal to it." The dramatic versatility of Tennyson's genius, his power of creating the most various characters, is nowhere better displayed than in the contrast between the Vivien and the Elaine. Vivien is a type, her adventure is of a nature, which he has not elsewhere handled. Thackeray, who admired the Idylls so enthusiastically, might have recognised in Vivien a character not unlike some of his own, as dark as Becky Sharp, more terrible in her selfishness than that Beatrix Esmond who is still a paragon, and, in her creator's despite, a queen of hearts. In Elaine, on the other hand, Tennyson has drawn a girl so innocently passionate, and told a tale of love that never found his earthly close, so delicately beautiful, that we may perhaps place this Idyll the highest of his poems on love, and reckon it the gem of the Idylls, the central diamond in the diamond crown. Reading Elaine once more, after an interval of years, one is captivated by its grace, its pathos, its nobility. The poet had touched on some unidentified form of the story, long before, in The Lady of Shalott. That poem had the mystery of romance, but, in human interest, could not compete with Elaine, if indeed any poem of Tennyson's can be ranked with this matchless Idyll.

The mere invention, and, as we may say, charpentage, are of the first order. The materials in Malory, though beautiful, are simple, and left a field for the poet's invention. {16}

Arthur, with the Scots and Northern knights, means to encounter all comers at a Whitsuntide tourney. Guinevere is ill, and cannot go to the jousts, while Lancelot makes excuse that he is not healed of a wound. "Wherefore the King was heavy and passing wroth, and so he departed towards Winchester." The Queen then blamed Lancelot: people will say they deceive Arthur. "Madame," said Sir Lancelot, "I allow your wit; it is of late come that ye were wise." In the Idyll Guinevere speaks as if their early loves had been as conspicuous as, according to George Buchanan, were those of Queen Mary and Bothwell. Lancelot will go to the tourney, and, despite Guinevere's warning, will take part against Arthur and his own fierce Northern kinsmen. He rides to Astolat--"that is, Gylford"--where Arthur sees him. He borrows the blank shield of "Sir Torre," and the company of his brother Sir Lavaine. Elaine "cast such a love unto Sir Lancelot that she would never withdraw her love, wherefore she died." At her prayer, and for better disguise (as he had never worn a lady's favour), Lancelot carried her scarlet pearl-embroidered sleeve in his helmet, and left his shield in Elaine's keeping. The tourney passes as in the poem, Gawain recognising Lancelot, but puzzled by the favour he wears. The wounded Lancelot "thought to do what he might while he might endure." When he is offered the prize he is so sore hurt that he "takes no force of no honour." He rides into a wood, where Lavaine draws forth the spear. Lavaine brings Lancelot to the hermit, once a knight. "I have seen the day," says the hermit, "I would have loved him the worse, because he was against my lord, King Arthur, for some time. I was one of the fellowship of the Round Table, but I thank God now I am otherwise disposed." Gawain, seeking the wounded knight, comes to Astolat, where Elaine declares "he is the man in the world that I first loved, and truly he is the last that ever I shall love." Gawain, on seeing the shield, tells Elaine that the wounded knight is Lancelot, and she goes to seek him and Lavaine. Gawain does not pay court to Elaine, nor does Arthur rebuke him, as in the poem. When Guinevere heard that Lancelot bore another lady's favour, "she was nigh out of her mind for wrath," and expressed her anger to Sir Bors, for Gawain had spoken of the maid of Astolat. Bors tells this to Lancelot, who is tended by Elaine. "'But I well see,' said Sir Bors, 'by her diligence about you that she loveth you entirely.' 'That me repenteth,' said Sir Lancelot. Said Sir Bors, 'Sir, she is not the first that hath lost her pain upon you, and that is the more pity.'" When Lancelot recovers, and returns to Astolat, she declares her love with the frankness of ladies in mediaeval romance. "Have mercy upon me and suffer me not to die for thy love." Lancelot replies with the courtesy and the offers of service which became him. "Of all this," said the maiden, "I will none; for but if ye will wed me, or be my paramour at the least, wit you well, Sir Lancelot, my good days are done."

This was a difficult pass for the poet, living in other days of other manners. His art appears in the turn which he gives to Elaine's declaration:-

  "But when Sir Lancelot's deadly hurt was whole,
To Astolat returning rode the three.
There morn by morn, arraying her sweet self
In that wherein she deem'd she look'd her best,
She came before Sir Lancelot, for she thought
'If I be loved, these are my festal robes,
If not, the victim's flowers before he fall.'
And Lancelot ever prest upon the maid
That she should ask some goodly gift of him
For her own self or hers; 'and do not shun
To speak the wish most near to your true heart;
Such service have ye done me, that I make
My will of yours, and Prince and Lord am I
In mine own land, and what I will I can.'
Then like a ghost she lifted up her face,
But like a ghost without the power to speak.
And Lancelot saw that she withheld her wish,
And bode among them yet a little space
Till he should learn it; and one morn it chanced
He found her in among the garden yews,
And said, 'Delay no longer, speak your wish,
Seeing I go to-day': then out she brake:
'Going? and we shall never see you more.
And I must die for want of one bold word.'
'Speak: that I live to hear,' he said, 'is yours.'
Then suddenly and passionately she spoke:
'I have gone mad. I love you: let me die.'
'Ah, sister,' answer'd Lancelot, 'what is this?'
And innocently extending her white arms,
'Your love,' she said, 'your love--to be your wife.'
And Lancelot answer'd, 'Had I chosen to wed,
I had been wedded earlier, sweet Elaine:
But now there never will be wife of mine.'
'No, no' she cried, 'I care not to be wife,
But to be with you still, to see your face,
To serve you, and to follow you thro' the world.'
And Lancelot answer'd, 'Nay, the world, the world,
All ear and eye, with such a stupid heart
To interpret ear and eye, and such a tongue
To blare its own interpretation--nay,
Full ill then should I quit your brother's love,
And your good father's kindness.' And she said,
'Not to be with you, not to see your face -
Alas for me then, my good days are done.'"

So she dies, and is borne down Thames to London, the fairest corpse, "and she lay as though she had smiled." Her letter is read. "Ye might have showed her," said the Queen, "some courtesy and gentleness that might have preserved her life;" and so the two are reconciled.

Such, in brief, is the tender old tale of true love, with the shining courtesy of Lavaine and the father of the maid, who speak no word of anger against Lancelot. "For since first I saw my lord, Sir Lancelot," says Lavaine, "I could never depart from him, nor nought I will, if I may follow him: she doth as I do." To the simple and moving story Tennyson adds, by way of ornament, the diamonds, the prize of the tourney, and the manner of their finding:-

  "For Arthur, long before they crown'd him King,
Roving the trackless realms of Lyonnesse,
Had found a glen, gray boulder and black tarn.
A horror lived about the tarn, and clave
Like its own mists to all the mountain side:
For here two brothers, one a king, had met
And fought together; but their names were lost;
And each had slain his brother at a blow;
And down they fell and made the glen abhorr'd:
And there they lay till all their bones were bleach'd,
And lichen'd into colour with the crags:
And he, that once was king, had on a crown
Of diamonds, one in front, and four aside.
And Arthur came, and labouring up the pass,
All in a misty moonshine, unawares
Had trodden that crown'd skeleton, and the skull
Brake from the nape, and from the skull the crown
Roll'd into light, and turning on its rims
Fled like a glittering rivulet to the tarn:
And down the shingly scaur he plunged, and caught,
And set it on his head, and in his heart
Heard murmurs, 'Lo, thou likewise shalt be King.'"

The diamonds reappear in the scene of Guinevere's jealousy:-

  "All in an oriel on the summer side,
Vine-clad, of Arthur's palace toward the stream,
They met, and Lancelot kneeling utter'd, 'Queen,
Lady, my liege, in whom I have my joy,
Take, what I had not won except for you,
These jewels, and make me happy, making them
An armlet for the roundest arm on earth,
Or necklace for a neck to which the swan's
Is tawnier than her cygnet's: these are words:
Your beauty is your beauty, and I sin
In speaking, yet O grant my worship of it
Words, as we grant grief tears. Such sin in words,
Perchance, we both can pardon: but, my Queen,
I hear of rumours flying thro' your court.
Our bond, as not the bond of man and wife,
Should have in it an absoluter trust
To make up that defect: let rumours be:
When did not rumours fly? these, as I trust
That you trust me in your own nobleness,
I may not well believe that you believe.'

  While thus he spoke, half turn'd away, the Queen
Brake from the vast oriel-embowering vine
Leaf after leaf, and tore, and cast them off,
Till all the place whereon she stood was green;
Then, when he ceased, in one cold passive hand
Received at once and laid aside the gems
There on a table near her, and replied:

  'It may be, I am quicker of belief
Than you believe me, Lancelot of the Lake.
Our bond is not the bond of man and wife.
This good is in it, whatsoe'er of ill,
It can be broken easier. I for you
This many a year have done despite and wrong
To one whom ever in my heart of hearts
I did acknowledge nobler. What are these?
Diamonds for me! they had been thrice their worth
Being your gift, had you not lost your own.
To loyal hearts the value of all gifts
Must vary as the giver's. Not for me!
For her! for your new fancy. Only this
Grant me, I pray you: have your joys apart.
I doubt not that however changed, you keep
So much of what is graceful: and myself
Would shun to break those bounds of courtesy
In which as Arthur's Queen I move and rule:
So cannot speak my mind. An end to this!
A strange one! yet I take it with Amen.
So pray you, add my diamonds to her pearls;
Deck her with these; tell her, she shines me down:
An armlet for an arm to which the Queen's
Is haggard, or a necklace for a neck
O as much fairer--as a faith once fair
Was richer than these diamonds--hers not mine -
Nay, by the mother of our Lord himself,
Or hers or mine, mine now to work my will -
She shall not have them.'

     Saying which she seized,
And, thro' the casement standing wide for heat,
Flung them, and down they flash'd, and smote the stream.
Then from the smitten surface flash'd, as it were,
Diamonds to meet them, and they past away.
Then while Sir Lancelot leant, in half disdain
At love, life, all things, on the window ledge,
Close underneath his eyes, and right across
Where these had fallen, slowly past the barge
Whereon the lily maid of Astolat
Lay smiling, like a star in blackest night."

This affair of the diamonds is the chief addition to the old tale, in which we already see the curse of lawless love, fallen upon the jealous Queen and the long-enduring Lancelot. "This is not the first time," said Sir Lancelot, "that ye have been displeased with me causeless, but, madame, ever I must suffer you, but what sorrow I endure I take no force" (that is, "I disregard").

The romance, and the poet, in his own despite, cannot but make Lancelot the man we love, not Arthur or another. Human nature perversely sides with Guinevere against the Blameless King:-

  "She broke into a little scornful laugh:
'Arthur, my lord, Arthur, the faultless King,
That passionate perfection, my good lord -
But who can gaze upon the Sun in heaven?
He never spake word of reproach to me,
He never had a glimpse of mine untruth,
He cares not for me: only here to-day
There gleam'd a vague suspicion in his eyes:
Some meddling rogue has tamper'd with him--else
Rapt in this fancy of his Table Round,
And swearing men to vows impossible,
To make them like himself: but, friend, to me
He is all fault who hath no fault at all:
For who loves me must have a touch of earth;
The low sun makes the colour: I am yours,
Not Arthur's, as ye know, save by the bond."

It is not the beautiful Queen who wins us, our hearts are with "the innocence of love" in Elaine. But Lancelot has the charm that captivated Lavaine; and Tennyson's Arthur remains

"The moral child without the craft to rule,
Else had he not lost me."

Indeed the romance of Malory makes Arthur deserve "the pretty popular name such manhood earns" by his conduct as regards Guinevere when she is accused by her enemies in the later chapters. Yet Malory does not finally condone the sin which baffles Lancelot's quest of the Holy Grail.

Tennyson at first was in doubt as to writing on the Grail, for certain respects of reverence. When he did approach the theme it was in a method of extreme condensation. The romances on the Grail outrun the length even of mediaeval poetry and prose. They are exceedingly confused, as was natural, if that hypothesis which regards the story as a Christianised form of obscure Celtic myth be correct. Sir Percivale's sister, in the Idyll, has the first vision of the Grail:-

"Sweet brother, I have seen the Holy Grail:
For, waked at dead of night, I heard a sound
As of a silver horn from o'er the hills
Blown, and I thought, 'It is not Arthur's use
To hunt by moonlight'; and the slender sound
As from a distance beyond distance grew
Coming upon me--O never harp nor horn,
Nor aught we blow with breath, or touch with hand,
Was like that music as it came; and then
Stream'd thro' my cell a cold and silver beam,
And down the long beam stole the Holy Grail,
Rose-red with beatings in it, as if alive,
Till all the white walls of my cell were dyed
With rosy colours leaping on the wall;
And then the music faded, and the Grail
Past, and the beam decay'd, and from the walls
The rosy quiverings died into the night.
So now the Holy Thing is here again
Among us, brother, fast thou too and pray,
And tell thy brother knights to fast and pray,
That so perchance the vision may be seen
By thee and those, and all the world be heal'd."

Galahad, son of Lancelot and the first Elaine (who became Lancelot's mistress by art magic), then vows himself to the Quest, and, after the vision in hall at Camelot, the knights, except Arthur, follow his example, to Arthur's grief. "Ye follow wandering fires!" Probably, or perhaps, the poet indicates dislike of hasty spiritual enthusiasms, of "seeking for a sign," and of the mysticism which betokens want of faith. The Middle Ages, more than many readers know, were ages of doubt. Men desired the witness of the senses to the truth of what the Church taught, they wished to see that naked child of the romance "smite himself into" the wafer of the Sacrament. The author of the Imitatio Christi discourages such vain and too curious inquiries as helped to rend the Church, and divided Christendom into hostile camps. The Quest of the actual Grail was a knightly form of theological research into the unsearchable; undertaken, often in a secular spirit of adventure, by sinful men. The poet's heart is rather with human things:-

  "'O brother,' ask'd 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 plaster'd 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."'

This appears to be Tennyson's original reading of the Quest of the Grail. His own mysticism, which did not strive, or cry, or seek after marvels, though marvels might come unsought, is expressed in Arthur's words:-

  "'"And spake I not too truly, O my knights?
Was I too dark a prophet when I said
To those who went upon the Holy Quest,
That most of them would follow wandering fires,
Lost in the quagmire?--lost to me and gone,
And left me gazing at a barren board,
And a lean Order--scarce return'd a tithe -
And out of those to whom the vision came
My greatest hardly will believe he saw;
Another hath beheld it afar off,
And leaving human wrongs to right themselves,
Cares but to pass into the silent life.
And one hath had the vision face to face,
And now his chair desires him here in vain,
However they may crown him otherwhere.

  '"And some among you held, that if the King
Had seen the sight he would have sworn the vow:
Not easily, seeing that the King must guard
That which he rules, and is but as the hind
To whom a space of land is given to plow
Who may not wander from the allotted field
Before his work be done; but, being done,
Let visions of the night or of the day
Come, as they will; and many a time they come,
Until this earth he walks on seems not earth,
This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,
This air that smites his forehead is not air
But vision--yea, his very hand and foot -
In moments when he feels he cannot die,
And knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a vision, nor that One
Who rose again: ye have seen what ye have seen."

  'So spake the King: I knew not all he meant.'"

The closing lines declare, as far as the poet could declare them, these subjective experiences of his which, in a manner rarely parallelled, coloured and formed his thought on the highest things. He introduces them even into this poem on a topic which, because of its sacred associations, he for long did not venture to touch.

In Pelleas and Ettarre--which deals with the sorrows of one of the young knights who fill up the gaps left at the Round Table by the mischances of the Quest--it would be difficult to trace a Celtic original. For Malory, not Celtic legend, supplied Tennyson with the germinal idea of a poem which, in the romance, has no bearing on the final catastrophe. Pelleas, a King of the Isles, loves the beautiful Ettarre, "a great lady," and for her wins at a tourney the prize of the golden circlet. But she hates and despises him, and Sir Gawain is a spectator when, as in the poem, the felon knights of Ettarre bind and insult their conqueror, Pelleas. Gawain promises to win the love of Ettarre for Pelleas, and, as in the poem, borrows his arms and horse, and pretends to have slain him. But in place of turning Ettarre's heart towards Pelleas, Gawain becomes her lover, and Pelleas, detecting them asleep, lays his naked sword on their necks. He then rides home to die; but Nimue (Vivien), the Lady of the Lake, restores him to health and sanity. His fever gone, he scorns Ettarre, who, by Nimue's enchantment, now loves him as much as she had hated him. Pelleas weds Nimue, and Ettarre dies of a broken heart. Tennyson, of course, could not make Nimue (his Vivien) do anything benevolent. He therefore closes his poem by a repetition of the effect in the case of Balin. Pelleas is driven desperate by the treachery of Gawain, the reported infidelity of Guinevere, and the general corruption of the ideal. A shadow falls on Lancelot and Guinevere, and Modred sees that his hour is drawing nigh. In spite of beautiful passages this is not one of the finest of the Idylls, save for the study of the fierce, hateful, and beautiful grande dame, Ettarre. The narrative does little to advance the general plot. In the original of Malory it has no connection with the Lancelot cycle, except as far as it reveals the treachery of Gawain, the gay and fair-spoken "light of love," brother of the traitor Modred. A simpler treatment of the theme may be read in Mr Swinburne's beautiful poem, The Tale of Balen.

It is in The Last Tournament that Modred finds the beginning of his opportunity. The brief life of the Ideal has burned itself out, as the year, in its vernal beauty when Arthur came, is burning out in autumn. The poem is purposely autumnal, with the autumn, not of mellow fruitfulness, but of the "flying gold of the ruined woodlands" and the dank odours of decay. In that miserable season is held the Tourney of the Dead Innocence, with the blood-red prize of rubies. With a wise touch Tennyson has represented the Court as fallen not into vice only and crime, but into positive vulgarity and bad taste. The Tournament is a carnival of the "smart" and the third-rate. Courtesy is dead, even Tristram is brutal, and in Iseult hatred of her husband is as powerful as love of her lover. The satire strikes at England, where the world has never been corrupt with a good grace. It is a passage of arms neither gentle nor joyous that Lancelot presides over:-

  "The sudden trumpet sounded as in a dream
To ears but half-awaked, then one low roll
Of Autumn thunder, and the jousts began:
And ever the wind blew, and yellowing leaf
And gloom and gleam, and shower and shorn plume
Went down it. Sighing weariedly, as one
Who sits and gazes on a faded fire,
When all the goodlier guests are past away,
Sat their great umpire, looking o'er the lists.
He saw the laws that ruled the tournament
Broken, but spake not; once, a knight cast down
Before his throne of arbitration cursed
The dead babe and the follies of the King;
And once the laces of a helmet crack'd,
And show'd him, like a vermin in its hole,
Modred, a narrow face: anon he heard
The voice that billow'd round the barriers roar
An ocean-sounding welcome to one knight,
But newly-enter'd, taller than the rest,
And armour'd all in forest green, whereon
There tript a hundred tiny silver deer,
And wearing but a holly-spray for crest,
With ever-scattering berries, and on shield
A spear, a harp, a bugle--Tristram--late
From overseas in Brittany return'd,
And marriage with a princess of that realm,
Isolt the White--Sir Tristram of the Woods -
Whom Lancelot knew, had held sometime with pain
His own against him, and now yearn'd to shake
The burthen off his heart in one full shock
With Tristram ev'n to death: his strong hands gript
And dinted the gilt dragons right and left,
Until he groan'd for wrath--so many of those,
That ware their ladies' colours on the casque,
Drew from before Sir Tristram to the bounds,
And there with gibes and flickering mockeries
Stood, while he mutter'd, 'Craven crests! O shame!
What faith have these in whom they sware to love?
The glory of our Round Table is no more.'

  So Tristram won, and Lancelot gave, the gems,
Not speaking other word than 'Hast thou won?
Art thou the purest, brother? See, the hand
Wherewith thou takest this, is red!' to whom
Tristram, half plagued by Lancelot's languorous mood,
Made answer, 'Ay, but wherefore toss me this
Like a dry bone cast to some hungry hound?
Let be thy fair Queen's fantasy. Strength of heart
And might of limb, but mainly use and skill,
Are winners in this pastime of our King.
My hand--belike the lance hath dript upon it -
No blood of mine, I trow; but O chief knight,
Right arm of Arthur in the battlefield,
Great brother, thou nor I have made the world;
Be happy in thy fair Queen as I in mine.'

  And Tristram round the gallery made his horse
Caracole; then bow'd his homage, bluntly saying,
'Fair damsels, each to him who worships each
Sole Queen of Beauty and of love, behold
This day my Queen of Beauty is not here.'
And most of these were mute, some anger'd, one
Murmuring, 'All courtesy is dead,' and one,
'The glory of our Round Table is no more.'

  Then fell thick rain, plume droopt and mantle clung,
And pettish cries awoke, and the wan day
Went glooming down in wet and weariness:
But under her black brows a swarthy one
Laugh'd shrilly, crying, 'Praise the patient saints,
Our one white day of Innocence hath past,
Tho' somewhat draggled at the skirt. So be it.
The snowdrop only, flowering thro' the year,
Would make the world as blank as Winter-tide.
Come--let us gladden their sad eyes, our Queen's
And Lancelot's, at this night's solemnity
With all the kindlier colours of the field.'"

Arthur's last victory over a robber knight is ingloriously squalid:-

  "He ended: Arthur knew the voice; the face
Wellnigh was helmet-hidden, and the name
Went wandering somewhere darkling in his mind.
And Arthur deign'd not use of word or sword,
But let the drunkard, as he stretch'd from horse
To strike him, overbalancing his bulk,
Down from the causeway heavily to the swamp
Fall, as the crest of some slow-arching wave,
Heard in dead night along that table-shore,
Drops flat, and after the great waters break
Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves,
Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud,
From less and less to nothing; thus he fell
Head-heavy; then the knights, who watch'd him, roar'd
And shouted and leapt down upon the fall'n;
There trampled out his face from being known,
And sank his head in mire, and slimed themselves:
Nor heard the King for their own cries, but sprang
Thro' open doors, and swording right and left
Men, women, on their sodden faces, hurl'd
The tables over and the wines, and slew
Till all the rafters rang with woman-yells,
And all the pavement stream'd with massacre:
Then, echoing yell with yell, they fired the tower,
Which half that autumn night, like the live North,
Red-pulsing up thro' Alioth and Alcor,
Made all above it, and a hundred meres
About it, as the water Moab saw
Come round by the East, and out beyond them flush'd
The long low dune, and lazy-plunging sea."

Guinevere is one of the greatest of the Idylls. Malory makes Lancelot more sympathetic; his fight, unarmed, in Guinevere's chamber, against the felon knights, is one of his most spirited scenes. Tennyson omits this, and omits all the unpardonable behaviour of Arthur as narrated in Malory. Critics have usually condemned the last parting of Guinevere and Arthur, because the King doth preach too much to an unhappy woman who has no reply. The position of Arthur is not easily redeemable: it is difficult to conceive that a noble nature could be, or should be, blind so long. He does rehabilitate his Queen in her own self-respect, perhaps, by assuring her that he loves her still:-

"Let no man dream but that I love thee still."

Had he said that one line and no more, we might have loved him better. In the Idylls we have not Malory's last meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere, one of the scenes in which the wandering composite romance ends as nobly as the Iliad.

The Passing of Arthur, except for a new introductory passage of great beauty and appropriateness, is the Morte d'Arthur, first published in 1842:-

"So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea."

The year has run its course, spring, summer, gloomy autumn, and dies in the mist of Arthur's last wintry battle in the west -

"And the new sun rose, bringing the new year."

The splendid and sombre procession has passed, leaving us to muse as to how far the poet has fulfilled his own ideal. There could be no new epic: he gave a chain of heroic Idylls. An epic there could not be, for the Iliad and Odyssey have each a unity of theme, a narrative compressed into a few days in the former, in the latter into forty days of time. The tragedy of Arthur's reign could not so be condensed; and Tennyson chose the only feasible plan. He has left a work, not absolutely perfect, indeed, but such as he conceived, after many tentative essays, and such as he desired to achieve. His fame may not rest chiefly on the Idylls, but they form one of the fairest jewels in the crown that shines with unnumbered gems, each with its own glory.

 
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This article was written by Andrew Lang.

Andrew Lang, a reknown Scholar and also a Classic Poet in his own right, was born March 31, 1844 in Selkirk, Selkirkshire, Scotland, and died July 20, 1912. He was educated at St. Andrews University and at Balliol College, Oxford, and also held an open fellowship at Merton College until 1875.

His poetry appeared in such volumes as his Ballads in Blue China (1880-81, 2 volumes). He is known for his study of myth and folklore (Myth, Literature, and Religion in 1887, revised 1899), and for his prose translations of the Odyssey (with S. H. Butcher, 1879) and the Iliad (with Walter Leaf and Ernest Myers, 1883). Other works include The World of Homer (1910), Blue Fairy Book (1889, with his wife, Leonora Blanche Lang), Biography of J. G. Lockhart (1896), and a four volume History of Scotland (1900-1907).

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