The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

II. The Tennysons

§ 5. Idylls of the King

The great poem, the magnum opus, to which Tennyson’s critics summoned him insistently and on which his mind dwelt with almost too conscientious a desire to fulfil what was expected of him, began to take shape finally, in the only form in which his genius could work at ease (the concentration, in a poem of not too great length on a single mood of feeling), with the composition of Idylls of the King. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur had early arrested his attention.

  • I could not read Palmerin of England nor Amadis, nor any other of those Romances through. The Morte d’Arthur is much the best: there are very fine things in it; but all strung together without Art.
  • So he told FitzGerald, and his first experiment in the retelling of the old legends, Morte d’Arthur, had appeared in 1842 as a fragment of Homeric epic. Nothing more was added till 1857, when Enid and Nimue was issued in an edition of some six copies. This issue was followed, in 1859, by The True and the False, Four Idylls of the King, containing Enid, Nimue (Vivien), Elaine and Guinevere. In the same year, the four idylls were issued as Idylls of the King. In 1869 were added The Coming of Arthur, The Holy Grail, Pelleas and Ettarre and The Passing of Arthur. The Last Tournament (1871), Gareth and Lynette (1872), Balin and Balan (1885) came later, and, in the final arrangement, Geraint and Enid was divided into two parts.

    In the later poems, the epic, Homeric flavour of the first Morte is abandoned for a more purely idyllic tone, a chiselled, polished, jewelled exquisiteness of Alexandrian art. Of blank verse, Tennyson was an exacting critic and a master in a manner as definitely his own as Thomson’s, but with a greater claim to be compared with the finest of English non-dramatic blank verse, that is Milton’s. And when the theme is reflective, oratorical or dramatic—at least in monologue—Tennyson’s blank verse is melodious and sonorous, variously paused and felicitously drawn out into effective paragraphs. A continuous study reveals a greater monotony of effect than in Milton’s ever varied harmonies, and there is never the grand undertone of passion, of the storm that has raised the ground swell. It is in narrative that the faults of Tennyson’s blank verse become apparent—its too flagrant artificiality. The pauses and cadences are too carefully chosen, the diction too precious, the movement too mincing, the whole “too picked, too spruce, too affected”:

  • So coming to the fountain-side beheld
  • Balin and Balan sitting statuelike,
  • Brethren, to right and left the spring, that down,
  • From underneath a plume of lady-fern
  • Sang, and the sand danced at the bottom of it.
  • One could multiply such instances—taken quite at random—from the Idylls, especially from the descriptions of tournament or combat. In his parody of The Brook, Calverley has caught to perfection the mincing gait and affected phrasing of this Tennysonian fine-writing:
  • Thus on he prattled like a babbling brook,
  • Then I, “The sun hath slipt behind the hill,
  • And my Aunt Vivian dines at half-past six.”
  • So in all love we parted; I to the Hall,
  • They to the village. It was noised next noon
  • That chickens had been miss’d at Syllabub Farm.
  • The over-exquisite elaboration of form is in keeping with Tennyson’s whole treatment of the old legends, rich in a colour and atmosphere of their own. With the spirit of the Arthurian stories, in which elements of a Celtic, primitive world are blended in a complex, now hardly to be disentangled, fashion with medieval chivalry and catholic, sacramental symbolism, the Victorian poet was out of sympathy. Neither the aimless fighting in which they abound, nor the cult of love as a passion so inspiring and ennobling that it glorified even sin, nor the mystical adoration of the Host and the ascetic quest of a spotless purity in the love and service of God, appealed deeply to Tennyson, who wished to give to the fighting a philanthropic purpose, to combine love with purity in marriage and to find the mystic revelation of God in the world in which we move and serve.

    It is not easy to pour new wine into old bottles, to charge old stories with a new spirit. If Milton’s classical treatment of Biblical themes is a wonderful tour de force—and it is not a complete success—it is because the spirit of the poet and the poem is, after all, rather Hebraic than Hellenic. There is as much of the Hebrew prophets in his work as of the Greek poets. It is still harder to give a new soul to old legends if one is not quite sure what that soul is to be. The allegory which was to connect the whole, “the conflict continually maintained between the spirit and the flesh,” is, at once, too obvious and too vague, too vague as an interpretation of the story as a whole, too obvious when it appears as an occasional intrusion of a double meaning—in Gareth and Lynette or The Holy Grail. It was, indeed, a misfortune that Tennyson was determined to tie the tin kettle of a didactic intention to the tail of all poems of this period. The general moral significance of the old story was clear enough—“do after the good and leave the evil and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee”—and needed no philosophic pointer. The sole justification for rehandling the legends was the possibility of giving them a new and heightened poetic beauty and dramatic significance.

    In the latter, the poet has certainly not wholly failed, and it is this dramatic significance, rather than the vague allegory, which connects the stories and gives to the series a power over and above the charm of the separate tales. As in In Memoriam, so in Idylls of the King, the connecting link between the parts is a gradually induced change of mood. Each Idyll has its dominant mood reflected in the story, the characters and the scenery in which these are set, from the bright youth and glad spring-tide of Gareth and Lynette to the disillusionment and flying yellow leaves of The Last Tournament, the mists and winter-cold of the parting with Guinevere and “that last, dim, weird battle of the west.” The dramatic background to this change of mood is the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the final test of Tennyson’s success or failure in his most ambitious work is his handling of this story; the most interesting group of characters are the four that contemplate each other with mournful and troubled eyes as in some novel of modern life, Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and Elaine. In part, Tennyson has succeeded, almost greatly; in part, he has inevitably failed. Elaine is perfect, a wonderful humanising of the earlier, half mystical Lady of Shalott. Lancelot, too, is surely a great study of the flower of knighthood caught in the trammels of an overpowering, ruining passion, a modern picture drawn on the lines of the old; and Guinevere, too, slightly, yet distinctly, drawn

  • in her splendid beauty—wilful, impetuous, self-indulgent—yet full of courtesy and grace and, when she pleases, of self-control also; not without a sense in her of the greatness of the work which she is marring; not without a bitter consciousness of her secret humiliation and the place she has lost; but yet too proud, too passionate, too resolute to yield even to her own compunctions.
  • The failure is Arthur, and it could hardly be otherwise. A shadowy figure in the old legends, Tennyson has made him not more but less real, a “conception of man as he might be,” Gladstone declared, and, in consequence, of man as he ought not to be in such a dramatic setting. Like the Lady in Comus, Arthur has become a symbol, not a human being. As the former, when she speaks, is not a young English girl, but the personification of chastity, so Arthur is, as in Spenser’s poem, the embodiment of complete virtue conceived in a Victorian fashion, with a little too much in him of the “endless clergyman,” which Tennyson said was the Englishman’s idea of God. And the last speech he delivers over the fallen Guinevere is, in consequence, at once magnificent and intolerable. The most popular of his works when they appeared, Idylls of the King, is, to-day, probably the chief stumbling-block to a young student of Tennyson. Its Parnassian beauties, its vaguely religious and somewhat timid morality reflect too vividly the spirit of their own day. Yet even English poetry would need to be richer than it is before we could afford to forget or ignore such a wealth of splendid colour and music as these poems present.