Francis Turner Palgrave's "A Crusader's Tomb"


Francis Turner Palgrave's "A Crusader's Tomb"

The name of the British critic and art historian Francis Palgrave (1824–1897) belonged to the nineteenth-century literary circles that produced the Victorian medievalist poetry with which we are most familiar today. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records Palgrave’s friendship with the Pre-Raphaelites and his devotion to Tennyson. Unlike the poetry of either Tennyson or the Pre-Raphaelites, however, Palgrave’s poetry has largely been excluded from the modern literary cannon. His connections with the Victorian medievalist movement seem to have originated with his father, who was a medieval historian. Although Palgrave’s surviving literary works are few, he is best remembered for The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language (1861), which collects the works of deceased poets.

“A Crusader's Tomb,” which first appeared in Palgrave's 1881 The Visions of England, roots its nationalistic project in England's past: “Our history is so eminently rich and varied, and at the same time, by the fact of our insular position, so stamped with unity, that from days very remote it has supplied matter for song” (vii). Throughout this collection of poetry, he presents various scenes from England’s past in order to create a sense of a coherent and cohesive national history. Throughout the project, however, he subordinates history to poetry: his introduction states that he offers “single lyrical pictures of such leading or typical characters and scenes in English history, and only such, as have seemed to me amenable to a strictly poetical treatment. Poetry, not History, has, hence, been my first and last aim; or, perhaps I might define it, History for Poetry's sake” (vii). The hierarchy of Palgrave’s aims in this passage suggests the difficulties of the project that he has undertaken; history is, after all, not always “poetical.”

The poem itself places a great deal of emphasis on the poet’s role as a disseminator of medievalism, which suggests that Palgrave queries his own poetical engagement with history throughout the project. After his initial image of a crusader “unnamed, unknown,” yet “a shrine within a shrine,” Palgrave asserts the poet’s right to fictionalize his vision of medieval history:
—How so! Thou say’st—This is the poet’s right!
He looks with larger sight
Than they who hedge their view by present things,
The small, parochial world
Of sight and touch: at what he sees, he sings. (53)
Palgrave’s defensive stance indicates the tensions surrounding Victorian medievalism: nineteenth-century literary aesthetics demand realism, and nineteenth-century historians and antiquarians were, as a body, preoccupied with recording precise historical details. Nineteenth-century literary medievalism thus falls outside the dictates of both genres: it employs the material relics of the past to fashion a visionary narrative that draws upon both romanticism and realism. This transcendence of genres and literary modes, Palgrave implies, allows the Victorian medievalist poet to fashion a unified history of England that coincides with the nineteenth-century nationalist—and imperialist—drives.

“A Crusader's Tomb,” like many other nineteenth-century crusades narratives, questions the purity of the crusaders’ motives and ultimately focuses on the impact of the crusades on the domestic paradise rather than on their religious and moral implications. The notes to the poem inform the reader that the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart, inspired the poem and offer historical background on the crusaders’ suffering during the Siege of Acre and the march through the “wilderness” of Mt. Carmel. Palgrave also quotes Richard’s lament that “They who are not worthy to win the Holy City are not worthy to behold it” (56). These specific historical references do not emerge until the last stanzas of the poem itself; thus, the majority of the poem is historically unanchored, free to operate as a broader critique of British imperial drives. The poet’s vision “pierces to the heart” of the knights and analyzes their motives: some, he says, are “gold-enticed/ By love or lust or Fame/ Urged,” while others “yearn to kiss the grave of Christ/ And find their own, life-wearied” (54). Overall, he names them a “motley band” and foretells their fall.

Like the historical references within the body of the poem itself, the Crusade’s objectives and adversaries are also somewhat unclear. The Crusaders’ main opponent in this poem appears to be the environment rather than the Saracens; although Palgrave briefly refers to the “dusky squadrons [who] close in vulture feast,” it is natural forces that ultimately defeat the Crusaders:
And that fierce Day-star's blazing ball their sight
Sears with excess of light;
Or through dun sand-clouds the blue scimitar's edge
Slopes down like fire from heaven,
Mowing them as the thatcher mows the sedge. (54)
The scimitar in the third line of this stanza operates as an agent of the sun and the sand rather than as a weapon in human hands; the image of the scimitar descending through the clouds also suggests divine intervention to halt the crusaders’ progress. The hostile surroundings that frame the crusade render the knights' occupation of the Holy Land a physical impossibility; military defeat is less important than the inability of the Englishmen to survive in this environment. Accordingly, this passage resonates with the many concerns about India’s insalubrious climate that circulated in nineteenth-century England, inviting comparisons to contemporary imperial ventures.

The narrative of the poem reinstates the crusaders within a domestic framework that promotes the transmission of historical narrative. Throughout this poem, Palgrave creates a domestic ideal of “Sweet England; her fresh fields and gardens trim” that sharply contrasts the hostile environment of the desert (54). The Crusader entombed in the first stanza of the poem is, significantly, one of those who survived and returned to “green, green English meads” to tell his cautionary tale: he relates the story of Richard, who won victories in the Holy Land,
Yet never saw the vast Imperial dome,
Nor the thrice-holy Tomb—
—As that great vision of the hidden Grail
By bravest knights of old
Unseen:—seen only of pure Parcivale. (54)
Palgrave’s reference to Parcivale at the end of this poem appears to refer to an early tradition in which Percival was the sole Grail Knight; in Malory, Galahad takes on this role. Richard’s failure to achieve Parcivale-like status stands as yet another indication of the moral impurity that renders him unworthy to conquer the Holy Land.
Primary Source:

Palgrave, Francis Turner. "A Crusader's  Tomb." The Visions of England.  London: MacMillian and Co., 1881

Secondary Source:

Otton, Megan Nelson."‘Palgrave, Francis Turner (1824–1897)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006.