In the same year Alfred Tennyson wrote his first Arthurian poem "Morte d'Arthur" (1833), Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed "as to Arthur, you could not by any means make a poem national to Englishmen. What have we to do with him?" (qtd. in Rosenberg "Tennyson"). This implication that Arthurian literature is escapist and irrelevant is a familiar criticism. In contrast and perhaps response, Tennyson called the Arthurian legend "the greatest of all poetical subjects," which partly explains why this tradition so heavily influenced his writing. With varying degrees of intensity, Tennyson drafted and revised his Arthurian epic -- Idylls of the King -- from his early twenties until a few months before his death, popularizing what became an avid Victorian interest in Arthuriana.
Tennyson was born on the fifth of August in 1809 and grew up in a small village of Somersby, Lincolnshire. Throughout his childhood his father, George Clayton Tennyson, suffered from deteriorating mental health, epileptic fits, and alcoholism. Tennyson's father went to Cambridge to study for the church, eventually becoming responsible for the Somersby Rectory. Alfred and his siblings were known to play in a brook at the bottom of the Rectory garden, and it was the scene of castle-building and mock-tournaments. Elizabeth Fytche Tennyson, Alfred's mother, loved poetry and often read aloud to her children James Beattie's Minstrel, James Thomson's The Seasons, or the work of Felicia Hemans. Alfred memorized much seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poetry, including the works of Milton, William Collins, and Thomson, from which he derived many of his early techniques in writing loco-descriptive poetry. Elizabeth encouraged Alfred to write, while George viewed creative writing as a needless diversion from reading the classics. Alfred had a knack for story-telling. His sister Cecilia recalls that friends and family would listen "open-eared and open-mouthed to legends of knights and heroes" (qtd. in Ormond 8). Before the age of fourteen, Alfred had composed a six thousand line epic in the style of Walter Scott's Marmion and at least one blank verse drama entitled The Devil and the Lady.
As early as the 1830s, he began to consider a serial Arthurian poem, and two different schemes developed: a twelve-book epic, for which he wrote a prose draft in 1833, and a muscial masque, for which he outlined a plot in five acts before 1840 (Eggers 5). Poems (1833), published when Tennyson was only twenty-three years old, includes two Arthurian references, a stanza in The Palace of Art describing Arthur in the Vale of Avalon, and "The Lady of Shalott." Four poems being developed as the early as the 1830s and published in 1842 -- "The Lady of Shalott" (a revised edition), "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere," "Sir Galahad," and "Morte d'Arthur" -- typify varied approaches to the Arthurian tradition. "Morte d'Arthur" represents one of his attempts to achieve some fidelity to Thomas Malory. Malory's Arthur is "a great warrior, a noble leader of men, an exemplary monarch," but most importantly a very human ruler (Staines 3). This poem is a careful expansion, and at times embellishment, of Malory's account of the conclusion of Arthur's life with the exception of a few references to Excalibur (17). During this time, Tennyson envisioned a series of allegorical poems with Arthur as religious faith, Merlin as science, Excalibur as war, Mordred as sceptical understanding, and the Round Table representing liberal institutions. He later claimed that he gave up this plan for an Arthurian epic because of hostile reviews of "Morte d'Arthur." (Ormond 142)
Beyond the profound influence of King Arthur, Tennyson's childhood friend Arthur Henry Hallam to whom Tennyson dedicated In Memoriam (1833-1849; 1850) also played an important role. Late in 1833, after the shock of Hallam's death at twenty-two from a cerebral hemorrhage, Tennyson drafted the "Morte d'Arthur." At the time of his death, Hallam was engaged to marry Tennyson's sister Emily whom he had met during their four-year friendship. As John Rosenberg notes, Hallam was "dead too young to have shaped a life in public" so he "lived posthumously as a prince of friends, a king of intellects." Interestingly, the draft of "Morte d'Arthur," which was later incorporated into "The Passing of Arthur," appears in the same notebook as In Memoriam. For Tennyson, Arthur had both personal and literary implications. ("Tennyson" 229)
The other three poems from this early period -- "The Lady of Shalott," "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere," and "Galahad" -- introduce readers to more Arthurian subject matter based in varying degrees on medieval sources and signify some themes that would become more fully realized in Idylls. "The Lady of Shalott" is based on a thirteenth-century Italian novelette entitled Donna di Scalotta. Whereas the Italian version focuses on the lady's death and her reception at Camelot, Tennyson emphasizes her isolation in the tower and her decision to participate in the living world, two subjects not even mentioned in Donna di Scalotta. In "The Lady of Shalott," Arthuriana is "introduced as a valid setting for the study of the artist and the dangers of personal isolation" (Ormond 11). "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" represents "an attempt to create a highly visualized story involving central figures of the Arthurian world" (Ormond 14). Like Malory's knight, Tennyson's Galahad is pure, honest, devout and sincere, "yet his introspection, his self-analysis, his exuberant joy bordering on arrogance, his ceaseless desire for activity and movement, these qualities make him a distinctly Victorian portrait of a medieval figure and a precursor of the Galahad of the Pre-Raphaelites" (16). In a more general sense, it is fair to say that the pre-Raphaelite fascination with Arthuriana is traceable to Tennyson's work.
Despite references to a variety of medieval sources, it is clear that Tennyson intended Idylls to reflect his contemporary times and concerns. And, indeed, Arthurian legends seem to have had particular appeal to the Victorians. Matthew Arnold suggested with a hint of irony that "the peculiar charm" of Idylls is that it does not have the "aroma of the Middle Ages" (qtd. in Ricks 663). Tennyson's historical sources are diverse -- "Anglo-Saxon social customs, bardic ideals, classical myths, Welsh myths, Victorian ethics, renaissance imagery, and many Arthurian legends" (Eggers 7). Idylls is in part a hypothetical portrait of Victorian England with its high idealism, strict morality, and warring extremism. Hallam Tennyson wrote that his father hoped to combat "the cynical indifference, the intellectual selfishness, the sloth of will, the utilitarian materialism of a transition age" (qtd. in Eggers 20). Arthur's idealism reflects the need for a sustaining purpose in the Victorian era as well as the sometimes foolish utopian hopes associated with the time (Eggers 21). In many ways, Arthur can be read as representative of this tension as he embodies both admirably heroic qualities as well as impossible ideals. Guinevere offers the most thorough critique of Arthur's virtue -- "he is all fault who hath no fault at all" (Hill 498: 131) -- suggesting that Arthur lacks humanity and that strict morality and perfectionism are flawed principles by which to live. How to read Guinevere, of course, varies according to one's sympathies. She is among the false in The True and the False series (1859); still, she occupies a strong, central role in Idylls. Though the depth of that criticism is relative, her perspective articulates important critiques of idealism that is removed from everyday life.
In the 1850s, Tennyson's plans for a serial Arthurian poem were uncertain, but he already had an epic cycle in mind. Perhaps it was the success of his first long poem, The Princess (1847), that encouraged him to return to Arthurian subjects. In addition to reading Arthurian material extensively, he was at Glastonbury in August 1854, and in Wales for two months in 1856, visiting places associated with Arthur and his knights. Despite these signs of preparation, in December 1858 Tennyson wrote to an American publisher, "I wish that you would disabuse your own minds and those of others, as far as you can, of the fancy that I am about an Epic of King Arthur. I should be crazed to attempt such a thing in the nineteenth century" (Letters 2.212). Seven months later Tennyson published the first four books as Idylls: "Enid" was written between April and August 1856, "Guinevere" followed in July 1857, and then came "Elaine," begun at Little Holland House in July 1858, and all of these poems including "Vivien" were completed in February 1859 (Ricks 660). "Enid" was eventually divided into "The Marriage of Geraint" and "Geraint and Enid." The first title he intended to publish these poems under was The True and the False. This strict moral dichotomy defines each of the stories. Enid unquestioningly follows and serves her husband, although he humiliates her based on his groundless belief that she is unfaithful. Elaine, "the fair, Elaine the loveable," as she is referred to in the opening line, dies of grief because of her innocent but consuming love for Lancelot. In contrast, the snake-like Vivien seduces Merlin and the more ambiguous Guinevere betrays her husband and repents too late.
Throughout the decade after the publication of the first volume of Idylls, Tennyson was personally encouraged by those as prestigious as Queen Victoria and Thomas Babington Macaulay to continue the series. Tennyson was apprehensive about interpreting the quest for the Holy Grail: "I doubt whether such a subject could be handled in these days without incurring a charge of irreverence. It would be too much like playing with sacred things. The old writers believed in the Sangraal" (Letters 2.244). Nevertheless, in 1869 he published another volume, adding to the collection: "The Holy Grail," "The Coming of Arthur," "Pelleas and Ettarre," and "The Passing of Arthur." Over the next decade, he would publish individually The Last Tournament (1871 in the Contemporary), Gareth and Lynette, and Other Poems (1872, including "The Last Tournament"), To the Queen (1873), Balin and Balan (1885), and Geraint and Enid (1888). Departing from earlier attention to the dynamics of true and false love, these texts depict the rise and fall of a society, perhaps suggesting an expansive allegory about Victorian culture. The Idylls were generally well-received and proved extremely popular.
Tennyson then published "Merlin and the Gleam" in 1889, which was the first Arthurian poem written separately from the Idylls since the 1842 volume. Not only were Tennyson's Arthurian tales extremely popular, they also inspired an enormous quantity of popular imagery, including illustrations by Gustave Doré, a series of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, and a set of Minton tiles designed by John Moyr Smith. Other Arthurian-inspired works from the Victorian period include plates, paintings, tapestries, and sculpture (Ormond 172). Fortunately, Coleridge had not anticipated the national and cultural influence of Arthurian literature as Tennyson was able to revive this narrative to have relevance to the Victorians and later generations.
Biography written by: Anne Zanzucchi
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-----. The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King." Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973.
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