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King Arthur: Prefaces to 1849, 1870, and 1875 editions

[joyous troubadour] “Rien n'est plus commun dans la poésie provençale que l'allégorie; seulement elle est un jeu d'esprit au lieu d’être une action.  . . . Une autre analogie me parait plus spontanée qu’imitée—la poésie des troubadours qu'on suppose frivole, a souvent retracée des sentiments graves et touchants,” &c.—VILLEMAIN, Tableau du Moyen Age.

[Cymrian Knighthood] In the more historical view of the position of Arthur, I have, however, represented it such as it really appears to have been,—not as the Sovereign of all Britain, and the conquering invader of Europe (according to the groundless fable of Geoffrey of Monmouth), but as the patriot Prince of South Wales, resisting successfully the invasion of his own native soil, and accomplishing the object of his career in preserving entire the nationality of his Welch countrymen. In thus contracting his sphere of action to the bounds of rational truth, his dignity, both moral and poetic, is obviously enhanced. Represented as the champion of all Britain against the Saxons, his life would have been but a notorious and signal failure; but as the preserver of the Cymrian Nationality—of that part of the British population which took refuge in Wales, he has a claim to the epic glory of success.
   It is for this latter reason that I have gone somewhat out of the strict letter of history, and allowed myself the privilege of making the Mercians his principle enemies, as they were his nearest neighbours (though, properly speaking, the Mercian kingdom was not then founded). The alliance between the Mercian and the Welch, which concludes the Poem—is at least not contrary to the spirit of History—since in very early periods such amicable bonds between Welch and Mercian were contracted, and the Welch on the whole, were on better terms with those formidable borderers, than with the other branches of the Saxon family.

[laid aside] Southey has used it in the “Lay of the Laureate" and “The Poet's Pilgrimage,"—not his best known and most considerable poems.
  The legendary Arthur who is reputed to have flourished in the earlier half of the sixth century (501-542) had his history first recounted with anything like detail towards the middle of the twelfth century by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Out of the exploits related in his regard there grew up as time elapsed in the French Fabliaux those Romances of the Round Table which were first collected and reduced into English by Sir Thomas Malory. It was in this manner, very gradually, that the son of Uthor Pendragon, King of Britain, by Igerne, Duchess of Cornwall, came to be enveloped in a sort of mythical haze, seen through which, his fame, his character, and his achievements assumed to themselves all the attributes of the marvelous.
  It is recorded in the annals of our literature that Milton and Dryden meditated, each in turn, writing a poem on King Arthur as the ideal National Hero. That day-dream neither lived to realize. A similar design was formed by Lord Lytton which he was yet a stripling. It at once captivated his imagination with the hope that he might be enabled eventually to carry out his boyish intention. That long-cherished project had its fruition at last in 1848, when the present work was published anonymously in four instalments. That first edition, immediately on its completion, was issued from the press in two volumes by Mr. Colburn. A second revised edition appeared, in the following year, 1849, through the hands of the same publisher, the authorship of the work being then, for the first time, frankly acknowledged upon the title-page. Four years later, in 1853, “King Arthur” was reprinted, with slight modifications in vols. ii. and iii. of the collected edition of the author’s “Poems and Dramas,” published in five volumes by the Messrs. Chapman and Hall. Seventeen years afterwards, in 1870, an illustrated edition in one volume, published by Mr. Charlton Tucker, afforded Lord Lytton the opportunity of presenting to the world what was undoubtedly his own favourite work, with the advantage of its having received his final emendations. The text of that edition has been scrupulously followed throughout in the present reprint, excepting only where eighteen stanzas then omitted (i.e., iii. to xx. in Book V.) have been carefully restored. The title of Epic, which Lord Lytton shrank from arrogating to his poem, it has been thought not only allowable, but reasonable, to affix to it here posthumously.

PREFACE TO THE EDITION OF 1870    It was in my earliest youth that the subject of this poem first occurred to me. For the theme, whatever material qualifications I may possess have at least matured by time, and enlarged by a culture more of less kindred to its nature during the years devoted to the completion of it. A new generation has, meanwhile, grown up around me, to whose notice the present edition of the poem is offered, with the most careful revision and correction which I have been able to give to it; not without the hope of a wider audience among the generations that succeed. Such a hope is natural to every writer who has done his best to ensure the elements of durability to his work; and if it be often an erroneous, it is never an ignoble one.
   All that I can legitimately ask, in the present day, from the friendlier some amongst the many who are wholly unacquainted with this work is that, if they look into it at all, they will do so without hostile prepossession;—judging of it for themselves uninhibited by the reports of those who would rather condemn without reading than read without condemning.
   In deference to the fame of an illustrious contemporary, I may be permitted to observe that when, in my college days, I proposed to my ambition the task of a narrative poem, having King Arthur for its hero, I could not have even guessed that the same subject would occur to a Poet somewhat younger than myself, and then unknown to the Public; an though, when my work was first printed in 1848, Mr. Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur" had appeared, I was not aware of any intention of his part to connect it with other poems illustrating selected fables of the legendary King. Fortunately for me, the point of view from which the subject had already presented itself to my imagination, and the design and plan I had proposed to myself in the treatment of it, were so remote from the domains of romance to which the genius of Mr. Tennyson has resorted, that I may claim one merit rare in those who have come after him,—I have filled no pitcher from fountains hallowed to himself. 
   In constructing from the confused myths that surround the image of Arthur, a continuous narrative poem, preserving unity of action, and aiming at something of national colouring and purpose, the detached romances of the Round Table taken “out of certeyn books of Frenshe and reduced into Englysshe” by Sir Thomas Malory, appeared to me but little available. The unconnected character of these stories is thus accurately described by Southey:—
   “Nothing can be more inartificial in structure than the Romances of the Round Table. Adventure produces adventure in infinite series, not like a tree whose boughs and branches, bearing a necessary relation and due proportion to each other, combine into one beautiful form, but resembling such plants as the prickly pear, where on joint grows upon another, all equal in size and alike in shape, and the whole making a formless and misshapen mass.”
   From the characters in the legends of the Round Table, I have but borrowed the names—the contrasted individualities are of my own creation; and even the fable of the guilty loves between Lancelot and Guenevere, which I need scarcely say has no warrant in legends genuinely Cymrian, but,—(in common with the other stories of the same character, that drew down on Sir Thomas Malory’s compilation the indignant censure of Roger Ascham),—betrays its origin in the literature of the French Courts of Gallantry, would, for various reasons, have been altogether inappropriate to the design of this poem. Enlarging on the hint in the Romance of “Merlin,” that there were two Gueneveres “very like each other,” I have purposely allotted to the respective wives of Lancelot and his lord—
                         “One name, indeed, but with a varying sound.”
   Proposing to give to the poem a national design, it was necessary that I should contemplate almost exclusively from that point of view the character and action of its hero. Whether, with Mr. Skene, in this able work on the Four Ancient Books of Wales, we accept Arthur’s Historical existence, apart from his Romantic, in the Dux bellorum of Nennius; or whether, as best suits the scheme of this poem, we recognize it with Sharon Turner in the later Prince of the Silures, it is only by representing the triumphs of Christianity against the Pagan, and by maintaining his native Cymrian soil against the invader, that as a national hero, Arthur becomes entitles to the epic glory of success.
   This, therefore, is the end to his trials ordained by Merlin, who is here represented less as the wizard of popular legend, than as the seer gifted with miraculous powers for the service and ultimate victory of Christianity; and the end thus to be attained is accepted by Arthur as the definite limit of his ambition.
   In the description of the trials which constitute my hero’s probation, the invention of the Etrurian valley arose out of my desire to combine with the execution of a plan fundamental to the whole poem, some incidental indication of the effect produced by the discovery of Classic arts and letters on the Gothic world in its progress towards modern civilization. More especially, however, is this portion of the work intended to illustrate the influence of that holiday region apart from the work-day world, in which the Romantic Age retains for awhile both nations and individuals who are destined to derive from romance an exalted conception of life’s practical duties, as well as a deepened devotion to their fulfilment. The sorrow which awaits the Adventurer on quitting the land never to be regained, opens his eyes to the latent secrets of existence, and widens for him the scope of the present, not only by a survey of the past, but by glimpses of the future. Neither men nor nations, however, can adequately fit themselves for greater destinies unless to practical energies they add spiritual and intellectual freedom; nor can any beneficent conquest be achieved over the brute forces of nature without moral subjugation of the superstitious terrors and false desires that assail the mind. It is then only that the guardian and guiding instinct of a noble purpose assumes definite form, and is clothed with human loveliness, as Duty becomes Beauty in the successful completion of a life truly heroic.
   Such is the general outline of a design filled up in this poem by means of incidents which, whilst anxious to avoid too obvious an intrusion of any typical intention, I have so arranged as to identify the ideal story of Arthur, as far as I found to be practical, not only with the development of the heroic character in the individual, but with the composition and structural growth of the Nation that claims in Arthur its hero and its type. With this view a prominent position has been accorded to the Saxons, who are almost lost sight of in the French legends of Arthur, where they appear travestied into Saracens, among whom the worship of Mahomet pre-eminently flourished—a notable proof not only of the comparatively modern origin, but the completely foreign character of the fables which Sir Thomas Malory “reduced into Englysshe.” Special significance is also assigned in this poem to the nationality of Arthur’s bride, in adherence to those principles of Epic Fable which, doubtless, induced Virgil to identify the national hero of the Romans with the conquest of their Latin progenitors, and to symbolise the ultimate fusion of races by the nuptials of Æneas and Lavinia.
   For the same reason, various indications have been admitted in my narrative of a distinctly Scandinavian nationality commingling with that of the other races now united under the name of Britons.
   In assigning to Arthur his place in history, I have necessarily given to his realm and people something of the Cymrian characteristics or colourings, which are excluded from the French romances, though, among the corrections in the present edition, many Welch proper names and expressions to be found in former ones are paraphrased or omitted as difficult to reconcile to other than Welch ears.
   As regards my employment of Humour in aid of romance, I need discuss neither the example of Ariosto nor the special grounds of my belief that the serious purpose of this poem is best developed by an occasionally humouristic treatment of it. I may, however, briefly observe, that in taking into the esoteric design of my narrative the aspiration of all nobler life, individual or national, towards the harmonious development of the powers for good at its command, it would be scarcely possible to reject the presence of Humour as the playfellow of Genius and the assistant of Philosophy. To those who maintain that the statelier dignity of poetic narrative is lowered by such commixture I can only say, that my theories of criticism, apart from my interest in this poem, entirely differ from theirs, and since Tragedy is of graver import than even the Epopee, I do not see how, according to their cannons, they can tolerate the presence of humour in the loftiest tragedies of Shakespeare.
   To explain in prose what he has uttered in song is a task which cannot be agreeable to any one, and it is the wise fashion of authors now-a-days to delegate such tasks to friendly reviewers, instructed and secured beforehand. Of friends so invaluable, engaged in the periodical press, it is not my good fortune to boast; and though I have not the slightest intention to provoke a controversial comparison of the different points of view from which the Arthur of British Fable maybe regarded as a national hero, some such explanation as is here given of that aspect in which I have taught myself to regard him, seemed to me a courtesy due to the reader, and that explanation could scarcely be given without some corollary remarks on the general scheme of the poem. After all, an Author cannot justify his work; it is for the work to justify the author. Whatever worth I have put into the work of mine, comprising, in condensed form, so many of the influences which a life divided between literature and action, the study of books and the commerce of mankind,—brings to bear upon the two elements of song, Imagination and Thought,—that degree of worth must ultimately be found in it; and its merits and its faults be gauged by different standards of criticism from those which experience teaches me to anticipate now. I shall be, indeed, beyond the reach of pleasure or of pain in a judgment thus tardily pronounced. But he who appeals to Time must not be impatient of the test that he invites.
London, October, 1870

   I CANNOT better begin the few remarks that it seems to me fitting to prefix to this poem, than by acknowledgments sincere and earnest to those whose approbation of the earlier portions honoured my experiment and encouraged its progress;—I venture to hope that the work as now completed, will not forfeit the indulgence that they bestowed on the commencement; indeed, it is almost the necessary condition of any fiction, planned with some forethought, and sustained through some length, that the passages most calculated to please the reader, should open upon him in proportion as he habituates himself to the style, and becomes familiarized with the design, of the author—while it is obvious that such merit as the work may possibly be entitled to claim on the score of art, or consistency, can be but imperfectly conjectured by specimens of its parts.
  Whatever the defects of this Poem, it has not been hastily conceived or lightly undertaken. From my earliest youth, the subject I have selected has haunted my ambition—for twenty years it has rested steadily on my mind, in spite of other undertakings, for the most part not wholly ungenial,—since a lengthened and somewhat various practice in the conception and conduct of imaginative story, ought to be no disadvantageous preparation for a poem which seeks to construct from the elements of national romance, something approaching to the completeness of epic narrative. If my powers be unequal to the task I have assumed, at least I have waited in patience, until they were matured and disciplined to such strength as they might be enabled to attain; until taste, if erroneous, could be corrected, invention if sterile be enriched, by some prolonged apprenticeship to the principles of art, by the contemplation of its master-pieces in many languages, and by such familiarity with the resources of my native tongue as study and practice could permit me to obtain. But every one knows the proverb, that "The poet is born, the orator made;”—and though, perhaps, it is only partially true that the "Poet is born," and a slight examination of the higher order of poets will suffice to show us that they themselves depended very little on the innate faculty, and were not less diligent in self-cultivation than the most laborious orator,—yet it would be in vain to deny, that where the faculty itself is wanting, no labour can supply the defect: and if certain Critics are right in asserting, that that defect is my misfortune, I must content myself with the sombre reflection that I have done my best to counteract the original unkindness of nature. I have given to this work a preparation that, evincing my own respect to the public, entitles me in return to the respect of a just hearing and a fair examination: if the work be worthless, it is at least the worthiest it is in my power to perform,—and on this foundation, however hollow, I know that I rest the least perishable monument of those thoughts and those labours which have made the life of my life.
   In aiming at a complete and symmetrical design, I find myself involuntarily compelled to refer to the distinctions of Epic Fable, although by no means presuming to give to my poem a title which an author may arrogate, but which a long succession of readers has alone the prerogative to confirm,—and although few in this age will pretend that an Epic can be made merely by adherence to formal laws, or that it may not exist in spite of nearly all which learning has added to the canons of common sense, and the quick perceptions of a cultivated taste. Pope has, however, properly defined the three cardinal distinctions of Epic Fable to consist in the Probable, the Allegorical, and the Marvellous. For without the Probable, there could be no vital interest; without the Marvellous, its larger field would be excluded from the imagination; and without the Allegorical the Poet would lose the most pleasing medium of conveying instruction. It is chiefly by the Allegorical that the imaginative writer is didactic, and that he achieves his end of insinuating truth through the disguise of fancy. I accept these divisions because they conform to the simplest principles of rational criticism; and though their combination does not form an epic, it serves at least to amplify the region and elevate the objects of Romance.
   It has been my aim so to blend these divisions, that each may harmonise with the other, and all conduce to the end proposed from the commencement. For this is that unity of structure which every artistic narrative requires, and it forms one of the main considerations which influence any reader of sound judgment in estimating the merit that belongs to a whole.—I have admitted but little episodical incident, and none that does not grow out of what Pope terms "the platform of the story." For the marvellous agencies I have not presumed to make direct use of that Divine Machinery which the war of the Christian Principle with the forms of Heathenism might have suggested to the sublime daring of Milton, had he prosecuted his original idea of founding a heroic poem upon the legendary existence of Arthur;—and, on the other hand, the Teuton Mythology, however interesting and profound, is too unfamiliar and obscure, to permit its employment as an open and visible agency;—such reference to it as could not be avoided, is therefore rather indulged as an appropriate colouring to the composition, than an integral part of the materials of the canvas: And, not to ask from the ordinary reader an erudition I should have no right to expect, the reference so made is in the simplest form, and disentangled from the necessity of other information than a few brief notes will suffice to afford.
   In taking my subject from chivalrous romance, I take, then, the agencies from the Marvellous that it naturally and familiarly affords—the Fairy, the Genius, the Enchanter: not wholly, indeed, in the precise and literal spirit with which our nursery tales receive those creations of Fancy through the medium of French Fabliaux, but in the larger significations by which in their conceptions of the Supernatural, our fathers often implied the secrets of Nature. For the Romance from which I borrow is the Romance of the North—a Romance, like the Northern mythology, full of typical meaning and latent import. The gigantic remains of symbol worship are visible amidst the rude fables of the Scandinavians, and what little is left to us of the earlier and more indigenous literature of the Cymrians, is characterized by a mysticism profound with parable. This fondness for an interior or double meaning is the most prominent attribute in that Romance popularly called the Gothic, the feature most in common with all creations that bear the stamp of the Northern fancy; we trace it in the poems of the Anglo-Saxons; it returns to us, in our earliest poems after the Conquest; it does not originate in the Oriental genius (immemorially addicted to Allegory,) but it instinctively appropriates all that Saracenic invention can suggest to the more sombre imagination of the North—it unites to the Serpent of the Edda, the flying Griffin of Arabia, the Persian Genius to the Scandinavian Trold,—and wherever it accepts a marvel, it seeks to insinuate a type. This peculiarity which demarks the spiritual essence of the modern from the sensual character of ancient poetry, especially the Roman, is visible wherever a tribe allied to the Goth, the Frank, or the Teuton, carries with it the deep mysteries of the Christian faith. Even in the sunny Provence it transfuses a subtler and graver moral into the lays of the joyous troubadour,—and weaves "the Dance of Death" by the joyous streams, and through the glowing orange groves of Spain. Onwards, this under current of meaning flowed, through the various phases of civilisation:—it pervaded alike the popular Satire and the dramatic Mystery;—it remained unimpaired to the glorious age of Elizabeth, amidst all the stirring passions that then agitated mankind, to demand and to find their delineator;—it not only coloured the dreams of Spenser, but it placed abstruse and recondite truth in the clear yet unfathomable wells of Shakespeare. Thus, in taking from Northern Romance the Marvellous, we are most faithful to the genuine character of that Romance when we take with the Marvellous its old companion, the Typical or Allegorical. But these form only two divisions of the three which I have assumed as the components of the unity I seek to accomplish; there remains the Probable, which contains the Actual. To subject the whole poem to allegorical constructions would be erroneous, and opposed to the vital principle of a work of this kind which needs the support of direct and human interest. The inner and the outer meaning of Fable should flow together, each acting on the other, as the thought and the action in the life of a man. It is true that in order clearly to interpret the action, we should penetrate to the thought. But if we fail of that perception, the action, though less comprehended, still impresses its reality on our senses, and makes its appeal to our interest.
   I have thus sought to maintain the Probable through that chain of incident in which human agencies are employed, and through those agencies the direct action of the Poem is accomplished; while the Allegorical admits into the Marvellous the introduction of that subtler form of Truth, which if less positive than the Actual, is wider in its application, and ought to be more profound in its significance.
   For the rest, it may perhaps be conceded that this poem is not without originality in the conception of its plot and the general treatment of its details. Though I have often sought to enrich its materials with ornaments of expression, borrowed or imitated, whether from our own earliest poetry, or that of other countries, yet I am not aware of any previous romantic poem which it resembles in its main design, or in the character of its principal incidents;—and though I may have incurred certain mannerisms of my own day, (in spite of my endeavour rather to err on the opposite side, by often purposely maintaining those forms of diction and phraseology which recent criticism regards as common place, and by generally adhering to those laws of rhythm and rhyme which recent poetry has been inclined to regard as servile and restricted);—yet I venture to trust, that, in the pervading form or style, the mind employed has been sufficiently in earnest to leave its own peculiar effigy and stamp upon the work. For the incidents narrated, I may, indeed, thank the nature of my subject, if many of them could scarcely fail to be new. The celebrated poets of chivalrous fable—Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser, have given to their scenery the colourings of the West. The Great North from which Chivalry sprung—its polar seas, its natural wonders, its wild legends, its antediluvian remains,—(a wide field for poetic description and heroic narrative)—have been, indeed, not wholly unexplored by poetry, but so little appropriated, that even after Tegner and Oehlenschläger, I dare to hope that I have found tracks in which no poet has preceded me, and over which yet breathes the native air of our National Romance.
   For the Manners preserved through this poem, I have elsewhere implied that I take those of that age, not in which the Arthur of History, of whom we know so little, but in which the Arthur of Romance, whom we know so well, revived into fairer life at the breath of Minstrel and Fabliast. The anachronism of chivalrous manners and costume for himself and his Knighthood, is absolutely required by all our familiar associations. On the other hand, without affecting any strict or antiquarian accuracy in details, I have kept the country of the brave Chief of the Silures (or South Wales) somewhat more definitely in view, than has been done by the French fabliasts; while in portraying his Saxon foes, I have endeavoured to distinguish their separate nationality, without enforcing too violent a contrast between the rudeness of the heathen Teutons and the polished Christianity of the Cymrian Knighthood.
   May I be permitted to say a word as to the metre I have selected?— One advantage it has,—that while thoroughly English, and not uncultivated by the best of the elder masters, it has never been applied to a poem of equal length, and has not been made too trite and familiar, by the lavish employment of recent writers. Shakespeare has taught us its riches in The Venus and Adonis,—penser in The Astrophel,—Cowley has sounded its music amidst the various intonations of his irregular lyre. But of late years, if not wholly laid aside, it has been generally neglected for the more artificial and complicated Spenserian stanza, which may seem, at the first glance, to resemble it, but which to the ear is widely different in rhythm and construction.
   The reader may perhaps remember that Dryden has spoken with emphatic praise of the rhyming, or elegiac, metre with its alternate rhyme. He has even regarded it as the noblest in the language. That metre in its simple integrity is comprised in the stanza selected, ending in the vigour and terseness of the rhyming couplet, in which for the most part, the picture should be closed or the sense clenched. And whatever the imperfection of my own treatment of this variety in poetic form, I hazard a prediction that it will be ultimately revived into more frequent use, especially in narrative, and that its peculiar melodies of rhythm and cadence, as well as the just and measured facilities it affords to expression, neither too diffuse, nor too restricted, will be recognised hereafter in the hands of a more accomplished master of our language.
   Here ends all that I feel called upon to say respecting a Poem which I now acknowledge as the child of my most cherished hopes, and to which I deliberately confide the task to uphold, and the chance to continue, its father's name.
   The motives that induced me to publish anonymously the first portion of "Arthur," as well as the "New Timon," are simple enough to be easily recognised. An author who has been some time before the public, feels, in undertaking some new attempt in his vocation, as if released from an indescribable restraint, when he pre-resolves to hazard his experiment as that of one utterly unknown. That determination gives at once freedom and zest to his labours in the hours of composition, and on the anxious eve of publication, restores to him much of the interest and pleasurable excitement, that charmed his earliest delusions. When he escapes from the judgment that has been passed on his manhood, he seems again to start fresh from the expectations of his youth.
   In my own case, too, I believed, whether truly or erroneously, that my experiment would have a fairer chance of justice, if it could be regarded without personal reference to the author;—and at all events it was clear, that I myself could the better judge how far the experiment had failed or succeeded, when freed from the partial kindness of those disposed to overrate, or the predetermined censure of those accustomed to despise my former labours.
   These motives were sufficient to decide me to hazard unacknowledged those attempts which the public has not ungraciously received.
   And, indeed, I should have been well contented to preserve the mask, if it had not already failed to ensure the disguise. My identity with the author of these poems has been so generally insisted upon, that I have no choice between the indiscretion of frank avowal, and the effrontery of flat denial. Whatever influence of good or ill, my formal adoption of these foundlings may have upon their future career, like other adventurers they must therefore take their chance in the crowd. Happy if they can propitiate their father's foes, yet retain his friends; and,—irrespective of either,—sure to be judged, at last, according to their own deserts.

                                   E. BULWER LYTTON.   JANUARY, 1849.