Charles Petzold

1859 Books: Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”

July 17, 2009
Roscoe, N.Y.

When Alfred Tennyson met Arthur Hallam at Trinity College, Cambridge in April 1829, a friendship between the two young men was unlikely. For Tennyson, Cambridge was a refuge from a turbulent family life, beset by congenital epilepsy, alcoholism, opium addiction, mental illness, verbal abuse, and frequent threats of domestic violence. His father, a country rector, wasn't poor but had been rejected as the family heir in favor of his younger brother, leading to constant strife and conflict. The young Tennyson was moody, brooding, suffered from periods of despondency and depression, and was unmistakably a poet.

Arthur Hallam came from a somewhat wealthier (and certainly calmer) family based in London. His father, Henry Hallam, was a respected Whig historian, and Arthur seemed destined for a similar career in literature or perhaps politics. (From his Eton days, his best friend with William Gladstone.) Hallam's father could be strict and overbearing, but only because he could envision the brilliant future in store for his son.

Despite the differences in background and temperment, Tennyson and Hallam soon became fast friends, with an intensity and intimacy that prompts modern readers to wonder if something else was going on. (While Hallam seems unequivocally heterosexual, Tennyson sometimes seems more amorphously polysexual — at least in the head if not in the body.) In October 1829, Tennyson was invited to join Hallam in the elite Cambridge Conversazione Society, known informally as the Apostles' Club because it was limited to 12 members. Founded by students earlier in the decade to balance the math-oriented curriculum of Cambridge with more varied interests, the Apostles wrote papers and debated subjects on philosophy, theology, politics, poetry, and contemporary literature.

During winter break in December 1829, Tennyson and Hallam met each other's families, first to London where the Hallams lived, and then to the rectory where the Tennysons lived in Lincolnshire. The rectory was in a more peaceful and quiet phase than usual because Tennyson's father was in France attempting to get dried out and nursed back to health.

During this visit, on December 20, 1829, Arthur Hallam met Alfred Tennyson's 18-year old sister Emily. It's not quite clear if they fell in love then or the following April, when Hallam was again visiting the Tennysons on Easter break, but during the next winter break, in December 1830, they entered into an engagement, which managed to survive a long separation imposed by Arthur Hallam's father until Arthur reached the age of 21 in January 1832.

In the summer of 1833, Arthur Hallam toured Europe with his father for the last time before his marriage to Emily. In Vienna, Arthur wasn't feeling well. He fell asleep in a chair and his father found him dead the next morning, apparently of apoplexy. Tennyson received a letter informing him of his friend's death, and then he had to tell Emily.

Both brother and sister were devastated with grief, but Alfred Tennyson dealt with his at least partly by writing poetry. He wrote "Ulysses" from the perspective of an old man struggling to go on regardless of the pain.

Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world....
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die....
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

From 1833 as well comes another poem based on a mythical personage. Tennyson had been interested in the King Arthur legends ever since discovering Sir Thomas Malory's 15th century Le Morte d'Arthur as a teenager. Tennyson's 1833 poem "Morte D'Arthur" is ostensibly about the death of King Arthur, but could Tennyson also be thinking about the death of Arthur Hallam?

And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world....
But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst — if indeed I go —
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And blowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

Even before these poems, very soon after hearing of Hallam's death, Tennyson began writing verses with an informal bouncy iambic tetrameter rhythm and a peculiar ABBA rhyming scheme. Some of the first versus Tennyson wrote in the form imagine the ship bringing Hallam's body back to England.

I hear the noise about thy keel;
   I hear the bell struck in the night:
   I see the cabin-window bright;
I see the sailor at the wheel.

Thou bringest the sailor to his wife,
   And travell'd men from foreign lands;
   And letter unto trembling hands;
And, thy dark freight, a vanish'd life. (poem X from the first edition)

This rhyming scheme never ceases to feel a little unexpected, as if it's pulling in on itself only tentatively, almost with a unsatisfying reticence. The simple rhymes capping short lines lends itself not to making ponderous statements, but instead to confessions of uncertainty and inadequacy. Here Tennyson expresses doubts about the very poem he's writing.

I sometimes hold it half a sin
   To put in words the grief I feel;
   For words, like nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
   A use in measur'd language lies;
   The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
   Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
   But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more. (V)

Over the years, Tennyson wrote more and more of these verses, often without quite knowing what he was going to do with them, until after 17 years, he had about 130 poems, each containing between three and 36 quartrains, and it was ready to be published as In Memoriam, commonly regarded as Tennyson's masterpiece. (Google Book Search has the first edition of In Memoriam, which is the source of the Roman numeral references to the poems.)

Using Hallam's death as a springboard, In Memoriam chronicles Tennyson's efforts to deal with his grief, but also to explore the larger issues of life and death and faith and doubt — what Eleanor Bustin Mattes called the Victorians' "spiritual bewilderment in a new scientific age." The long gestation of In Memoriam lets us follow Tennyson's spiritual pilgrimage, but at the same time it confounds expectations of a unified conherent philosophy. In Memoriam is not arranged in the chronological order of its composition, and is frequently rather fragmented, so it can be tough to navigate. Mrs. Mattes' short book (her Yale PhD thesis) provides a splendid guide, and the Norton Critical Edition edited by Erik Gray helps with some of the individual poems and allusions.

Perhaps more than any other poet before or since, Tennyson had a deep interest in science and kept current about the latest scientific pronouncements. Tennyson's father had accumulated a library of 2,500 books, including many books on science, and Tennyson spent much time with these books, perhaps to escape the turmoil of his family life. (See Martin, pg. 19) He seemed to know about Laplace's speculation about cosmological evolution at an early age, for example. During his years at Cambridge (1827-31) Tennyson's tutor was William Whewell, who invented the word "scientist" and introduced the term "nebular hypothesis" in his Bridgewater Treatise Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1833).

Judging by the poems in In Memoriam, at first Tennyson seemed somewhat comforted by the conventional Christian concept of life after death — that Hallam's soul had survived his death and continued to live somewhere. But if that is the case, what is it actually like? Is there an awareness of those still living? Unfortunately, nobody thought to ask Lazarus of his experiences during the time he was dead before Christ revived him:

When Lazarus left his charnel-cave,
   And home to Mary's house return'd,
   Was this demanded — if he yearn'd
To hear her weeping by his grave?

'Where wert thou, brother, those four days?'
   There lives no record of reply,
   Which telling what it is to die
Had surely added praise to praise.
Behold a man raised up by Christ!
   The rest remaineth unreveal'd
   He told it not; or something seal'd
The lips of that Evangelist. (XXXI)

In 1837, Tennyson's speculations about the soul surviving death were upset by reading one of the most influential science books of all time — Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. There's no puzzlement about Tennyson reading this extremely popular book, but only what took him so long to get to it, for Lyell's book was published several years earlier in three volumes between 1830 and 1833.

What Copernicus was to space, Lyell was to time: Principles of Geology argued for an Earth of a very great age that seemed to displace Man from the temporal center of existence. To Lyell, the changes on the Earth's surface were all brought about through "causes now in operation" (as the subtitle stated), such as erosion by wind and water, and the eruptions of volcanos and earthquakes. This was said to be a geology of "uniformitarianism" rather than the "catastrophism" associated with the Biblical creation and Noahic flood.

Lyell's book did much to wean the Victorian public off the six-thousand year Mosaic chronology. Charles Darwin read Lyell aboard the Beagle, and the books gave him permission to think in terms of slow accumulative processes occuring over long periods of time. But Tennyson seems to have focused much more on Volume II of Principles of Geology (1832), in which Lyell examines the creation and extinction of living things.

Volume II of Principles of Geology can be rather frustrating because Lyell seems to grasp some of the rudiments that Darwin later explicated in Origin of Species (1859). For example, "In the universal struggle for existence, the right of the strongest eventually prevails; and the strength and durability of a race depends mainly on its prolificness..." (pg. 56 — all page numbers reference the first edition) Lyell knew from evidence in the strata that there existed eras when particular living things existed that did not exist before or after that period. He supposed that this implied many different periods of creation, followed by inevitable extinction:

...species are subject to incessant vicissitudes; and if the result of these mutations, in the course of ages, be so great as materially to affect the general condition of stations, it will follow that the successive destruction of species must now be part of the regular and constant order of Nature. (p. 141)

At the time, the only real theory of transmutation of species was that of Lamarck, who believed that characteristics acquired during life were transmitted to offsprings. Lyell rejected Lamarck, but didn't have anything better.

...amidst the vicissitudes of the earth's surface, species cannot be immortal, but must perish one after the other, like the individuals that compose them. There is no possibility of escaping from this conclusion, without resorting to some hypothesis as violent as that of Lamarck, who imagined, as we have seen, that species are each of them endowed with indefinite powers of modifying their organization, in conformity to the endless change of circumstances to which they are exposed. (p. 169)

To Tennyson, Volume II of Principles of Geology impressed upon him the savagery of nature. In everything we're taught about religion, all life is supposed to be precious to God. But Nature seems not to be so benevolent.

Are God and Nature then at strife,
   That Nature lends such evil dreams?
   So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life; (LIV)

But even this supposition is wrong. Lyell's book has described fossil remains that indicate the extinction of entire species, and Tennyson quickly corrects his mistake:

'So careful of the type?' but no.
   From scarped cliff and quarried stone
   She cries 'a thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

Thou makest thine appeal to me:
   I bring to life, I bring to death:
   The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.' And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
   Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
   Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
   And love Creation's final law —
   Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed —

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
   Who battled for the True, the Just,
   Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
   A discord. Dragons of the prime,
   That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
   O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
   What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil. (LV)

The "Dragons of the prime" are, of course, dinosaurs, whose savage nature (as they were visualized at the time) Tennyson finds more in tune with the violence and ruthlessness of nature than Man, who is nonetheless slated for extinction along with everything else. In the context of this vision, a hope of some kind of preferential treatment for Man seems quaint and unrealistic. The existence of a soul that survives death is ridiculous if Man himself is a miniscule blip on the vast sweep of natural history.

With another four quatrains, Tennyson bid his friend adieu and prepared to end the poem, but apparently he could not leave on such a bleak note. Both Tennyson and In Memoriam needed to find a more optimistic view of the future.

The resolution of this conflict came partly from an unusual source: In 1844, the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation caused a sensation. Weak on actual science but strong on speculation accumulated from a variety of sources, Vestiges presented a complete evolutionary history of the universe and living things. Tennyson wrote to his publisher to get him a copy of the book, for "it seems to contain many speculations with which I have been familiar for years..." (H. Tennyson, Memoirs, Vol. I, pgs 222-3) and he said in reading it, "I trembled as I cut the leaves." (Turner, pg. 124)

To many readers, Vestiges seemed dangerously atheistic. Tennyson, however, fought against any implication of evolution that suggested materialism, and instead extracted a more spiritual interpretation. He found in Vestiges a type of progressive evolution that seemed to imply that some greater being might arise out of the current species of Mankind.

Contemplate all this work of Time,
   The giant labouring in his youth;
   Nor dream of human love and truth,
As dying Nature's earth and lime;

But trust that those we call the dead
   Are breathers of an ampler day
   For ever nobler ends. They say,
The solid earth whereon we tread

In tracts of fluent heat began,
   And grew to seeming-random forms,
   The seeming prey of cyclic storms,
Till at last arose the man;

Who throve and branch'd from clime to clime,
   The herald of a higher race,
   And of himself in higher place,
If so he type this work of time

Within himself, from more to more;
   Or, crown'd with attributes of woe
   Like glories, move his course, and show
That life is not as idle ore,

But iron dug from central gloom,
   And heated hot with burning fears,
   And dipt in baths of hissing tears,
And batter'd with the shocks of doom

To shape and use. Arise and fly
   The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;
   Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die. (CXVI)

Tennyson ended In Memoriam with a description of the 1842 wedding of his sister Cecilia, suggesting that through deaths like that of Hallam's and the births of his sister's children, the world progresses towards perfection and the elimination of the "beast" within us, the "ape and tiger" that mar our better natures.

And touch with shade the bridal doors,
   With tender gloom the roof, the wall;
   And breaking let the splendour fall
To spangle all the happy shores

By which they rest, and ocean sounds,
   And, star and system rolling past,
   A soul shall draw from out the vast
And strike his being into bounds,

And, moved thro' life of lower phase,
   Result in man, be born and think,
   And act and love, a closer link
Betwixt us and the crowning race... (epilogue)

One of the last additions to In Memoriam before it's publication was a Prologue of much more traditional Christian piety. Apparently Tennyson added this to throw people off and counter-balance the extreme religious doubt that characterized the rest of the poem. One of the people he wished to appeal to in this Prologue was Emily Sellwood, the woman Tennyson wanted to marry but who was troubled by Tennyson's shaky faith. At one point in In Memoriam he had already addressed her directly and then alluded to Arthur Hallam, who was also often as "perplext in faith" as Tennyson:

You say, but with no touch of scorn,
   Sweet-hearted, you, whose light-blue eyes
   Are tender over drowning flies,
You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.

I know not: one indeed I knew
   In many a subtle question versed,
   Who touch'd a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
   At last he beat his music out.
   There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds. (XCIV)

Many years later, in a parody of the "Francis-Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare" debates, Algernon Swinburne playfully suggested that "the late Mr. Darwin was the real author of the poems attributed to Lord Tennyson." ("Dethroning Tennyson: A Contribution to the Tennyson-Darwin Controversy," Nineteenth Century, Vol. 23 (January 1888), pgs. 127-130.) One recent scholar (Barri J. Gold) has even found prescient hints of the first two laws of thermodynamics in In Memoriam.

In its mix of the spiritual and the scientific, in its portrayal of the battleground of Faith and Doubt, In Memoriam is the epitome of the 1859 book — the ideal poem to share the 1859 stage with Darwin's Origin of Species.

If only Tennyson had cooperated with this concept and not actually published In Memoriam nine years earlier in 1850!

1850 was a good year for Tennyson: In Memoriam was published on June 1, and Tennyson was married later that month to Emily Sellwood. (Their first child would be named Hallam, who would write a two-volume Memoir of his father's life.) William Wordsworth had died earlier in 1850, and in December, Tennyson took his place as Poet Laureate, a position he was to hold until his death in 1892. This decision was based largely on In Memoriam, which convinced Prince Albert that Tennyson was now the greatest of English poets. Despite at least one critic identifying the book's irreligious nature, the book became a popular source of comfort for Victorians dealing with grief, including Queen Victoria herself following the death of Albert in 1861.

In these blog entries on the literature of 1859, I have not taken it on myself to discuss books that should have been published in 1859, but to examine those that actually were. Alfred Tennyson's contribution to the literature of 1859 was not In Memoriam, but his retelling of the King Arthur legends, Idylls of the King, the first edition of which was published 150 years ago this month, in July 1859.

The past 150 years have not been kind to the reputation of Idylls of the King. Even at the time of their publication, Idylls of the King was criticized by other poets (most notably Swinburne) for insufficient gravitas, and random swipes show up in suprising places: In Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence (published in 1920 but set in the 1870s), Newland reflects that his fiancée May "had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls [sic] of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters." (ch. 6)

These days most people probably assume — if they consider the issue at all — that the poems must be escapist fluff. Yet, that's obviously not the case. Tennyson was nothing if not a serious poet, and in its final state, Idylls of the King became "the central work of his career" — over 10,000 lines of pentameter blank verse divided into 12 poems that sustained his interest for sixty years. (Eggers, pg. 185) What's hard to find in Idylls of the King, however, is a coherent message that conveys something important to us, or even to its contemporaneous readers.

It might be possible for me to place Idylls of the King directly in the 1859 milieu by quoting Paul Turner on how the poem was inspired by a "romantic tale" from Lyell's Principles of Geology (Turner, pg. 149) Yet this inspiration occurred before 1837, and there is no evidence that Tennyson read Lyell prior to that year. The similarity between Lyell and Tennyson in this case is likely a coincidence. The rising and falling of Camelot certainly parallels the geological evolution described by Lyell, but many earlier civilizations (such as Rome) had risen and fallen without the benefit of 19th century scientific theories.

Tennyson certainly saw Camelot as exemplifying aspects of an ideal society, and one whose fall provided important lessons to his contemporaries, but what those lessons are is not clear. Great Britain was undergoing incredible advances in science and technology during the 19th century, but Tennyson felt that the concurrent rise in materialism and positivism was deterimental to the country's spiritual values.

But here it starts to get a bit creepy: In his book From the Great Deep: Essays on Idylls of the King, Clyde de L. Ryals suggests that Tennyson was influenced by his friend Thomas Carlyle's exploration of the concept of the "great man" in six 1840 lectures published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. To modern sensibilities — and even in the context of 19th century Whig politics — Thomas Carlyle is a horrifying reactionary, and in the final of these six lectures, Carlyle suggests that modern man is just wasting time with democratic institutions, and might better focus on identifying a Great Man to lead them:

Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you will have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or any other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. It is in the perfect state; an ideal country.

Carlyle's two examples in this lecture are Oliver Cromwell and, to a lesser extent, Napoleon (who he calls "oue last Great Man"), both of whom arose to establish order out of disorder. Neither of these men were perfect, of course, but that's to be expected, as Carlyle notes, and the flaws are not fatal: "The Sun flings forth impurities, gets balefully incrusted with spots; but it does not quench itself, and become no Sun at all, but a mass of Darkness!

Tennyson, dealing with legends rather than history, can make his particular Great Man perfect: Arthur, "the blameless King," as Tennyson calls him more than once. Despite Tennyson's early concept that the Round Table was an allegory for "liberal institutions" (H. Tennyson, Memoir, Vol. II, pg. 123) Arthur is instead pretty much the benevolent dictator of Camelot, certainly in the Carlyle Hero mold. In 1858, Tennyson spoke to his wife of "the want of reverence now-a-days for great men, whose brightness, like that of the luminous bodies in the Heaven, makes the dark spaces look the darker." (H. Tennyson, Memoir, Vol. I, pg. 424)

If Arthur is so perfect, why then does Camelot fall? Perhaps the most obvious problem is that Arthur doesn't leave an heir. This is perhaps a result of the Guinevere Problem (to be discussed shortly), but Carlyle's kings aren't hereditary kings. Some other leader must come forth when Arthur dies, or perhaps Arthur might help the process by identifying a suitable successor. Arthur's failure to provide for Camelot after his death is a major flaw in the whole system.

Arthur has very high ideals, of course. That's intrinsic to his nature. Even at the time of the first publication of Idylls of the King, he was identified by some readers as a "prig." Unfortunately he surrounds himself with actual flawed human beings who don't quite live up to his high standards, and then the "blameless King" implicitly blames them for the fall of Camelot when they actually behave like mere mortals. This is Arthur's second big flaw: He hasn't put together an institution that allows for human nature. In part, Idylls of the King explores this paradox of idealism, but not in any way that offers clear solutions to the problem.

Arthur's primary quest was to civilize England, to tame its savagery, and institute order. At the time that Tennyson was writing Idylls of the King, the British Empire believed it was doing something similar, except on a world-wide scale. In his illminating essay "Tennyson, King Arthur, and Imperialism," Marxist historian V.G. Kiernan identifies empire-building conflicts of Great Britain during just the several years preceding Idylls of the King, including the Crimean War from 1854 to 1856, which produced Tennyson's short poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

Apart from skirmishing with Kaffirs in South Africa and Maoris in New Zealand, there was the conquest of the Punjab in the latter 1840s and of Lower Burma in 1854. During the years of composition of the first idylls there followed the second China War (1856-60), the attack on Persia (1857), and above all, during 1857 and 1858, the greatest of all European colonial conflicts until after the Second World War, the outbreak and suppression of the Indian Mutiny, which, his [Tennyson's] son records, 'stirred him to the depths.' (pg. 139)

The Indian Mutiny is better known today as the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and has long been regarded by Indian nationalists as India's First War of Independence in a 90-year struggle that culminated in India freeing itself from British colonial rule in 1947. The suppression of the Rebellion was perhaps the most disgraceful episode in all of England's history, but was widely supported within the British Isles. In 1858 the British East India Company was dissolved, and the British Crown itself took over the rule of India.

In reading Idylls of the King we understand that Tennyson is urging his contemporaries to be stalwart supporters of the English mission to bring "civilization" to the world, but like our aversion to "great men," modern sensibilities revolt at the concept of invading foreign lands and imposing Western values on their people.

But wait: I've been discussing Idylls of the King as it exists in the familiar series of 12 poems, but that final version didn't really come together until late in Tennyson's life. The discussion becomes quite different when we instead focus on the version of Idylls of the King actually published in 1859, available here on Google Book Search.

Of the 12 poems that comprise the final version of Idylls of the King, the first edition contained only 4, or rather 5, because the first one was eventually split into two. To avoid further confusion, here are the four poems of the first edition and the poems they eventually became, with numbers indicating their placement in the final scheme of 12:

Notice that all four poems are given titles of women's names. These four women are archetypes of 19th century novelistic heroines, with 19th century emotions and motivations, but embroidered with archaic language and legendary settings, and subjected to the worst of 19th century Victorian morality. One of Tennyson's early (but abandoned) titles was The True and the False, and these four poems portray two "good" women and two "bad" women, in the order good-bad-good-bad. We get the long-suffering-but-subservient woman, the evil witch, the too-good-for-this-world young woman, and the downfall-of-us-all woman. Rather that the political and empire-building anxieties of the later poems, this first edition of Idylls of the King reveals certain sexual anxieties present in Victorian England during this period.

Tennyson's primary source for the Arthur legends was Malory, except for "Enid" which came from Lady Charlotte Guest's recent translation of the Welsh Mabinogion. In Malory, Arthur has an incestous union with his half-sister, which results in the birth of Modred. Swinburne loved the Greek tragedy aspects of that incident, and was disappointed Tennyson didn't use it. Instead, Tennyson keeps true to the King Arthur legends in another way, by identifying the downfall of Camelot with the adulterous relationship between Queen Guinevere and Lancelot. The way in which this relationship affects the stability of Camelot is only a symptom of a much deeper problem: Arthur's expectation that everyone be as inhumanly perfect as himself.

Only the last poem of the 1859 Idylls of the King is devoted to Guinevere, but she makes appearances in three of the poems and is mentioned in the other. The first mention of Guinevere is as early as Page 2 in the poem "Enid":

But when a rumour rose about the Queen,
Touching her guilty love for Lancelot,
Tho' yet there lived no proof, nor yet was heard
The world's loud whisper breaking into the story,
Not less Geraint believed it; and there fell
A horror on him, lest his gentle wife,
Thro' that great tenderness for Guinevere,
Had suffer'd, or should suffer any taint
In nature ...

Enid's husband Geraint takes her away from Camelot because just to associate with the Queen — whose adultery has not even been proved and may not even have existed at this time — could blemish Enid's devotion to her husband. By alluding to Guinevere's adultery on the second page of the 1859 Idylls, touching on it throughout (as I will show), and then concluding with the idyll devoted to her, Tennyson is using Guinevere as a framing device to contrast with the other three women. Guinevere becomes more visible (and more guilty) as these four idylls progress.

Living away from Camelot, Geraint becomes forgetful of his past glories, lazy and flabby, which makes Enid sad, which then causes Geraint to be "the more / Suspicious that her nature had a taint" (pg. 4), which causes Enid more distress that she's not telling him that he's being untrue to himself, and she confesses in a whisper "I fear that I am no true wife," (pg. 6) which causes Geraint to wonder exactly what she means by that. Geraint forces Enid to put on her "worst and meanest dress" (pg. 7) and accompany him on a long allegory. He has Enid ride ahead of him, and not to speak, to test if she can still obey him, and along the way they encounter various obstacles, including an old suitor of Enid's named Earl Limours, who notices Enid's shabby dress and her lack of communication with her husband.

For, call it lovers' quarrels, yet I know
Tho' men may bicker with the things they love,
They would not make them laughable in all eyes,
Not while they loved them; and your wretched dress,
A wretched insult on you, dumbly speaks
Your story, that this man loves you no more. (pg. 63)

Despite the way her husband is treating her, Enid doesn't take the bait. Geraint is wounded in a battle with Earl Limours' forces and they find themselves in Earl Doorm's castle, where Enid tries to bring Geraint back to health, and Geraint slowly begins to realize that "she weeps for me." (pg. 76)

But in the falling afternoon return'd
The huge Earl Doorm with plunder to the hall.
His lusty spearmen follow'd him with noise:
Each hurling down a heap of things that rang
Against the pavement, cast his lance aside,
And doff'd his helm: and then there flutter'd in,
Half-bold, half-frightened, with dilated eyes,
A tribe of women, dress'd in many hues,
And mingled with the spearmen: and Earl Doorm
Struck with a knife's haft hard against the board,
And call'd for flesh and wine to feed his spears.
And men brought in whole hogs and quarter beeves,
And all the hall was dim with steam of flesh:
And none spake word, but all sat down at once,
And ate with tumult in the naked hall,
Feeding like horses when you hear them feed;
Till Enid shrank far back into herself,
To shun the wild ways of the lawless tribe. (pg. 77-8)

Even Earl Doorm tries to convince Enid to stay with him "to live like two birds in one nest" (pg. 78), or perhaps like one bird and one ox in one nest, and she still does not budge, refusing even to eat or drink until her husband joins her, although he appears by this time to be quite dead. Enid yells out.

This heard Geraint, and grasping at his sword,
(It lay beside him in the hollow shield),
Made but a single bound, and with a sweep of it
Shore thro' the swarthy neck, and like a ball
The russet-bearded head roll'd on the floor.
So died Earl Doorm by him he counted dead. (pg. 84)

Geraint quickly apologizes to Enid for ever doubting her, and they leave the castle on a single horse, her arms wrapped around him,

Put hand to hand beneath her husband's heart,
And felt him hers again: she did not weep,
But o'er her meek eyes came a happy mist
Like that which kept the heart of Eden green
Before the useful trouble of the rain... (pg. 86)

The second poem, "Vivien," is the one that caused the earliest readers the most distress, for it involves a seduction, and while not quite a sexual seduction, it sure reads like one. The "wily Vivien" hates all of Camelot, for once she tried to flirt with Arthur and was ignored.

For once, when Arthur walking all alone,
Vext at a rumour rife about the Queen,
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. (pg. 101-2)

That is the first of the poem's references to Arthur's possible problems with Guinevere. Vivien leaves Camelot and sets her sights on Merlin, the old Wizard, Bard, and builder of Stonehenge. She knows he has a charm that could be cast "With woven paces and with waving arms" and put the subject into a death-like paralysis. Through much of the poem — consisting mostly of a wonderful dialogue between Vivien and Merlin — she tries to persuade him to reveal the spell, and one of her tactics is to portray Camelot as not quite as pure as it's meant to be.

'O ay; what say ye to Sir Lancelot, friend?
Traitor or true? that commerce with the Queen,
I ask you, is it clamour'd by the child,
Or whisper'd in the corner? do you know it? (pg. 134)

The word "commerce" in this passage does not mean "the buying and selling of goods." Merlin's answer seems to indicate that not only does he know of the rumor, but that it's true. He also mentions how Guinevere and Lancelot met, a story that will be considerably fleshed out in the last poem of the book.

To which he answer'd sadly, 'Yea, I know it.
Sir Lancelot went ambassador, at first,
To fetch her, and she took him for the King;
So fixt her fancy on him: let him be. (pg. 134)

In "Elaine," we're treated to layers of deception, with the title character as collateral damage in a drama in which she really plays no role. It is late in Arthur's realm, and of nine diamonds that he once found in a crown of a murdered king, eight have already been won by Lancelot in annual jousting competitions. Lancelot is secretly planning to win the ninth as well, and then present all nine to Guinevere.

On the day of the ninth joust, Guinevere pleads that she is too ill to attend. Lancelot, wishing to spend some time with her, tells Arthur that an "ancient wound" will prevent his participation, but Guinevere is distressed that the absence of them both will cause tongues to wag. It is also here that Guinevere explicitly confesses to Lancelot why she can't love Arthur in all his perfection:

'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 a 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 you know, save by the bond. (pg. 153-154)

The "bond" is the bond of marriage, of course. Guinevere then comes up with a plan: Lancelot should go to the jousts in disguise so he can win by his own skill rather than by the reputation that causes his opponents to "go down before your spear at a touch" (pg. 155). Lancelot then travels off on his horse, gets lost, and comes upon the Castle of Astolat, where lives the "lily maid Elaine," the daughter of the Lord of Astolat. She, of course, immediately falls in love with Lancelot, despite the fact that he is much older, and his sin has affected his appearance:

The great and guilty love he bare the Queen,
In battle with the love he bare his lord,
Had marr'd his face, and mark'd it ere his time. (pg. 160)

This affliction doesn't seem to have affected Guinevere in quite the same way:

Another sinning on such heights with one,
The flower of all the west and all the world,
Had been the sleeker for it: but in him
His mood was often like a fiend, and rose
And drove him into wastes and solitudes
For agony, who was yet a living soul. (pg. 160)

Elaine convinces Lancelot to wear her favor — "a red sleeve / Broider'd with pearls" (pg. 166) — at the joust. Traditionally Lancelot wore no woman's favor, as everyone knew, but Elaine convinces that to wear her favor would aid in his deception. When he leaves the castle, Lancelot gives Elaine his shield for safe-keeping; She makes a case of silk for it, and at night caresses it with fetishistic love.

At the jousts, everyone is amazed at the performance of this unknown knight, who simply cannot be Lancelot because of the lady's favor he's wearing, and Lancelot's kin become so enraged that they would him badly, and he leaves. (But when Guinevere hears that the unknown knight was wearing this favor, she believes Lancelot has thrown her over for someone else! "Oh, what a tangled web we weave...")

Lancelot, in hiding, is visited by Elaine,

Her face was near, and as we kiss the child
That does the task assign'd, he kiss'd her face.
At once she slipt like water to the floor. (pg. 190)

Elaine nurses Lancelot back to health, in what Paul Turner (pgs. 154-155) suggests is an homage to Florence Nightingale, who had become a national hero during the Crimean War, and who was at the time of the writing of "Elaine" believed to be dying. (She actually lived into the 20th century.)

Wouldn't it be great if Lancelot could love Elaine, and then Guinevere would become reconciled with Arthur, and the kingdom would be saved? But where is the drama in that? When Lancelot gets better, he "loved her with all love except the love / Of man and woman when they love their best / Closest and sweetest." (pg. 192)

She might have made this and that other world
Another world for the sick man; but now
The Shackles of an old love straiten'd him,
His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true. (pg. 192)

Those last two lines pretty much sum of Lancelot's tangled love-life. With her heart now thoroughly broken, there can be only one fate for Elaine.

In the final poem, "Guinevere," it is late in the realm of Arthur and Camelot, and the Queen has retreated in anonymity to a nunnery.

Beneath a moon unseen abeit at full,
The white mist, like a face-cloth to the face,
Clung to the dead earth, and the land was still. (pg. 225)

A novice serving as her maid unknowingly tortures her with constant talk about Guinevere's wickedness. It is here finally that we hear how Guinevere came to prefer Lancelot to Arthur.

Her memory from old habit of the mind
Went slipping back upon the golden days
In which she saw him first, when Lancelot came,
Reputed the best knight and goodliest man,
Ambassador, to lead her to his lord
Arthur, and led her forth, and far ahead
Of his and her retinue moving, they,
Rapt in sweet talk or lively, all on love
And sport and tilts and pleasure, (for the time
Was maytime, and as yet no sin was dream'd,)
Rode under groves that look'd a paradise
Of blossom, over sheets of hyacinth
That seem'd the heavens unbreaking thro' the earth,
And on from hill to hill, and every day
Beheld at noon in some delicious dale
The silk pavilions of King Arthur raised
For brief repast or afternoon repose
By couriers gone before; ...

But when the Queen immersed in such a trance,
And moving thro' the past unconsciously,
Came to that point, when first she saw the King
Ride toward her from the city, sigh'd to find
Her journey done, glanced at him, thought him cold,
High, self-contain'd, and passionless, not like him,
'Not like my Lancelot' ... (pg. 245-246)

This reverie is interrupted by the actual appearance of Arthur, on his way to battle Modred in what he suspects will be his last, according to "ancient prophecies." If he doesn't seem to mind this death so much, it's really Guinevere's fault:

Thou has not made my life so sweet to me,
That I the King should greatly care to live;
For thou hast spoilt the purpose of my life. (pg. 248-249)

Arthur then subjects Guinevere to the severest of dressings-down. He describes the whole purpose of this enterprise, the crusade that Guinevere has spoiled with her love of Lancelot:

A glorious company, the flower of men,
To serve as model for the mighty world,
And be the fair beginning of a time.
I made them lay their hands in mine and swear
To reverence the King, as if he were
Their conscience, and their conscience as their King,
To break the heathen and uphold the Christ,
To ride abroad redressing wrongs,
To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it,
To lead sweet lives in purest chastity,
To love one maiden only, cleave to her,
And worship her by years of noble deeds,
Until they won her ... (pg. 249-250)

What's worse, towards the end of this chastisement, as Guinevere is in torment on the floor, her hands about his feet, he has the nerve to say:

And all is past, the sin is sinn'd, and I,
Lo! I forgive thee, as Eternal God
Forgives: do thou for thine own soul the rest. (pg. 253)

Arthur leaves soon after that,

The moony vapour rolling round the King,
Who seem'd the phantom of a Giant in it,
Enwound him fold by fold, and made him gray
And grayer, till himself became as mist
Before her, moving ghostlike to his doom. (pg. 256)

After hearing Guinevere's story of her meeting with Lancelot, of her love for him, of her low regard for Arthur, modern sympathies are surely with her, yet by the conventions of Victorian fiction, she insists on beating up on herself:

It was my duty to have loved the highest:
It surely was my profit had I known:
It would have been my pleasure had I seen.
We needs must love the highest when we see it... (pg. 259)

Are we intended to ultimately blame Guinevere? Unfortunately, that seems to be the case. As is well known, the future Prime Minister William Gladstone had a hobby of rescuing prostitutes from the streets of London, and trying to reform them, and part of his strategy would involve the reading to them of "Guinevere." (Levi, 224)

Adultery plays a major role in the 1859 version of Idylls of the King, but actually falls somewhat in the shadows in the final version. "Guinevere" is no longer the last poem. I think it's significant that the period when Tennyson was writing these early idylls was also one in which adultery figured prominently in the newspapers, for 1857 was the year in which Parliament passed "An Act to amend the Law relating to Divorce and Matrimonial Causes in England," otherwise known as the Divorce Act. And divorce was all about adultery because adultery was the only grounds for divorce until the 20th century.

Prior to 1857, divorce in England was a three-step process: First, the husband had to appeal to a church court to obtain a separation from a wife who had committed adultery. The husband then had to sue the wife's lover for an offense known discreetly as "criminal conversation." If the husband wished to remarry, he had to appeal to Parliament for a special bill that dissolved the marriage. Not many people could afford this process, and between 1672 and 1800, only 127 divorces were granted through acts of Parliament; in the first half of the 19th century until 1858, Parliament granted 190 divorces, or fewer than 4 per year.

I'm using gender-specific language because divorces almost always involved an adulterous wife. Of course, everyone knew that husbands committed adultery much more frequently than wives (often with prostitutes or servants) but the double standard was built into the system, and it actually seemed unavoidable.

Here's the problem: In England, divorce always involved an aggrieved party whose spouse had committed adultery. A divorce could not be granted if, for example, a husband and wife simply hated each other and could no longer stand to live under the same roof. The church court and the civil courts were always alert to the possibility of collusion between the husband and wife in obtaining the divorce. This was not allowed.

Because it was believed that the reputation of a man who had committed adultery suffered far less than a woman who had committed adultery, letting women sue husbands for divorce would open up the floodgates. If a husband and wife both wished for a divorce, the man would only have to go out, commit adultery, and the wife could then sue in court.

In the first half of the 19th century, a total of 4 women successfully obtained divorces from their husbands, but only because the husband was guilty of an offence that went beyond mere adultery: Divorces were only granted to women if the husband was also guilty of bigamy or incest (considered loosely as the sex with the wife's sister).

The Divorce Act of 1857 seemed intended primarily to reform a convoluted legal system, but by instituting a special civil Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes (which opened its doors in January 1858), the costs for obtaining a divorce were greatly reduced, making divorce more widely available. A double standard was still built into the law, but one that was a little more flexible. Husbands had to prove that their wives committed adultery, of course, but wives could obtain divorces if their husband's adultery was "combined with incest, bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality, cruelty, or desertion for two years." (Horstman, pg. 79)

In its first year of operation, the new Divorce Court dealt with 253 petitions for divorce, a figure that astonished everyone. Over the course of the 19th century, the annual figure crept up to nearly 700 a year, but most significantly, about 40% were from wives who could prove cruelty or desertion along with adultery. The Divorce Court was open to the public, and newspapers were eager to report salacious details of testimony about adultery.

Even with as little as it did, the 1857 Divorce Act was a significant advance in women's rights, and modern attitudes towards divorce. The Divorce Act may even have lessened the influence of the aristocracy in British life, for their dirty laundry was frequently in display. Never had so much adultery been paraded on such a public stage in a way likely to cause sensitive souls like Tennyson some extreme distress.

Proper Victorians did not care to learn so much about their neighbor's adulterous habits, and in The Idylls of the King, Guinevere was made to pay the price.


Adams, James Eli, "Harlots and Base Interpreters: Scandal and Slander in Idylls of the King," Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30, No. 3/4 (Autumn-Winter, 1992), pp. 421-439 (JSTOR)

Ahern, Stephen, "Listening to Guinevere: Female Agency and the Politics of Chivalry in Tennyson's Idylls, " Studies in Philology, Vol. 101, No. 1 (Winter, 204), pp. 88-112. (JSTOR)

Day, Aidan, Tennyson's Scepticism (Palgrave, 2005)

Eggers, J. Phillip, King Arthur's Laureate: A Study of Tennyson's Idylls of the King (NYU Press, 1971)

Gold, Barri J., "The Consolation of Physics: Tennyson's Thermodynamic Solution," PMLA, Vol. 117, No. 3 (May, 2002), pp. 449-464 (JSTOR)

Goslee, David, Tennyson's Characters: "Strange Faces, Other Minds" (University of Iowa Press, 1989)

Horstman, Allen, Victorian Divorce (Croom Helm, 1985)

Kiernan, V. G., "Tennyson, King Arthur and Imperialism," in Poets, Politics and the People, edited and introduced by Harvey J. Kaye (Verso, 1989)

Levi, Peter, Tennyson (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993)

Martin, Robert Bernard, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (Clarendon Press, 1980)

Mattes, Eleanor Bustin, In Memoriam: The Way of a Soul: A Study of Some Influences That Shaped Tennyson's Poem (Expostion Press, 1951)

Millhauser, M., Fire and Ice: The Influence of Science on Tennyson's Poetry (The Tennyson Society, 1971)

Reed, John R., Perception and Design in Tennyson's Idylls of the King (Ohio University Press, 1969)

Ricks, Christopher, Tennyson, Master of World Literature Series (Macmillan, 1972)

Rosenberg, John D., The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" (Harvard University Press, 1973)

Ryals, Clyde de L., From the Great Deep: Essays on Idylls of the King (Ohio University Press, 1967)

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, In Memoriam, Norton Critical Edition edited by Erik Gray (second edition, W. W. Norton, 2004)

Tennyson, Hallam, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son (1898)

Tucker, Herbert F., "The Epic Plight of Troth in Idylls of the King," ELH, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 701-720 (JSTOR)

Turner, Paul, Tennyson (Routledge Author Guides; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976)

Earlier Entries in This Series

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)

1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)

1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)

1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)

1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)

1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” (6/20/09)