In "The Coming of Arthur", Tennyson draws parallels between the marital union of Arthur and Guinevere and the political unification of England. Alone, Arthur feels powerless, doubting his ability to fulfill the duties of kingship. With Guinevere, however, he believes in his ability to accomplish great things. She gives him the inspiration, confidence, and determination needed to fight and to rule.
And Arthur, passing thence to battle, felt
Travail, and throes and agonies of the life,
Desiring to be join'd with Guinevere;
And thinking as he rode,'Her father said
That there between the man and beast they die'.
Shall I not lift her from this land of beasts
Up to my throne, and side by side with me
What happiness to reign a lonely king,
Vext — O ye stars that shudder over me,
O earth that soundest hollow under me,
Vext with waste dreams ? for saving I be join'd
To her that is the fairest under heaven,
I seem as nothing in the mighty world,
And cannot will my will, nor work my work
Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm
Victor and lord. But were I join'd with her,
Then might we live together as one life,
And reigning with one will in everything
Have power on this dark land to lighten it,
And power on this dead world to make it live.'
Arthur does not merely love Guinevere; he views himself as incomplete without her. He wishes to be "join'd with her" and to live with her "together as one". It is no coincidence that he views the unification of England as dependent upon this marital union. To unify the land he must first find unity within. He must do this through Guinevere, his other half. The marriage of Arthur and Guinevere must not be viewed merely as a prerequisite to the unification of England, however, but also as a metaphor for it. Both involve the coming together of distinct elements into a single whole. Arthur must work hard to win Guinevere's hand and "The Coming of Arthur" describes this struggle in detail. Ultimately, it is a dream that convinces Leodogran to accept Arthur's proposal, much like unification stemmed from a dream of a different sort, Arthur's vision. Perhaps this is why Tennyson chose it to be the first poem in The Idylls of the King, a group of narrative poems about England under Arthur. In a sense, the Arthur's struggle to win Guinevere is the same story on a smaller scale.
1. Why is the unification England important? What connection, if any, does Tennyson suggest between Arthur's accomplishments and nineteenth-century England? Would the story of Arthur resonate more strongly with somebody who identifies as English than with somebody of another nationality?
2. What exactly does Tennyson mean when he writes that man was "less and less" until Arthur came? Does it have anything to do with religion?
3. If we take the union of Arthur and Guinevere as a metaphor for the unification of England, what does the eventual betrayal of Arthur by Guinevere imply? Are the links Tennyson creates, either intentionally or unintentionally, between marital and political union dangerous in this regard?
Last modified 5 February 2009