In "Merlin and Vivien," the sixth poem in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, he describes Merlin's gradual capitulation to the deceitful charms of malignant Vivien, who was "born from death" (393) and skillfully conceals her "bare-grinning skeleton of death" from Merlin until she has ensnared him forever through his own spell so that "in the hollow oak he lay as dead, / And lost to life and use and name and fame" (413). The following lines occur after Vivien has secretly followed Merlin to the sea. Merlin senses the imminent danger and ironically notes to her: "You seem'd that wave about to break upon me / And sweet me from my hold upon the world, / My use and name and fame" (399). Vivien seeks to beguile him with her seductive arts and thereby unearth the secret spell from him. He responds to her queries with great condescension; Tennyson describes him as, "smiling as a master smiles at one / That is not of his school, nor any school / But that where blind and naked Ignorance / Delivers brawling judgements, unashamed" (406). He even refers to the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, as he remarks to her,

Too much I trusted when I told you that,
And stirr'd this vice in you which ruin'd man
Thro' woman the first hour. [400]

When he suggests the Knights of the Round Table tell tales about her, she replies angrily:

Were I not woman, I could tell a tale.
But you are man, you well can understand
The shame that cannot be explain'd for shame.
Not one of all the drove should touch me — swine! [407]

She proceeds to attack the Knights pointedly with stories of scandal; Merlin replies to each with quick defense of the Knights. The following excerpt follows this attack and expresses Merlin's response to Vivien's impassioned criticism of the Knights.

For men at most differ as heaven and earth,
But women, worst and best, as heaven and hell.
I know the Table Round, my friends of old;
All brave, and many generous, and some chaste.
She cloaks the scar of some repulse with lies.
I well believe she tempted them and fail'd,
Beings so bitter; for fine plots may fail,
Tho' harlots paint their talk as well as face
With colors of the heart that are not theirs.
I will not let her know; nine tithes of time
Face-flatterer and backbiter are the same.
And they, sweet soul, that most impute a crime
Are pronest to it, and impute themselves,
Wanting the mental range, or low desire
Not to feel lowest makes them level all;
Yea, they would pare the mountain to the plain,
To leave an equal baseness; and in this
Are harlots like the crowd that if they find
Some stain or blemish in a name of note,
Not grieving that their greatest are so small,
Inflate themselves with some insane delight,
And judge all nature from her feet of clay,
Without the will to lift their eyes, and see
Her godlike head crown'd with spiritual fire,
And touching other worlds. I am weary of her.
— Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, "Merlin and Vivien", p. 410

Discussion Questions

1. Earlier, Tennyson notes that Vivien went around Arthur's court, "sowing one ill hint from ear to ear" (395). Thus, as Merlin perceives, Vivien is an instigator who relies upon rumor and scandal to wreak havoc in the court of King Arthur. According to Merlin, why does Vivien attack the Knights of the Round Table with vicious tales? How does Tennyson comment upon the danger of rumor in this poem?

2. This passage is remarkable in its stated distinction between the sexes and its use of misogynistic language and assumptions. How are Merlin's attitudes toward Vivien (and women in general) sexist? How does the portrayal of Vivien correspond to prevailing stereotypes and attitudes regarding women in the Victorian era? How is Vivien comparable to another prominent, antagonistic, female figure from the King Arthur legend: Morgan le Fay?


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Last modified 9 April 2003