In "The Coming of Arthur," Tennyson effectively plays with language by selecting words that contribute additional nuance to his stanzas. His word choice layers subtle shades of meaning upon the more concrete ideas the text imparts. He furnishes his lines with carefully selected words and phrases, allowing the reader to find further substance in the passage. For instance:

Tennyson's use of the word "wasted" in line three literally means war ruined the land; however, upon closer inspection, "wasted" implies that during times of war the land was wasted in the sense that it wasn't efficiently used. With that meaning, the coming of Arthur, who "made a realm, and reign'd" is important in more than just a military sense, for it would mean that Arthur, unlike his earlier counterparts, put the land to good use. Also, the phrase "the beast was ever more and more, But man was less and less" allows for multiple interpretations that supplement the basic reading. At first glance, these lines indicate the increase of animals and decline of people in the area due to constant warfare. But, the word "beast" can also be attributed to "the heathen host" who "swarm'd overseas", for the native people would surely call these men beasts. Alternatively, the full phrase could indicate that the longer war went on, the more beastly and less human soldiers became. And so the coming of Arthur, a man who could unite "all [the] petty princedoms under him", would return civilization, and thus humanity, to men. Although at first this passage seems straightforward, closer inspection reveals additional implications by the deliberate choice of key words used for multiple meanings.

For many a petty king ere Arthur came
Ruled in this isle, and ever waging war
Each upon other, wasted all the land;
And still from time to time the heathen host
Swarm'd overseas, and harried what was left.
And so there grew great tracts of wilderness,
Wherein the beast was ever more and more,
But man was less and less, till Arthur came.
For first Aurelius lived and fought and died,
And after him King Uther fought and died,
But either fail'd to make the kingdom one.
And after these King Arthur for a space,
And thro, the puissance of his Table Round,
Drew all their petty princedoms under him,
Their king and head, and made a realm, and reign'd.

Questions

1. Why would Tennyson create a poem that seems so straightforward, and then infuse certain words with additional meaning? Is this simply to trick us, or is there something else going on?

2. Besides the obvious fact that this poem is not self-reflective or any sort of eulogy, how does this poem differ from Tennyson's more famous In Memoriam A.H.H? Stylistically, how are they different, and what does this contribute to the poems?

3. This section mentions that it was the power of King Arthurs Round Table, "the puissance of his Table Round," that enabled him to make a kingdom and rule. What does this suggest about the relationship between Arthur and his knights? What about their bond as defined by the rest of the poem? And how does this connection differ from the relationship as it is in "The Holy Grail"? Does it?

Related Material


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson Idylls of the King

Last modified 5 February 2009