We have now arrived at Tennyson's middle period, the time of the "Enoch Arden" volume and Idylls of the King, the time, in other words, when the poet produced the work for which the Victorians valued him most highly and by which the twentieth century judges him most harshly. For it has become the commonly accepted view that in order to establish his contemporary reputation Tennyson temporized with his age, sold, so to speak, his birthright for a mess of [21/22] pottage. And certainly, as we have seen, he was not immune to the coercive pressures which Victorian society exerted on his artistic theory and practice. As early as 1834 an admiring friend, James Spedding, had observed with foreboding this hesitancy to stand on his own feet:
His frailty is that he has not faith enough in his own powers, which produces two faults, first that he does not give his genius full beat; and, secondly, that he seeks for strength not within but without, accusing the baseness of his lot in life and looking to outward circumstances for more than a great man ought to want of them, and certainly more than they will ever bring.
Yet there are evidences enough that, even during the years of his greatest prestige as Victorian man of letters, Tennyson held aloof from his age and continued to live most intensely within the world of his own mind. Since, however, the conscious artist took pains to sublimate any traces of his inner consciousness, the revelations of its operation must be sought not on the surface of his poetry, but rather in the modes of perception by which he illuminated subject-matter ostensibly selected for its popular appeal. The thoughtful reader, who approaches the poetry of the 1850s and the 1860s by way of what came before, can hardly fail to observe in this later work the recurrence of certain themes and an habitual reliance on certain formal devices which are at variance with the expressed content of the material. It is as though there brooded in the background a mind constantly alert to strange and disturbing implications in the most commonplace circumstances. Thus, many of the poems which seem to be indisputably the products of Victorian literary convention have an extra dimension which, once recognized, relates them to the deeper sources of the author's poetic vision.
One such manifestation of an ulterior purpose is the reappearance of the dream motif throughout Tennyson's poetry. From biographical records it is ascertainable that the poet was at all times subject in his sleep to extraordinarily vivid and suggestive dreams, and that this trait became more pronounced with age. In his account of Tennyson's last years, his grandson writes: "He had strange dreams, too: 'Priam has appeared to me in the night,' he said one morning to Hallam. Sometimes his dreams were of fir woods, cliffs and temples; once of building a succession of gorgeous pagodas which reached right up to heaven; once that he was Pope of the world and had to bear all its sins and miseries on his shoulders." Furthermore, the poems themselves show [22/23] a knowledge of dream psychology unique in the period, and such as could only have been acquired through autoanalysis. Especially frequent and accurate are the notations relating to the intermediary processes between waking and sleeping. In "A Dream of Fair Women" the transition from idle musing to the world of dreams is described as follows:
And then, I know not how,
All those sharp fancies, by down-lapsing thought
Stream'd onward, lost their edges, and did creep
Roll'd on each other, rounded, smooth'd, and brought
Into the gulfs of sleep.
At last methought that I had wander'd far
In an old wood ...
And at the end of the same poem the writer describes his reluctant return to actuality in this way:
No memory labors longer from the deep
Gold-mines of thought to lift the hidden ore
That glimpses, moving up, than I from sleep
To gather and tell oer
Each little sound and sight. With what dull pain
Compass'd, how eagerly I sought to strike
Into that wondrous track of dreams again!
But no two dreams are alike.
"The Vision of Sin" suggests how the direction of a dream may be radically altered if the sleeper is partially aroused; and a line in "Mariana in the South" calls attention to the occasional phenomenon of self-consciousness in the dreaming mind: "Dreaming, she knew it was a dream." The following stanza from "The Two Voices" shows that Tennyson had likewise been impressed by the continuity of memory between dreams: [23/24]
As here we find in trances, men
Forget the dream that happens then,
Until they fall in trance again...
The early sonnet "To"—— , ("As when with downcast eyes"), derives from the common experience that memories, originating in dreams, may linger in waking thoughts as familiar but only partially recoverable intimations; and the same notion occurs in "The Two Voices":
Moreover, something is or seems,
That touches me with mystic gleams,
Like glimpses of forgotten dreams—
Tennyson's close attention to the dream state would be less arresting if it were not clear that he intermittently attached a good deal of importance to the activities of the sleeping mind. Might not its very passivity, at such times release the intuitive faculty and thus open up channels for the apprehension of truths of which the waking intellect is imperceptive? In "The Lover's Tale" the poet speaks of "delicious dreams, our other life"; and later in the same poem he writes, commenting on the interrelations between the hero's conscious view of his situation and the phantasmal dreams inspired by it:
Alway the inaudible, invisible thought,
Artificer and subject, lord and slave,
Shaped by the audible and visible,
Moulded the audible and visible.
"The Higher Pantheism" is still more explicit: "Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?" But it was in In Memoriam that Tennyson explored most fully the implications of dreams as a means of attaining to spiritual truths lying beyond the ken of ratiocination.
As early as ihe fourth poem of In Memoriam the poet introduces a concept of sleep as the sponsor of emotive being in contrast to the activities of the purposive mind. Full [24/25] realization of Hallam's loss comes to him when he has given his "powers away" to sleep and his "will is bondsman to the dark"; but: "With morning wakes the will, and cries,/ 'Thou shalt not be the fool of loss.'" In dreams, however, the poet can also forget his loss; and he is thus led in the forty-third poem to equate sleep with death, "that still garden of the souls" situated outside time and space. Sleep, then, may be courted as a form of mystical experience which releases the dreamer from the trammels of corporeal existence. Nevertheless, Tennyson had finally to admit that his dreams took the form of nightmares as often as not, and that he could find only sporadic relief through them. The life of the sleeping mind presented another version of the problem of appearance and reality which continually tormented him. In the famous fifty-fourth, -fifth, and -sixth poems of "In Memoriam" the spectacle of the struggle for existence leaves us in doubt whether it is Nature in conflict with God which "lends such evil dreams," or whether it is not man himself who is "a monster then, a dream,/ A discord."
All of Tennyson's thinking about the nature of dreams and their significance for the waking life is finally brought to bear on his immediate situation in the four extraordinary lyrics of In Memoriam which begin with the sixty-eighth. Sleep, again called "Death's twin-brother," restores Hallam to Tennyson; but their communion is imperfect because the Hallam of the dream is troubled. The poet awakens to realize that this trouble has had its origin in his own mind and that, therefore, the dream itself, as an instance of thought transference, possesses only such validity as can be attached to any act of the creative imagination. A second dream, occupying the sixty-ninth poem, elaborates the idea that heartfelt grief isolates the sufferer from his fellows and subjects him to their contemptuous derision. Interestingly enough, this dream, although much more artificially wrought than the preceding one, compels the poet's belief in the truth of its testimony, apparently because its symbolism develops within an orthodox religious framework. The next lyric, almost surrealistic in its imagery, reverts to the earlier surmise that [25/26] dreams are but a form of wish-fulfillment; but all uncertainty vanishes in the last stanza when the ugly welter of preceding visions is suddenly replaced by a mystic intimation of Hallam's spiritual presence:
Till all at once beyond the will
I hear a wizard music roll,
And thro' a lattice on the soul
Looks thy f air face and makes it still.
After this revelation the poet of the seventy-first lyric is no longer disposed to question the testimony of dreams. If sleep has such strong credit with the soul, then he will invoke its assistance to cancel time and to trace a magic circle within which he and his friend may continue to be together. Tennyson's eventual willingness after so much self-examination to rely on dreams as a source of spiritual certitude clarifies certain later affirmations in the poem, such as: "But in my spirit will I dwell,/ And dream my dream, and hold it true"; or:
Strange friend, past, present, and to be;
Loved deeplier, darklier understood;
Behold, I dream a dream of good,
And mingle all the world with thee.
It becomes apparent, then, that Tennyson located in the dream state one center of the life of the imagination, like others not always predictable in its operations, but ultimately rewarding as no exclusively objective awareness ever could be. Additional evidence in support of this contention is contributed by the long list of poems, from the very earliest to the latest of Tennyson's career, which in one way or another make use of dreams. During his formative period the traditional type of the dream-allegory strongly attracted the poet. "A Dream of Fair Women," "The Day-Dream," and "The Vision of Sin" are all ambitious experiments in this genre. Of these the last is the most successful and the most interesting for a variety of reasons. By representing the fantastic irrelevancies of the dreaming mind and by exploiting the vivid sense [26/27] impressions which accompany this condition, the poet was able to say things which his audience would hardly have tolerated as undisguised statements of his own perceptions. One can hardly miss the erotic symbolism which plays through the first part of the poem; and the opening of the final section reveals a talent for the macabre which Tennyson too rarely displayed:
The voice grew faint; there came a further change;
Once more uprose the mystic mountain-range.
Below were men and horses pierced with worms,
And slowly quickening into lower forms;
By shards and scurf of salt, and scum of dross,
Old plash of rains, and refuse patch'd with moss.
By the same token the old rake's song in section four is a masterpiece of grotesque and mordant humor of a kind infrequently met in Victorian poetry and almost never in Tennyson's subsequent work:
You are bones, and what of that?
Every face, however full,
Padded round with flesh and fat,
Is but modell'd on a skull.
Death is king, and Vivat Rex!
Tread a measure on the stones,
Madam — if I know your sex
From the fashion of your bones.
No, I cannot praise the fire
In your eye — nor yet your lip;
All the more do I admire
Joints of cunning workmanship.
Lo! God's likeness — the ground-plan-
Neither modell'd, glazed, nor framed:
Buss me, thou rough sketch of man,
Far too naked to be shamed!
Although this kind of allegoric writing was later to fall into abeyance along with the other fanciful forms of the poet's [27/28] early years, Tennyson's continuing reliance on the mechanism of dreams reveals the spectre of "otherness" which haunted his mind even when he most scrupulously masked its presence. The volume published in 1864 under the title of Enoch Arden and Other Poems is often cited as the work most illustrative of the author's final submission to Victorian literary conventions; and the three poems which stand first in this volume have come to seem prime examples of the weakness for complacent moralizing which so often spoiled Tennyson's attempts to treat domestic tragedy in a realistic way. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to find introduced into each of these poems an element of the supernatural, which is not only unrealistic, but is also in no way essential to the elucidation of the theme.
In "Enoch Arden" Annie's decision to marry Philip is motivated by her ironically misleading dream of Enoch sitting under a palm-tree, which she construes as meaning that her husband is dead and in heaven. In "Aylmers Field" Leolin dreams of Edith's death, and on the basis of this evidence commits suicide before confirmation can reach him. The significant thing to observe in both incidents is that the poet makes the motivation of two sufficiently commonplace characters depend on an intuitive faculty which is not really in the nature of either. The principal actors in "Sea Dreams" are equally unremarkable; and the sensational plot in which they are entrapped would hardly hold our interest were it not for the two dreams which suggest, quite in excess of the expressed moral content of the theme, that man's sentient existence is only a reflex of his unconscious being. Tennyson had already shown in the second and third parts of "The Lover's Tale" unusual comprehension of the way in which dreams are shaped by stimuli provided by waking experi ence. In "Sea Dreams" the visions of the husband and wife are even more closely keyed to setting and situation. The crashing of a wave, the breaking of a glass, a child crying in the night assume momentous proportions in the depths of the sleeping mind. And despite the fact that the poet becomes overly explicit and so destroys the illusion in his anxiety lest [28/29] the reader misinterpret the moral of the two dreams, the poem is noteworthy as a further example of its author's oblique approach to seemingly conventional material.
Dreams, however, were for Tennyson only one of several related manifestations of the mystery of man's inner being. In studies of minds unhinged by madness the poet found another way of sublimating his concern with the life of the imagination. For insanity has this in common with dream, that it releases the consciousness from active engagement in the affairs of the outer world and turns it inward on itself. Both dream and madness confuse truth and seeming; but whereas dream moves through seeming towards truth, madness reverses the process and becomes, in effect, an avenue of escape from the importunities of reality. Thus, dream usually appears in Tennyson's poetry as a condition in which the individual fulfills inherent needs of his nature; but madness is treated as a disease brought on by overexposure to harsh circumstance and expressing an inability to compensate. Through dreams outer and inner tensions are equalized; madness results from the failure to make any such adjustment.
The Tennysons were, of course, an extremely eccentric family; and the spectacle of erratic and often violent behavior which he had from childhood observed in his close relatives would in itself account for the poet's familiarity with mental aberration. Certainly his poetry shows an acquaintance with Symptoms of insanity which is as uncommon in its period as the somewhat similar interest in dream psychology. During the summer of 1840, while he was resident at Beech Hill, Tunbridge Wells, Tennyson formed a friendship with Matthew Allen, who was doctor-in-charge of a neighboring asylum. Allen had gained considerable reputation for his enlightened ways of treating mental patients (one of whom had been the poet, John Clare); and it seems likely that through this association Tennyson had a chance to study abnormal behavior at first hand.
As early as his unpublished poem, "The Outcast," Tennyson had used madness as a subject. And while there is no ques- [29/30] tion of insanity in "Supposed Confessions of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind" or "The Two Voices," the suicidal depression of the speakers in both poems suggests a state of neurasthenia bordering on derangement. The same lack of intellectual equilibrium characterizes the central figures in "Mariana" and "Locksley Hall"; and in "Aylmees Field" actual imbecility is visited on the old baron as punishment for his inflexible pride. In these poems it may be observed that the madness, whether incipient or actual, is not directly the result of any congenital instability of mind so much as an outcome of the pressure of external events which have undermined the characters' powers of resistance.
More revelatory of Tennyson's true intent in exploring the theme of madness is Maud, which, despite its lukewarm reception, always remained the author's favorite among his poems. Here the protagonist's insanity is, significantly enough, a trait inherited from his father who had presumably killed himself in a fit of despondency. Throughout the first part of the poem Tennyson shows extreme skill in foreshadowing the d6nouement of the second part. In his variability between moods of dejection and exhilaration, in his animosity against the social order counter-balanced by attempts to bolster his self-esteem, in his fascination with concepts of violence, madness, and death, the gathering emotional strain on the hero's temperament is dramatically evoked. Then with the killing of Maud's brother in "the red-ribb'd hollow behind the wood," the shadow, which symbolizes guilt, appears and dogs the murderer overseas and through fits of uncontrolled despair until his mind gives way. In the fifth section of Part Two, which is set in a madhouse, Tennyson shows his ability to deal with the nightmare visions of the disordered intellect. The hallucinations which parade before the speaker gather up and arrange in fantastic but meaningful patterns all the strands of his previous experience. And it is appropriately through the medium of his fevered imagination that the hero finally comprehends the nature of his transgression. Selfknowledge comes as a result of intuitive perception of the meaning of the rose symbol and of the kind of passion which [30/31] it exemplifies: "It is only flowers, they had no fruits,/ And I almost fear they are not roses, but blood." After this the third part of Maud, in which the hero vows himself to further purgation through a life of action in the Crimean War, seems hardly more than a sop to Victorian sentimentalism, though it is to be feared that its inclusion is one more indication of the poet's readiness to let his notion of the poet's public rôle usurp the place of artistic sensibility.
In "Lucretius" madness becomes the agency for dramatizing not only the life of the imagination, but also the tragic reprisals enacted on the rational mind. There is unmistakable irony in Tennyson's choice of Lucretius to formulate his theme; for the champion of philosophic materialism might be supposed the least likely of all persons to fall victim to fanciful delusions. Driven frantic by his wife's philtre, Lucretius experiences three dreams, each of which calls for close interpretation. The first is a monstrous version of his own system, showing an atomistic universe in a chantic state of flux. Here is symbolized the loss of control over the workings of the intellect. The second dream, which solicits the philosopher's senses through an orgiastic. vision of Hetairai, "hired animalisms," represents the revenge of flesh on one who had always minimized its claims. Lucretius then dreams of the naked loveliness of Helen of Troy, who stands for artistic beauty. The sword in this image is presumably the power of cold reason which threatens but is unable to subdue the aesthetic sense. In the lucidity of awakening Lucretius endeavors by rational methods to accommodate the meaning of these dreams within the limitations of the philosophy to which he has devoted his life. He fights a rear-guard action, retreating from one hard-won position to another and drawing ever closer to the despairing choice between confessed defeat and suicide. To Aphrodite as instigator of sexual license he opposes the more abstract concept of the goddess in her guise of Venus Genetrix. But his accustomed view of the gods as elevated beings, enjoying the "sacred everlasting calm" to which he aspires, is shot through with doubts as to whether the laws of nature are [31/32] after all compatible with a celestial order. And even granting the existence of the gods, does not their very remoteness from human concerns leave the individual alone responsible for his fate? In defense of suicide, Lucretius considers the vicissitudes which render life intolerable; and he concludes, recalling the sensual riot of his dreams, that the "worst disease of all" is
These prodigies of myriad nakednesses,
And twisted shapes of lust, unspeakable,
Abominable, strangers at my hearth
Not welcome, harpies miring every dish,
The phantom husks of something foully done,
And fleeting thro' the boundless universe,
And blasting the long quiet of my breast
With animal heat and dire insanity.
For reassurance Lucretius turns to Nature whom in her aspect as lawgiver he has always worshipped, only to realize that she condones the excesses to which he is now tempted. He beholds with fascinated loathing a classical vision of lust triumphant-tbe rape of an Oread by a satyr. At first his sympathy goes out to the Oread as she flees her brutish pursuer, though the terms used to describe the nymph are significant of ulterior perceptions. There follow in quick succession moods of revulsion when the creature seems about to fling herself on him, and of relief when she is captured instead. At this point a sickening revelation of his interest in the scene is vouchsafed to Lucretius:
Hide, hide them, million-myrtled wilderness,
And cavern-shading laurels, hide! do I wish
What? — that the bush were leafless? or to whelm
All of them in one massacre?
In vain he tries to disprove the conjurings of his heated imagination by calling on philosophy to show that the satyr is outside the natural order of being: "Twy-natured is no nature." This latest vision, coming on top of the preceding dreams, has opened his eyes all too clearly to the double [32/33] nature of man. Self-recognition destroys for Lucretius the hope of ever recovering "the sober majesties/ Of settled, sweet, Epicurean life"; for
now it seems some unseen monster lays
His vast and filthy hands upon my will,
Wrenching it backward into his, and spoils
My bliss in being . . .
On the surface of this poem lies a moral teaching such as the age had come to expect from the author of In Memoriam: namely, that the unaided reason is not in itself strong or sure enough to discipline man's sensual nature. In addition to its explicitly didactic purpose, however, Lucretius gives important bearings on Tennyson's aesthetic position at the most influential period in his career. The self-loathing which comes over the philosopher as a result of his madness, with its accompanying dreams and visions, destroys his confidence in his creative powers. Lucilia's potion has had a twofold effect:
For the wicked broth
Confused the chernic labor of the blood,
And tickling the brute brain within the man's
Made havoc among those tender cells, and check'd
His power to shape.
Hitherto it is for his writing that he has lived:
For save when shutting reasons up in rhythm,
Or Heliconian honey in living words,
To make a truth less harsh, I often grew
Tired of so much within our little life,
Or of so little in our little life-
The thought of leaving his poem uncompleted at first dissuades Lucretius from suicide: "and if I go "my" work is left/ Unfinish'd." And even when the decision to kill himself is finally taken, there remains the consolation that his masterpiece will survive and be of benefit as long as there are men to read it:
. . . till that hour, My golden work in which I told a truth
That stays the rolling Ixionian wheel,
And numbs the Fury's ringlet-snake, and plucks
The mortal soul from out immortal hell,
Since he holds this faith in the validity of his creative impulse, why does Lucretius take self-extinction as the best way out of his situation? The answer to this question leads back to the problem posed by Tennyson in "Supposed Confessions of a Second-rate Sensitive Mind" and "The Two Voices." Lucretius' madness is a metaphor for the mood of introspective, depression which throughout his life harried Tennyson's at tempts to fix his faith, but which he tried increasingly to sublimate in his poetry. Furthermore, the daring dreams and visions which emerge from Lucretius' inner consciousness had, as we have seen, their counterpart in the poet's own imagination. It follows, then, that Lucretius' despairing recognition of the incommensurable elements in his nature reflects the dilemma which Tennyson himself faced in presenting a view of human experience which would legitimatize his assumed function as Victorian sage and at the same time be faithful to his intuitive perceptions. Insofar as the poem represents the vagrant imagination in conflict with a settled system of philosophic thought, it illustrates the author's double awareness and the tensions resulting therefrom. [34/35]
In the seventy-first poem of In Memoriam a third plane of irrational consciousness is, by implication, brought into relation with dream and madness: "Sleep, kinsman thou to death and trance/ And madness." Trance, as used here, denotes a form of mystical experience equivalent to the traditional concept of the visionary power as a faculty of the poetic imagination. It is like dream in that it annihilates any logical ideas of time or-apace or the interrelations between cause and effect. It is normally, however, a waking condition of the mind, and in this way akin to mental derangement. Reference was made in the opening of this chapter to Tennyson's recurrent fits of abstraction when he passed into a trance-like state and lost all sense of individual identity. Indeed, he seems on occasion to have been able to induce such "day-dreams." On one occasion he wrote: "A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me thro' repeating my own name two or three times to myself silently, till all at once, as it were, out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this is not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction but the only true life." In this connection it is perhaps significant that Tennyson discovered hypnotic powers in himself and successfully experimented with mesmerism.
As with sleeping dreams, therefore, Tennyson frequently introduces the vision or trance into his poetry for the purpose of suggesting an enlargement of experience beyond the more immediate implications of the matter in hand. But the same hesitancy to repose full confidence in extrasensory perceptions that we remarked in the poet's attitude towards dreams is also present in his treatment of visions. How could one be sure whether the revelation was a legitimate vision carrying supernatural authority, or whether it was not merely a self-imposed and superstitious delusion? For the fact that [35/36] Tennyson's senses played phantasmagoric tricks on him there is biographical evidence. His grandson tells how the poet would draw "the curious things which he said he often saw in the fire in the small hours of the morning-strange grim forms, half beast, half human." We are also told that in the highly nervous condition brought on by Charles Tennyson's death, the poet heard "perpetual ghostly voices."
In his poetry, however, such experiences, while described with extreme clarity, usually go with the workings of diseased imaginations. The fearsome hallucinations of the soul in "The Palace of Art" and of "Saint Simeon Stylites" are motivated in this way. On the other hand, the ultimate revelation that spirit is immortal comes to the poet of In Memoriam in a moment of trance-like exaltation quite obviously allied with true mystic vision. The ninety-fifth poem of the elegy describes how the poet was suddenly transfixed by a blinding apprehension of Hallam's presence, in comparison with which the testimony of the dream in the seventieth poem seems shadowy and inconclusive. The poet had lingered out-of-doors into the twilight. Left to himself, he was rereading his friend's letterswhen the illumination enveloped him:
So word by word, and line by line,
The dead man touch'd me from the past,
And all at once it seem'd at last
The living soul was flashd on mine,
And mine in this was wound, and whirl'd
About empyreal heights of thought,
And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world,
Æonian music measuring out
The steps of Time-the shocks of Chance —
The blows of Death.
And even though in the immediate aftermath the "trance/ Was cancell'd, stricken thro' with doubt," the more hopeful tone of the following lyrics leaves no doubt that for Tennyson this moment of insight was climactic and prepared the [36/37] way for his subsequent attainment of religious faith. In passing, it is perhaps worthy of surmise whether, in greeting In Memoriam as an authoritative rebuttal to the modern spirit of scientific scepticism, the Victorian age ever seriously examined the nature of the evidence on which the laureate had erected his case. Certainly Tennyson's argument derives from a kind of imaginative awareness which his contemporaries had shown themselves little disposed to condone in his earlier poetry, and which in its implications could not but run counter to the dominant materialism of the times.
Although the psychological complexity of the vision tended to limit its poetic uses, as compared, for instance, with the devices of dream and madness, Tennyson often employed it for the purpose of opening up unexpected and disquieting perspectives through conventional material. A prophetic trance enables the protagonist of "Locksley Hall" to look into the future; and it is as the result of a similar visitation that the poet of "The Golden Year" celebrates his faith in the Victorian ideal of progress. More revealing in the present connection are the "weird seizures" under which the hero of The Princess suffers. They were not incorporated into the poem until the fourth edition, published in 1851; and since these additions are inappropriate either to the Prince's character or to the action and general tone of the poem, there has ever since been controversy about Tennyson's motives for including them. The initial lines describing the symptoms of these attacks show once more the poet's obsession with the enigma of appearance and reality as a central problem of knowledge. The Prince is speaking:
There lived an ancient legend in our house.
Some sorcerer, whom a far-off grandsire burnt
Because he cast no shadow, had foretold,
Dying, that none of all our blood should know
The shadow from the substance, and that one
Should come to fight with shadows and to fall;
For so, my mother said, the story ran.
And, truly, waking dreams were, more or less, [37/38]
An old and strange affection of the house.
Myself too had weird seizures, Heaven knows what!
On a sudden in the midst of men and day,
And while 1 walk'd and talk'd as heretofore,
I seem'd to move among a world of ghosts,
And feel myself the shadow of a dream.
Three times the Prince undergoes these dream-like trances, in which "all things were and were not," while
As in some mystic middle state I lay.
Seeing I saw not, hearing not I heard. . .
Finally the trial of the tourney restores him to normality and allows him to accomplish his manhood through selfless union with the Princess Ida, herself regenerate.
Equally arbitrary is the faculty of second sight ascribed to Enoch Arden on his desert island:
There often as he watch'd or seem'd to watch,
So still the golden lizard on him paused,
A phantom made of many phantoms moved
Before him haunting him, or he himself
Moved haunting people, things, and places, known
Far in a darker isle beyond the line...
This sixth sense, released through isolation, informs Enoch that Annie has accepted Philip. Thereby the story gains a certain element of pathos; but we feel, nevertheless, that Enoch has been made a vehicle for conveying the author's own preoccupation with the spirit world.
Dream, madness, and vision are all essentially internal conditions of being. The mind regards itself; it is, so to speak, bemused by self-consciousness, and inhibited from translating its insights into action. Lucretius' suicide is the ultimate negation of the active life; and to a lesser extent all the vision-haunted characters in Tennyson's poetry exhibit a centripetal movement in their psychological processes. Their perceptions spin inward, isolating the core of consciousness from involvement in the outside world. Yet Tennyson was too much man of his time to put the life of contemplation [38/39] above the life of doing; and in consequence we find in his poetry a release, having its origin, like dream, madness and vision, in the imagination, but, unlike the other three, more immediately productive of external consequences. When the poet undertakes to activate the mind's inner awareness, his characteristic method is the quest.
Again "The Two Voices" is the proving ground for a thematic device which was later to be elaborated. Recognizing man's native idealism, the voice of doubt derides the perennial search for intangible and unattainable truths. In reply the poet confesses ignorance of his goal, but finds reasons for optimism in the fact that there does after all exist in human nature an instinctual compulsion to fulfill itself through pursuing some sort of ideal. The language of the following passage is that of the spiritual pilgrim:
I cannot hide that some have striven,
Achieving calm, to whom was given
The joy that mixes man with Heaven;
Who, rowing hard against the stream,
Saw distant gates of Eden gleam,
And did not dream it was a dream;
But beard, by secret transport led,
Even in the charnels of the dead,
The murmur of the fountain-head-
Which did accomplish their desire,
Bore and forebore, and did not tire,
Like Stephen, an unquenched fire.
Tennyson was not to sound the full imaginative implications of the quest until late in his career; but his early poetry makes sufficient use of this motif to enable the reader to identify those aspects which principally commended it to the poet. The summons to the quest usually takes the form of a visionary flash of illumination, experienced most ofte7n while the recipient is in a state of trance-like exhilaration, though it may be vouchsafed through dream or even madness [39/40] Thus, the hero of "The Princess" is started on his search for Ida by a voice mingling with the wind in the wild woods and announcing: "Follow, follow, thou shalt win." But success in the quest is incidental to the faith which motivates it. The prince's wanderings in "The Day-Dream," Tennyson's version of the legend of the sleeping beauty, are thus described:
He comes, scarce knowing what he seeks;
He breaks the hedge; he enters there;
The color flies into his cheeks;
He trusts to light on something fair;
For all his life the charm did talk
About his path, and hover near
With words of promise in his walk,
And whisper'd voices at his car.
Finally, although the quest involves its devotees in a life of strenuous activity, frequently productive of good to mankind, its true purpose is individual self-realization; and to this extent it is anti-social. Sir Galahad in the poem of that name succors distress wherever he encounters it; but his pursuit of the Grail is a lonely and entirely personal trial which requires the sacrifice of all worldly ties and communal pleasures.
All these elements are exemplified in two poems explicitly concerned with the quest: "Ulysses," published in 1842 but written in the time of most intense grief over Hallam's death; and "The Voyage," which appeared in the "Enoch Arden" volume of 1864. For Ulysses the whole purpose of life is the search for experience beyond the limits of proven achievement:
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
The hero is an old man; but the gleam still beckons from beyond the horizon:
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. [40/41]
This poem is often taken as expressing a point of view directly contradictory to that embodied in "The Lotos-Eaters." Actually the defeatism of "Tithonus" forms a more effective contrast; for Ulysses' final decision to give himself to a private vision is merely the counterpart in terms of action of the more passive self-obsession of the lotos-eaters. Furthermore, to read "Ulysses" as an intentional tribute to those solid public virtues most admired by the Victorians is wholly to misinterpret the author's central purpose. In setting out on further wanderings which have no clearly foreseen objective, the Greek hero is not restrained by any conventional scruples of duty either to his family or the people he rules. The character of Telemachus, as somewhat contemptuously alluded to, approximates much more closely the Victorian model of patriotic and domestic behavior. And the vaunted qualities of mind which will support Ulysses and his followers in their quest, the strength of "will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," are here made to subserve a line of conduct which cannot be justified in any but the most individualistic terms.
"The Voyage" may be said to take up where "Ulysses" leaves off. The quest is its own "raison d'être" and the chosen band which mans the ship is blithely indifferent to social responsibilities. The one sceptic in the crew, unable to maintain throughout a lifetime the self-sufficiency of his shipmates, commits suicide. If his death is a comment on the fate Tennyson conceived for Lucretius, then the perseverance of the others celebrates the dominance of mystic inward strength that supports the human spirit through the tribulations of earthly existence. And here it may be noted for future analysis that in his concept of the quest Tennyson was working towards a fusion of philosophy and aesthetics which would harmonize in a higher synthesis his underlying sense of alienation from Victorian society on the one hand and, on the other, his reluctance to give exclusive credit to the promptings of the artist's inner consciousness. For the dedicated seekers of "The Voyage" refuse to be stayed either by the sober household values of the North, or by the sensual exoticism of the East: [41/42]
At times a carven craft would shoot
From havens hid in fairy bowers,
With naked limbs and flowers and fruit,
But we nor paused for fruit nor flowers.
The mysterious gleam which leads the ship on its endless quest has instilled in each member of the crew immaculate devotion to his individual vision:
For one fair Vision ever fled
Down the waste waters day and night,
And still we followd where she led,
In hope to gain upon her flight.
Her face was evermore unseen,
And fixt upon the far sea-line;
But each man murmurd, '0 my Queen,
I follow till I make thee mine.'
Considered separately, the devices of dream, madness, vision, and the quest might not perhaps seem to furnish conclusive evidence of the operation of private insights within poems ostensibly addressed to a Victorian audience. When these motifs are taken together, however, it will be found that in one or another combination they characterize a neglected aspect of Tennyson's genius which is all-important to an adequate comprehension of his poetry. The truth of this statement may be tested by an examination of the Idylls of the King, the major creative effort of the poet's career, and one which occupied his thoughts for about fifty years from the first version of the "Morte d'Arthur," written as early as 1835, to the publication in 1885 of "Balin and Balan," the last of the Idylls. To the great majority of Victorian readers this work came to seem an heroic tribute to the values on which their society prided itself. Yet the modern reader may well be sensitive to overtones in the Idylls suggestive rather of the author's interior imaginative resources than of uncritical commitment to the manners and morals of the age.
To be sure, the Epilogue, addressed to Victoria, makes an overt appeal to the moralistic temper of the times. The Queen is asked to [42/43]
accept this old imperfect tale,
New-old, and shadowing Sense at war with Soul,
Ideal manhood closed in real man,
Rather than that gray king whose name, a ghost,
Streams like a cloud, man-shaped, from mountain peak,
And cleaves to cairn and cromlech still . . .
And, indeed, when read, as is too often the case, on its most accessible level of interest, the Idylls of the King has something of the quality of a relic of Victorian sanctimony, redolent of habits of mind which the twentieth century does not share. In the conventional view the focal figure in the poem is an idealized ruler, composite of the moral earnestness of Hallam and the exemplary hearthside virtues of the Prince Consort. The adulterous passion of the Queen and Lancelot then becomes the principal agency for the downfall of Arthur's chivalric order, with each successive Idyll falling into place as a portrayal of the pernicious spread of the blight emanating from this pair. Marital disharmony ("The Marriage of Geraint" and "Geraint and Enid"), fratricide ("Balin and Balan"), overthrow of reason ("Merlin and Vivien"), misprision of innocence ("Lancelot and Elaine"), betrayal of faith ("Pelleas and Ettarre") through the perversion of the ideals on which it was founded a social order decays until in the last Idylls we witness its ultimate dissolution into chaos. The fact that the poem is so admirably shaped towards the exemplification of this theme certainly indicates that Tennyson wanted to invite just such a reading; and with this interpretation of the Idylls there is here no wish to quarrel. A modern audience, however, may be attracted to certain aspects of the poem's theme which are less conventional in their implications — may even be allowed to suspect that these aspects were the ones which most fully engaged Tennyson's own imagination.
There is no ignoring the sombre and doom-ridden atmosphere which from the very outset hovers over the Idylls of the King. (Idylls are here discussed in the order in which Tennyson finally arranged them. If, as seems certain, the over-all pattern of the poem did not clarify itself in the poet's mind until after he had made a considerable amount of progress, then we may likewise assume that the sections latest in actual date of composition were written for the purpose of supplying lacunae in the narrative or strengthening certain aspects of the theme which had come to seem important.) This is "Götterdämmerung." Of the ten poems [43/44] entitled "The Round Table," only the first, "Gareth and Lynette," shows Arthur's knighthood in anything like its pristine health and vigor; and significantly, Gareth is very young, very nalif, and entirely new to the ways of the fellowship. With the two Idylls relating to Geraint and Enid the shadow of Guinevere's transgression begins to fall across the exploits of the knights, and it lengthens until all is dark. Much later, after she has fled from Camelot, the Queen dreams
An awful dream, for then she seem'd to stand
On some vast plain before a setting sun,
And from the sun there swiftly made at her
A ghastly something, and its shadow flew
Before it till it touch'd her, and she turn'd-
When lo! her own, that broadening from her feet,
And blackening, swallowd all the land, and in it
Far cities burnt . . .
But the shadows that flit over Arthur's kingdom do not originate with the Queen's guilt; they were there from the first, lending an air of ambiguity to everything that happened. Tennyson shows great skill in establishing a tone of unreality. The very legitimacy of Arthur's title to the kinzship is shrouded in dubitty. In "The Coming of Arthur" (text) Bellicent bases her testimony on the vision which Bleys and Merlin saw; and final confirmation comes to Leodogran in the form of a misty dream. Thereafter, the reader first beholds Camelot through the eyes of Gareth and his companions. It seems a kind of Palace of Art, and the poet deliberately leaves in question whether it is real or existent only in the enchanted realm of the imagination:
So, when their feet were planted on the plain
That broaden'd toward the base of Camelot,
Far off they saw the silver-misty morn
Rolling her smoke about the royal mount,
That rose between the forest and the field.
At times the summit of the high city flashd;
At times the spires and turrets half-way down
Prick'd thro' the mist; at times the great gate shone
Only, that open'd on the field below;
Anon, the whole fair city had disappeard.
Then those who went with Gareth were amazed,
One crying, 'Let us go no further, lord;
Here is a city of enchanters, built
By fairy kings.' The second echo'd him,
'Lord, we have heard from our wise man at home
To northward, that this king is not the King,
But only changeling out of Fairyland,
Who drave the heathen hence by sorcery
And Merlin's glamour.' Then the first again,
'Lord, there is no such city anywhere,
But all a vision.'
Throughout the following Idylls the atmosphere thickens until, as though, in Merlin's words, man's passage were veritably from the great deep to the great deep and all in between a dream, the concluding actions are almost lost in obscurity. There is, for example, the strange immateriality of Guinevere's parting sight of the King:
. . . so she did not see the face,
Which then was as an angel's, but she saw,
Wet with the mists and smitten by the lights,
The Dragon of the great Pendragonship
Blaze, making all the night a steam of fire.
And even then he turn'd; and more and more
The moony vapor 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. [45/46]
And finally, there is the description of Arthur's last battle fought in a haunted mist so dense as to obliterate all distinction between the real and unreal:
Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight
Like this last, dim, weird battle of the west.
A death-white mist slept over sand and sea,
Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew
Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold
With formless fear; and even on Arthur fell
Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew;
And some had visions out of golden youth,
And some beheld the faces of old ghosts
Look in upon the battle; and in the mist
Was many a noble deed, many a base,
And chance and craft and strength in single fights,
And ever and anon with host to host
Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn,
Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash
Of battle-axes on shatterd helms, and shrieks
After the Christ, of those who falling down
Look'd up for heaven, and only saw the mist;
And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights,
Oaths, insult, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,
Sweat, writhings, anguish, laboring of the lungs
In that close mist, and cryings for the light,
Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.
Thus insisted on, mist and shadow become symbols of the misgivings which assail the knights vowed to the fulfillment of Arthur's vision. Addressing the seer, Gareth expresses the bewilderment of his followers, and perhaps his own:
these, my men,-
Your city moved so weirdly in the mist-
Doubt if the King be king at all, or come
From Fairyland; and whether this be built
By magic, and by fairy kings and queens;
Or whether there be any city at all,
Or all a vision ...
To which Merlin replies:
And here is truth, but an it please thee not,
Take thou the truth as thou hast told it me....
For there is nothing in it as it seems
Saving the King; tho' some there be that hold
The King a shadow, and the city real.
Yet take thou heed of him, for, so thou pass
Beneath this archway, then wilt thou become
A thrall to his enchantments, for the King
Will bind thee by such vows as is a shame
A man should not be bound by, yet the which
No man can keep; but, so thou dread to swear,
Pass not beneath this gateway, but abide
Without, among the cattle of the field.
For an ye heard a music, like enow
They are building still, seeing the city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And therefore built for ever.
To Balin, self-distrustful because of his madness, the rigors of the King's service seems too severe:
Too high this mount of Camelot for me;
These high-set courtesies are not for me.
Shall I not rather prove the worse for these?
And the betrayed Pelleas raves: "we be all alike; only the King/ Hath made us fools and liars." Later Dagonet, the King's jester, jeers at Arthur in bitterness of spirit over the decline of the Round Table:
... the king of fools!
Conceits himself as God that he can make
Figs out of thistles, silk from bristles, milk
From burning spurge, honey from hornet-combs,
And men from beasts — Long live the king of fools! [47/48]
In the end, after the disintegration of all he has stood for, even Arthur gives way to self-doubt:
Hearest thou this great voice that shakes the world,
And wastes the narrow realm whereon we move,
And beats upon the faces of the dead,
My dead, as tho' they had not died for me?
O Bedivere, for on my heart hath fallen
Confusion, till I know not what I am,
Nor whence I am, nor whether I be king;
Behold, I seem but king among the dead.
In their confusing of the ideal and the actual, the principal actors in the Idylls of the King lead a sort of double life. An ulterior meaning shadows their actions. They exist not only in the outer world of postive achievement, but also in an interior world of conflicting motives. It is the interaction between the two realms of consciousness which gives the poem its strange quality of intensity. Every action has its imaginative counterpart through the instrumentality of dream, madness, vision, and the quest. A list of the characters whose dreams, too numerous to catalogue, interpret critical passages in the Idylls would include: Leodogran, Enid, Lancelot, Elaine, Pelleas, Tristram, Guinevere, and Arthur. Inner stress induces madness in Balin and Pelleas, as well as Lancelot. In addition to the supernatural portents which attend the King's coming and passing, the vision of the Holy Grail, the phantom cup that comes and goes, is revealed with varying degrees of clarity to many of Arthur's knights. And the quest for the Grail is, of course, the very hallmark of fealty to the life of the imagination.
If a review of the Idylls be now undertaken with the foregoing observations in mind, there will be seen to emerge through the moral veneer which gave the poem its immediate appeal to the Victorian age a second and profounder theme. This theme, more consonant with Tennyson's habits of mind, reflects the under side of the author's twofold awareness, the side which faced away from society and towards his individual being as a creative artist. For it was in the [48/49] depths of his own consciousness that Tennyson had finally to confront and struggle with the problem of appearance and reality which remorselessly obsessed his imagination. It is only when regarded in the light of this conflict that the full meaning of the Idylls of the King becomes manifest.
The poet hints at his intent as early as the opening lines to "Geraint and Enid," where he departs from his usual practice in the Idylls and steps in front of the curtain:
O purblind race of miserable men,
How many among us at this very hour
Do forge a lifelong trouble for ourselves,
By taking true for false, or false for true;
Here, thro' the feeble twilight of this world
Groping, how many, until we pass and reach
That other where we see as we are seen!
The initiating situation in this Idyll is Geraint's unfounded suspicion of his wife's fidelity, which grows out of her intimacy with Guinevere. Geraint, jealous by nature, is unwilling to believe in his own good fortune. His distrust is played off against the cynicism of Earl Doorm, the first of many characters in the Idylls wholly possessed by sensuality. Doorm tempts Enid with food, drink, and finally with fine raiment. Her rejection of the latter brings into play the theme of shadow and substance on which Tennyson was to work so manv variations in the subsequent poems. For Enid's choice recafis not only the bedraggled condition in which Geraint first found her, but also the dream relating to her appearance at court, her actual presentation to Guinevere, and the Queen's gift of clothing.
A more tragic version of this conflict occurs in "Balin and Balan" which comes next after the Geraint and Enid story in the final ordering of the Idylls, although, significantly, it was the last of all to be written. The structure of this poem adroitly reinforces the irony of the central situation. Balin becomes Guinevere's knight as a means of averting further attacks of insanity; yet it is the disillusionment resultant oni what Sir Garlon and Vivien tell him about the Queen's; [49/50] clandestine life that plunges him back into his final fatal derangement. In granting Balin permission to carry the Queen's device on his shield, Arthur says:
Thou shalt put the crown to use.
The crown is but the shadow of the king,
And this a shadow's shadow, let him have it,
So this will help him of his violences!
Subsequently, Balin's frantic flight from the court takes place after he has overheard Lancelot and Guinevere talking together. To Lancelot's account of his symbolic dream of the lily, token of innocence, the Queen opposes her waking choice of the rose, flower of physical passion. But it is Vivien whose cynical estimate of the Round Table finally opens Balin's eyes to the maddening actuality of his situation. Vivien (along with Gawain) is the clear-sighted advocate of the life of sensation in the Idylls of the King; and, as such, she symbolizes the materialistic threat which Earl Doorm and his kind offer to Arthur's order. This is the significance of her animistic hymn to the sun and its accompanying remark:
This fire of heaven,
The old sun-worship, boy, will rise again,
And beat the Cross to earth, and break the King
And all his Table.
The next Idyll, as its title, "Merlin and Vivien," indicates, carries on the pattern of bringing into opposition two characters, one representing the inner integrity of spiritual being, the other the corrupting powers of the world. Vivien exerts the wiles of the flesh, not this time against the holy fanaticism of Arthur's knighthood, but against the authority of the intellect as vested in Merlin. The ensuing narrative presents interesting affinities with "Lucretius"; for both poems illustrate Tennyson's distrust of reason when it is not supported by some form of transcendental faith. Merlin knows that he cannot avert the fate which impends over Camelot. In deep despondency he has decided to withdraw from the court. The lines descriptive of his mental state Tennyson did not [50/51] add until 1873, fourteen years after the first publication of "Merlin and Vivien" (at that time entitled simply "Vivien"), and furthermore, after the appearance of four Idylls concerned with later stages of the story:
Then fell on Merlin a great melancholy;
He walk'd with dreams and darkness, and he found
A doom that ever poised itself to fall,
An ever-moaning battle in the mist,
World-war of dying flesh against the life,
Death in all life and lying in all love,
The meanest having power upon the highest,
And the high purpose broken by the worm.
The symbol of Merlin's power is the spell bequeathed by a forgotten seer who had practised self-denial until
to him the wall
That sunders ghosts and shadow-casting men
Became a crystal, and he saw them thro' it,
And heard their voices talk behind the wall,
And learnt their elemental secrets, powers
The victim of this spell loses all capacity to move and all sense of time, and is condemned forever to behold only that person who has enchanted him. In the apathy born of the realization that the Round Table cannot be preserved by wisdom of the mind, Merlin yields to the fascination of the arch-realist Vivien with her mocking comment: "Man dreams of fame while woman wakes to love." So the power lodged in the spell passes into her hands; and Merlin's bondage becomes a token of the failure of Arthur's ideal in its intellectual aspect.
"Lancelot and Elaine" is, of course, a reworking of "The Lady of Shalott" (text) within a much wider context. Like the lady of the earlier poem, Elaine "lived in fantasy." The life of the imagination was her essential being;to shatter it would be to destroy her. As with the Lady of Shalott also, the symbol of Elaine's inner existence is a work of art, the case [51/52] that she has embroidered for Lancelot's shield. Which is the more real, the battle-scarred shield emblematic of Lancelot's exploits in the great world beyond Astolat, or its fragile covering? Here Tennyson's use of detail is especially subtle. Elaine is awakened each morning by the gleam of the shield. She fashions its covering "fearing rust or soilure." To a truthful depiction of "all the devices blazon'd on the shield" she
added, of her wit,
A border fantasy of branch and flower,
And yellow-throated nestling in the nest.
After Lancelot has returned to claim his shield, Elaine, like Mariana, lives on in her tower. Since her life depends on the delusion, she insists that it is her "glory to have loved/ One peerless, without stain."
The diamonds for which Lancelot is fighting operate symbolically against the main line of the story. Apparently so tangible and of such lasting beauty, they are no sooner found than lost; and possession of them is as unhappy as it is brief. Note the circumstances under which Arthur discovered the crown of the slain king:
And Arthur came, and laboring up the pass,
All in a misty moonshine, unawares
Had trodden that crown'd skeleton, and the skull
Brake from the nape, and from the skull the crown
Roll'd into light, and turning on its rims
Fled like a glittering rivulet to the tarn.
And down the shingly scaur he plunged, and caught,
And set it on his head, and in his heart
Heard murmurs, 'Lo, thou likewise shalt be king.'
In Elaine's dream, as her brother narrates it to Lancelot, there is no holding onto the precious stone:
... for, knight, the maiden dreamt
That some one put this diamond in her hand,
And that it was too slippery to be held,
And slipt and fell into some pool or stream. . . [52/53]
A dream strangely premonitory of the fact. For Guinevere in her jealous fury is to cast Lancelot's trophy of nine years combat into the river at Camelot at precisely the moment when
slowly past the barge
Whereon the lily maid of Astolat
Lay smiling, like a star in blackest night.
Among the Idylls "The Holy Grail" not only marks the turning point in the history of the Round Table, but also calls forth the author's deepest speculations on the nature of appearance and reality. The beauty of the poetry does not permit us to question the vision in which the Grail appears to Percivale's saintly sister; but there is something suspect in the knights' eagerness to dedicate themselves to the quest. Lancelot's motive is suggestive of the sensation-seeking of declining order. Hitherto, his sense of guilt has inflicted intermittent spells of madness; now, intoxicated by the hope of purging his conscience, he undertakes the search as an individual enterprise. Certainly in Arthur's view the ques is a form of self-deluding lunacy for all but the chosen few. It represents an over-indulgence of man's spiritual nature as harmful in its way as the sensuality for which Vivien stands. In sadness of heart he predicts that his knighthood will "follow wandering fires/ Lost in the quagmire!" Guinevere's reaction is equally perceptive: "This madness has come on us for our sins."
Tennyson selects five knights whose experiences exemplify the ambiguity of the quest, though we are told that: "All men, to one so bound by such a vow,/ And women were as phantoms." Galahad and Gawain occupy the extreme positions. For the former the quest is the only reality and leads to beatification; for the latter it is a will-o'-the-wisp from which he soon turns back to earthly pleasures. Lancelot's way ends in frustration after exposing him to madness more humiliating than any he has yet known. Sir Bors' steadfast perseverance brings the desired vision, but his heart is never in the search. For him the brotherhood of the Round Table [53/54] takes precedence over self-fulfillment. On his return to Camelot he refuses to speak of his experience, but goes straight to Lancelot and grasps his hand. Sir Percivale is the narrator and his adventure is most illuminating of all. Setting forth alone, he finds himself "thirsting in a land of sand and thorns," where all the pleasant things of this world turn to dust at his approach. At last under Galahad's guidance he consummates the quest; but in after years the episode which lingers in his memory is curiously at variance with the ordeal as a whole. For he recalls how he found his first love and longed to remain with her until he
remember'd Arthur's warning word,
That most of us would follow wandering fires,
And the quest faded in my heart.
And even though he went on again in the wake of the vision, there is remarkably little solace in the recollection of temptation resisted:
... but one night my vow
Burnt me within, so that I rose and fled,
But waiPd and wept, and hated mine own self,
And even the holy quest, and all but her. . .
To which his marveling auditor, the monk Ambrosius, adds a chorus-like comment from the point of view of those who, like himself, "want the warmth of double life," and "are plagued with dreams of something sweet/ Beyond all sweetness in a life so rich."
It is Arthur, however, who out of his weariness and sadness places the final evaluation on the quest for the Grail. Recognizing in it a portent of the fading of his ideal of the perfect society. He confesses that he too prone to visions such as dematerialize the phenomenal world. But such dreams, he says, do not belong to human life on earth, since they relate to a higher order of reality. Once man's work is done, however:
Let visions of the night or of the day
Come as they will; and many a time they come, [54/55]
Until this earth he walks on seems not earth,
This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,
This air that smites his forehead is not air
But vision-yea, his very hand and foot
In moments when he feels he cannot die,
And knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a vision, nor that One
Who rose again.
Compare with these lines Tennyson's own statement, made in 1869:
Yes, it is true that there are moments when the flesh is nothing to me, when I feel and know the flesh to be the vision, God and the Spiritual the only real and true. Depend upon it, the Spiritual is the real: it belon-s to one more than the hand and the foot. You may tell me that my hand and my foot are only imaginary symbols of my existence, I could believe you; but you never, never can convince me that the I is not an eternal Reality, and that the Spiritual is not the true and real part of me."
After the quest for the Grail, the scene darkens rapidly, while the Round Table enters on the final stages of decline. "Pelleas and Ettarre" is a bitter companion piece to "Lancelot and Elaine." By choosing a life of fantasy, and later death, Elaine retained her innocence; the actuality thrust on Pelleas destroys his innocence and reason together. For unlike Balin and Lancelot, Pelleas does not invite madness; it comes to him through circumstances over which he has no control. Lancelot's renunciation of Elaine is sorrowful, for his adultery ~Onjl makes him more honorable in all his other conduct. Gawain already identified in "Lancelot and Elaine" and "The Holy-Grail" as the soulless materialist, is wholly cynical in his betrayal of Pelleas with Ettarre, who herself makes a mockery of chivalric love. Pelleas' disillusionment, then becomes symptomatic of the overthrow of an entire social order. In his Lear-like frenzy he imagines that human nature has debased itself below the level of animals.
Of all the narratives in the "Idylls of the King," "The Last Tournament," not published until 1871, is perhaps most skillfully contrived to bring out the theme of shadow and substance. "The world/ Is flesh and shadow," says Dagonet; and the Tournament of the Dead Innocence mordantly em- [55/56] bodies his meaning. As with the diamonds in "Lancelot and Elaine," the ruby carcanet has complex symbolic value. It is associated with "the maiden babe" who did not live after she was given into Guinevere's care. And it is won by Tristram for a last love-offering to Isolt of Lyonesse. Tristram's dream after his victory in the lists is filled with ironic implications:
He seem'd to pace the strand of Brittany
Between Isolt of Britain and his bride,
And showd them both the ruby-chain, and both
Began to struggle for it, till his queen
Graspt it so hard that all her hand was red.
Then cried the Breton, 'Look, her hand is red!
These be no rubies, this is frozen blood,
And melts within her hand-her hand is hot
With ill desires, but this I gave thee, look,
Is all as cool and white as any flower.'
Follow'd a rush of eagle's wings, and then
A whimpering of the spirit of the child,
Because the twain had spoil'd her carcanet.
Furthermore, the triangle of Mark, Isolt, and Tristram savagely parodies the situation obtaining among Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, since Arthur could never have taken Mark's way, any more than Lancelot and Guinevere were capable of following the example of Tristram and Isolt in sacrificing all to love. That Lancelot, in the King's absence, should preside over this last tourney is a further irony in view of the combatants' behavior. We hear the death-knell of the Round Table when Tristram, who alone has fought bravely, rejoices with Isolt in the triumph of lawless passion over the unnatural restrictions imposed by Arthur on his knights:
0, ay-the wholesome madness of an hour-
They served their use, their time; for every knight
Believed himself a greater than himself, [56/57]
And every follower eyed him as a God;
Till he, being lifted up beyond himself,
Did mightier deeds than elsewise he had done,
And so the realm was made. But then their vows
First mainly thro' that sullying of our Queen-
Began to gall the knighthood, asking whence
Had Arthur right to bind them to himself?
Dropt down from heaven? wash'd up from out the deep?
They fail'd to trace him thro' the flesh and blood
Of our old kings. Whence then? a doubtful lord
To bind them by inviolable vows,
Which flesh and blood perforce would violate;
For feel this arm of mine-the tide within
Red with free chase and heather-scented air,
Pulsing full man. Can Arthur make me pure
As any maiden child? lock up my tongue
From uttering freely what I freely hear?
Bind me to one? The wide world laughs at it.
And worldling of the world am I, and know
The ptarmigan that whitens ere his hour
Woos his own end; we are not angels here
Nor shall be. Vows-I am woodman of the woods,
And hear the garnet-headed yaffingale
Mock them-my soul, we love but while we may;
And therefore is my love so large for thee,
Seeing it is not bounded save by love.
And finally, as a counterpart to the Tournament of the Dead Innocence, there is Arthur's sally against the Red Knight when his newly-sworn followers behave in a manner indistinguishable from that of the enemy for brute ferocity and abandonment to evil passions.
Throughout the greater part of the Idylls of the King Arthur is kept in the background, as if, in allowing his influence to be exerted indirectly, Tennyson had wished to explore alternative modes of behavior inspired by attraction to or repulsion from his example. Now in "Guinevere" and "The Passing of Arthur" the King moves into the forefront of the [57/58] action that we may judge the reality of his personal dream as a way of life. By modern standards Arthur's treatment of the Queen may seem unendurably self-righteous; but this must not be allowed to close the reader's eyes to the King's discovery that, however wronged, he is still a man in love. Guinevere's betrayal has broken his heart and so tarnished his faith in the governing ideal of his life. No longer sustained by belief in the heavenly ratification of his mission, his mind is torn between vague and futile surmises. Either God is absent from the universe, or else mortal perceptions cannot fathom His purposes:
... for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
Or else as if the world were wholly fair,
But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,
And have not power to see it as it is —
Perchance, because we see not to the close;
For I, being simple, thought to work His will,
And have but stricken with the sword in vain,
And, all whereon I leand in wife and friend
Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm
Reels back into the beast, and is no more.
The altogether human suffering inflicted by the Queen has condemned Arthur, like so many of his subjects, to walk the shadow line between seeming and reality:
Thro' this blind haze which, ever since I saw
One lying in the dust at Almesbury,
Hath folded in the passes of the world.
Gawain visits the King in dream; and his lament, "Hollow, hollow all delight," is a final comment on the life of the senses. But what is there to say for Arthur's vision after "that battle in the west/ Where all of high and holy dies away?" The ruined chancel with its broken cross, symbolizing the undoing of Christianity, to which Bedivere bears the dying Arthur would seem to negate the withdrawal of Guinevere, Lancelot, and Percivale to an existence of religious seclusion. [58/89]
Surely the return of Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake signifies that the time for heroic action has passed. One may well sympathize with Bedivere's sense of desolation as he watches the outward voyage of the funeral barge. If Camelot is a nobler vision of the Palace of Art, then the "island-valley of Avilion" becomes at one further remove a symbol of total alienation. And for all Tennyson's pious tribute in the Epilogue to Victoria's "crown'd Republic's crowning commonsense," the final impression left by the poem is one of tragic incompatibility between the life of the imagination and the ways of the world.
Last modified 27 July 2015