lthough composed before the final versions of Rosamond, Chastelard, and the medievalist poems of Swinburne's 1866 volume, Queen Yseult displays, without technical sophistication, many of the same concerns that characterize these erotic and sadomasochistic poems, as well as a stronger, though also unsophisticated interest in the philosophical possibilities of medieval history and myth, especially Arthurian legend. Throughout, Queen Yseult is thematically understated and its eroticism is subdued. It nonetheless demonstrates in subtle ways the same fascination with the relations between history (as biographical legend) and art that appears in the later works. Further, there is the same preoccupation with elegiac treatments of tragic love relationships that in Poems and Ballads, First Series operate on both erotic and spiritual planes. Queen Yseult also foreshadows Swinburne's often pantheistic and libertarian philosophical concerns, as they come increasingly to dominate his lyric, elegiac, and narrative poems after 1866. As we shall see, his prophetic impulse to unveil the
Unbeheld, unadored, undivined,
The cause, the centre, the mind
The secret and sense of the earth (Poems, II, 122)
is at the heart of his poetic endeavor in the redemptive narrative tragedies of Tristram of Lyonesse and The Tale of Balen.
Swinburne's early interest in medieval French poetry and romance predictably led him to study and interpret the myth of Tristram and[79/80] Iseult. His uncle's library may well have contained manuscripts of one or more of the three major twelfth-century versions of the Tristram myth: that by Béroul, or La Folie Tristan, or Le Roman en Prose. More certainly it included Sir Walter Scott's edition of Sir Tristrem by Thomas of Ercildoune, written in the mid-twelfth century, first published in 1804, and frequently reprinted. Because of early encounters with the Tristram legend, as Gosse explains, Swinburne "from school-time onwards . . . never ceased to propose to himself the writing of an epic on the story of Tristram" (Bonchurch, XIX, 239). Early in his relationship with Morris-- who was painting the story of Tristram on the Oxford Union walls — Swinburne began writing his medieval pastiche Queen Yseult, of which he finished only six cantos. In 1859 he was at work on the theme again, composing "Joyeuse Garde," of which only a fragment remains (Jeunesse, 49). In December of 1869 he wrote the "Prelude" to the final version of Tristram of Lyonesse (Letters, II, 72-73). Over a decade later he resumed work on the epic and labored mightily to complete it by the middle of 1882. Lafourcade quite properly asserts that the composition of Queen Yseult itself was largely the result of Morris' early influence on Swinburne: "Le ler novembre 1857, Swinburne est présenté à Morris et l'entend déclamer . . . Guenevere, Blanche, et The Willow and the Red Cliff. Le 10 novembre, il est en train de composer Queen Yseult; le 16 décembre, il a terminé les six premiers chants. L'influence est, on le voit, directe et l'imitation immédiate" (Jeunesse, 40). At about that time Morris was also considering a poetic work on the Tristram legend, and the formal similarities between Swinburne's poem and Morris' medieval pastiches, as Lafourcade notes, are indisputable (Jeunesse, 40-41). Morris' enthusiasm thus seems to have rekindled a partly dormant interest and demonstrated to Swinburne that a faithful yet modern and successful recasting of the medieval legend was possible. Yet [80/81] Swinburne was also deeply familiar with Arnold's Tristram and Iseult (1852). Although the focus and apparent intent of Arnold's poem are vastly different from those of Swinburne's 1857 fragment, at least Arnold's success in transposing medieval materials for contemporary readers would have provided assurance that, despite the numerous less successful attempts in the nineteenth century to rewrite the Tristram legend, such an endeavor could be worthwhile. In his 1867 essay "Matthew Arnold's New Poems," Swinburne describes Arnold as "an old friend and teacher," whose rare Empedocles on Eina volume (1852) he had managed to acquire as a schoolboy. Swinburne especially describes Arnold's Tristram and Iseult as a "close and common friend" when he was at Eton, and he proceeds to pay this tribute to Arnold: "I cannot reckon the help and guidance in thought and work, which I owe to him as to all other real and noble artists whose influence it was my fortune to feel when most susceptible of influence, and least conscious of it, and most in want" (Bonchurch, V, 63-65).
Like Arnold, as well as Tennyson, Hardy, and Wagner, Swinburne came to perceive in the Tristram myth a profound vision of the power of passion in the world. Tennyson, whose version of the myth had been most influential among his contemporaries by 1882, had, however, employed the Tristram legend as merely one episode in a series of Arthurian legends useful to demonstrate the possibilities for moral decay in a potentially perfectible kingdom. Using Malory as a source where Swinburne used Thomas and the French romances, Tennyson perceived and interpreted the myth allegorically. Arnold also employed the myth in only limited ways, taking advantage of it to [81/82] attempt an extended character study of Brittanic Iseult. Swinburne, however, saw the Tristram legend as a prophetic and mystical archetypal illustration of the need and modes for expressing heroic men's and women's essential and perpetual condition of passion. That condition was inevitably fated to end in tragedy, but tragedy redeemed by sublime participation in a cosmic and self-fulfilling generative force organically governing history, the interactions of men and women, and the relations between men and nature. By 1869, the myth had come to illustrate for Swinburne life's most crucial informing value. It expressed in narrative form the metaphysic of Love.
Swinburne perceived in the Tristram story the workings of the highest laws that rule men's lives, the topmost of which is Fate. Like Carlyle, the poet believed that the highest "spiritual" truths inevitably realize themselves in history and thus in individual lives. Although Swinburne may not have believed in a strict form of predestination, he did see that patterns of experience perpetually repeat themselves in history. Fate is no intelligent, supernatural force but rather a sort of natural necessity whose active essence is love. All vital men and women succumb to its power and are tormented by the obstacles to its full consummation until death bestows peace and fulfillment. Such men and women are given to the world as signs of the laws that mold all lives, albeit less dramatically and intensely than their own. Swinburne was able therefore to construe the whole cycle of Arthurian romances unambiguously in terms of Greek tragedy. To him, one fundamental intuition of the dynamic forces ruling our lives operated in Greek and Celtic myth alike. Indeed, the philosophical substance of Atalanta in Calydon is in complete accord with that of Tristram and The Tale of Balen. In Under the Microscope (1872), while explaining the nature of Tennyson's mistreatment of the composite Arthurian legend, he observes,
The story as it stood of old had in it something almost of Hellenic dignity and significance; in it as in the great Greek legends we could trace from a seemingly small root of evil the birth and growth of a calamitous fate, not sent by mere malevolence of heaven, yet in its awful weight and mystery of darkness apparently out of all due retributive proportion to the careless sin [82/83] or folly of presumptuous weakness which first incurred its infliction; so that by mere hasty resistance and return of violence for violence a noble man may unwittingly bring on himself and all his house the curse denounced on parricide, by mere casual indulgence of light love and passing wantonness a hero king may unknowingly bring on himself and all his kingdom the doom imposed on incest. This presence and imminence of Ate inevitable as invisible throughout the tragic course of action [i.e., to the actors] can alone confer on such a story the proper significance and the necessary dignity. without it the action would want meaning and the passion would want nobility. [The authoritative text of this essay appears in Hyder (ed.), Swinburne Replies, 58-59.] Tristram and Iseult's accidental drinking of the love potion thus corresponds to Arthur's incestuous intercourse with Morgause. By 1869, Swinburne had realized that the former event was, superficially, the discernible cause of the tragic relationship between Tristram and Iseult and therefore the proper starting point for his epic.
Twelve years earlier, however, Swinburne had only begun to intuit the grounds of his mature understanding that artistic creation must both imitate and explicate fatal Necessity, if myth is to be presented as Truth. Nonetheless, Queen Yseult does provide an illuminating introduction to Swinburne's themes, his techniques, and his purpose in Tristram of Lyonesse. The monistic philosophy of this Romantic epic derives directly from the medievalist concerns of his early poetry, especially, of course, as they are formulated in Queen Yseult.
The poem is an incomplete rendition of the myth of Tristram and Iseult composed in irregular iambic tetrameter rhyming triplets. The same rhyme is often used for stanzas separated at irregular intervals. The diction, most frequently mono- or dissyllabic, along with the versification, contributes to the poem's atmosphere of childlike simplicity and purity, which simultaneously underscores those traits in the three central characters of the poem and counterpoints the complexity of the social, psychological, and emotional entanglements that give substance to the myth.
The six cantos of the poem rehearse the legend from the union of Roland and Blancheflour-Tristram's father and mother-to Tristram's unconsummated marriage to Yseult of Brittany. Canto one stresses the purity of each of Tristram's parents and of their love; it tersely narrates the history of their relationship, Moronde's "false" [83/84] and "base" murder of Roland in battle, Blancheflour's death in childbirth, Tristram's rearing as an orphan, and his vengeance on Moronde "when twenty years were done." It dwells at length, however, upon descriptions of the tomb Tristram raises to his parents, a "wonder" that is an aesthetic monument to the natural beauty of their love. The first canto, the longest in the sequence, concludes with Tristram's arrival in Cornwall at the court of Mark, "the king so lean and cold," who commissions Tristram to seek Yseult of Ireland as Mark's bride.
Canto two begins with a focus on Yseult's unique and devastating beauty and Tristram's resulting captivation. Like the traditional courtly lover, he wishes to die for her, suffers from a burning and breaking heart, and feels deeply unworthy of her. The canto describes the effect of Yseult's song to the crew en route to Cornwall, and Tristram and Yseult's accidentally drinking the love potion intended for her and Mark by her mother. This "little thing" generates "their great love," and the canto concludes:
Tristram had her body fair,
And her golden cornripe hair,
And her golden ring to wear. (Bonchurch, I, 31)
In canto three, with the lovers' arrival at the court of King Mark, the narrator recounts the elaborate nuptial festivities for Yseult and the king, focusing upon Tristram's song of praise for Yseult "in the sweet French tongue," upon their most difficult assignation, and upon the pain-"the fierce and bitter kisses"-of their passion before it is betrayed to Mark after a period of three years.
Canto four depicts Tristram's enforced exile from Cornwall, his sojourn at Camelot, his arrival in Brittany, and the pleasure he takes in Brittanic Yseult's company. This Yseult conceives a painful love, for Tristram, whose overheard song of praise for Irish Yseult affirms her hope that her passion is reciprocated. After Tristram undertakes a brief military expedition enhancing his fame, in canto five the wedding night takes place, and the poem dwells upon it as Tristram's Walpurgisnacht: he is tortured by his commitment to Irish Yseult, his affection for Brittanic Yseult, and his refusal to dishonor either of them or himself or his marriage vows. Canto six presents a parallel depiction of a tormented Yseult of Ireland, captive to a jealous husband while yearning for a lover she fears is dead.[84/85]
Such a summary of the poem's events and their treatment helps us to perceive the ways in which Queen Yseult serves as a very particular kind of prelude to Swinburne's visionary epic on the Tristram legend, significantly different-in its focus and its approach to confronting the problems of writing a long narrative poem-from the exemplary Romantic "preludes to vision" Thomas Vogler discusses in his book of that title. In Queen Yseult, Swinburne, unlike his Romantic predecessors, had no pretensions to writing a poem with the scope, philosophical depth, or conventional attributes of "epic." Lafourcade observes that Queen Yseult is "la clef du chef-d'oeuvre publié par Swinburne en 1882," and he justifiably admires it for "une richesse dtimagination, une force et une souplesse de technique remarkquables" ( Jeunesse, 42, 45) . But he also quite correctly insists that formally and even thematically "Queen Yseult n'test pas un fragment épique, mais, comme le disait Swinburne lui-même, une sorte de 'balladé'. Les six chants du fragment, par la clarté et la netteté de leur action, leur accent passionné et leur indépendance relative, constituent plutôt une série de poèmes Iyriques utilisant les matériaux d'un ancien roman" [Jeunesse, 48: "Queen Yseult is not an epic fragment, but, as Swinburne himself said, a sort of ballad. The six cantos of the fragment, for the lightness and clarity of their action, their passionate qualities and their relative independence, constitute rather a series of lyric poems using the material of an ancient story."].
Swinburne's treatment of his subject in 1857 nonetheless demonstrates his interest in producing a poem more complex than a simple, unembellished balladic narrative. The thematics of Queen Yseult, along with its structural and prosodic techniques, suggest a poet exploring a subject rich with potential for an "epic" commentary on fundamental aspects of the human condition: on tragic love; on the operations of a transcendent spiritual power in the world, which is associated with nature; and on the corollary powers of art to memorialize the heroic men and women-the great lovers-who are the victims but paradoxically also the beneficiaries of such a spiritual force.
In Preludes to Vision, Vogler discusses a central problem confronting authors of would-be epics, "the absence of an accepted spiritual orientation of the collective consciousness and of a shared sense of[85/86]value." As a result, "the nature of the epic challenge to man becomes that of finding rather than preserving, an acceptable collective ideology of some kind. The poet must, in Joyce's words, forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated consciousness of his race. Before a poet can do this, he must have a firm faith in the power of poetic vision as a mode of finding ultimate truths about the nature of man; he must have the highest possible estimate of the powers of the poetic imagination and complete faith in that estimate." Like his Romantic precursors, Swinburne clearly feels compelled to write poetry that is also prophecy, poetry that will correct the false or fragmented values and beliefs of his contemporaries and project — if not an immediately "acceptable collective ideology" — at least an ideology that requires his own allegiance and one that can be distilled only by means of "the highest possible estimate of the powers of the poetic imagination and complete faith in that estimate." One significant characteristic, however, that distinguishes Swinburne — and indeed all the Pre-Raphaelite poets — from their Romantic forebears as well as the other most distinguished Victorian poets is their unquestioning faith in the power and value of art and the imagination that can successfully shape it. As a result, there is in Swinburne's "prelude" to his epic version of the Tristram myth no problem of finding a subject matter, no self-searching for "firm" poetic faith and mission, and no exploration of consciousness itself and its power as a substitute for the "objective element of the earlier epics." Preludes to Vision, 9.)
In Queen Yseult, Swinburne from the beginning appears certain of his subject and its validity as an embodiment of supreme emotional, moral, spiritual, and aesthetic values. The Tristram legend for Swinburne conveys a powerfully prophetic vision of life's tragic beauty. Rather than questing, as the Romantics did, for poetic vision and an affirmation of its truth here, Swinburne, both by the example of his poem and the commentaries on art it contains, presents clear statements about the tragic inevitabilities of human passion and the invaluable role art plays in memorializing and perpetuating it.[86/87]
The first such statement appears metaphorically in canto one's lengthy descriptions of the elaborate tomb Tristram builds as a tribute to his parents, but especially in Blancheflour's "great sorrow's praise." The tomb, like Swinburne's poem, is intended to serve as a beacon to all potential lovers, acknowledging the love of Blancheflour and Roland but also glorifying their suffering:
All was graven deep and fine,
In and out, and line with line,
That all men might see it shine.
So far off it spring and shone,
Ere ten paces one had gone,
Showing all the sorrow done. (Bonchurch, I, 19)
Insisting upon the harmony between the lovers' experiences and the laws of nature, the roof of the tomb "In wrought flowers" Blancheflour's "sweet name wore,"
And in many a tender nook,
Traced soft as running brook,
Shone her face's quiet look.
Parted lips and closing eyes,
All the quiet of the skies
Fills her beauty where she lies. (Bonchurch I, 19)
And finally, "On her hair the forest crown / Lets the sliding tresses down" (Bonchurch, I, 19). Tristram's artistic memorial depicts his parents as extensions of nature, their love a reflection of its governing principles. Like the poet's elegiac tribute to Tristram's tragic love, the tomb serves as a testimonial to the fulfillment earned through suffering in love's service.
As a less formal and ritualized mode of artistic expression that exalts, generates, and perpetuates the value of passion, songs of love are sung repeatedly by the two central characters within the larger "song" of Queen Yseult. Song so naturally accompanies the impulse to love or the power to inspire love that, as in Tristram of Lyonesse itself, it becomes a virtual metaphor for love, which is here presented as the only worthwhile mode of existence. Further, as the lovers become impassioned singers, love itself becomes a form of art, and a life of tragic love becomes its own memorial, its own aesthetic as well as[87/88] erotic fulfillment. Appropriately then, Yseult of Ireland's very voice is "as a song," and en route to Cornwall, "her voice the men among / Warmed their spirits like a song." The effect of her singing is to inspire a passion that culminates in beatification: "all faces grew aflame, / And on all great glory came" (Bonchurch, I, 27). Similarly, it is Tristram's song that draws both Yseults to him. When he is singing of Irish Yseult's "great grace," she "leant to hear his song." The effect of the same song upon Brittanic Yseult is to make her love Tristram (Bonchurch, 1, 44). And the only adequate metaphor to describe the cause of his attraction to her is song. Although "In his heart he would no wrong, / . . she drew it like a song":
Some dim song at waking heard
When the tender gloom is stirr'd
With the joy of some sweet bird. (Bonchurch, I, 42)
Despite Queen Yseult's implied apotheosis of tragic love, the pure beauty that inspires it, and the art that commemorates it, this poem, in contrast to Tristram of Lyonesse, attempts primarily to recast the legend with as little artistic embellishment as possible. Queen Yseult lacks the ecstatic lyric flights as well as the ideological self-consciousness of Tristram of Lyonesse. Nor, of course, is it a complete "vision," a tightly organized, unified whole as its sequel is. The poem's six cantos nonetheless exhibit a number of virtues. Up to its abrupt ending, the fragment presents a coherent narrative, balladic in its density and its refusal to succumb to modern demands for narrative causality, transitions, and plausibility.
Unlike Tristram but like most successful ballads, Queen Yseult is a masterpiece of understatement. In canto three, for example, after being threatened with the "white steel hot" as an ordeal to test her fidelity to Mark, Yseult simply and voluntarily "bade . . . Tristram go." His banishment in most versions is enforced by Mark and in Tristram itself is transformed into an unsuccessful attempt by Mark's nobles to murder Iseult's lover. In Queen Yseult, however, we are provided with no compelling reason for Yseult's decision, and the canto ends abruptly:
So he went from her apace;
And she dwelt by Mark in place
With a trouble in her face. (Bonchurch, I, 39) [88/89]
Other instances where simple balladic devices are used for the sake of authenticity occur frequently. Matters of probability are once again ignored when, thirsting to see Irish Yseult after winning fame at the court of Arthur, Tristram inexplicably sets off for Brittany. Moreover, as in traditional ballads, characterization in this poem is often accomplished simply by the use of epithets. Mark is described repeatedly as "the king so lean and cold," and even Irish Yseult's existence nearly becomes a function of her "hair of gold," "her golden hair corn-ripe," and her "arrow-straight" hands and body.
Despite the simplicity of its balladic qualities, we do find in Queen Yseult at least three of the major narrative devices that organize Tristram: the use of repetition, retrospective narration, and parallelism. The most conspicuous use of repetition for thematic purposes occurs in Queen Yseult twice, where the Arthurian context is invoked with both its joyous and fatal implications. When first banished from Cornwall, after performing heroically "in wars," Tristram beholds Guinevere at Camelot:
All her face like light was clear
That men shook for loving fear.
And more smooth than steel or glass
All her happy forehead was,
Thro' her eyes some dream did pass. (Bonchurch, I, 40)
At the end of canto four, once again amid "the noises of his fame,"
He beheld Queen Guinevere,
All her face like light was clear.
Thro' her eyes a dream did pass,
And more smooth than steel or glass
All her happy forehead was. (Bonchurch, I, 47)
Guinevere's radiance each time reminds Tristram of his beloved and absent Yseult and is a source therefore of both joy and sorrow. In Tristram the same image, with all its fateful and visionary suggestions, is applied uniquely to Iseult. The first lengthy description of the Queen culminates with it:
Dream by dream shot through her eyes, and each
Outshone the last that lightened, and not one
Showed her such things as should be borne and done. (Poems, IV, 15) [89/90]
Retrospective narration and parallelism, which Swinburne uses to striking effect in Tristram of Lyonesse, are employed sparingly, almost hesitantly in Queen Yseult. Whereas we discover the former technique only once in the 1857 poem, Swinburne finds it a convenient device in Tristram (as Milton does in Paradise Lost) to introduce important historical information, which is merely explanatory but does not move the story forward or reinforce thematic emphases; in Tristram, see especially the beginnings of cantos one and three. Queen Yseult begins with a brief account of Tristram's birth and his later fame as a "good knight" who had "many happy wars" (Bonchurch, I, 9) . Almost immediately, however, the narrative enters into a lengthy explanation of the circumstances surrounding Tristram's birth, "For long since Queen Blancheflour / Took a knight to paramour." Several pages of the first canto are taken up with descriptions of Blanchefiour's devotion to Roland; these include soliloquies that, like Irish Yseult's at the end of canto six, justify her love or explain her delirious flight after Roland's death into a "forest fair" to give birth to Tristram in "great anguish." This formal introduction of the poem's hero followed by so detailed a retrospective narration constitutes one of the very few intrusions of modern technique into Queen Yseult's usually straightforward "ballade" form.
A major instance of parallelism, as distinct from repetition, occurs only once in this poem, though, as Kerry McSweeney points out, it is a basic organizing principle in Tristram. He cites the most important instances there as "the matching invocations to Love and Fate which open and close the poem; the contrast . . . between Iseult of Ireland's vigil in Book V, where she prays for Tristram's safety, and the vigil of the other Iseult in Book VII, during which she demands of God that Tristram be damned eternally; and the two carefully contrasted episodes (in Books II and VI) during which Tristram and his Iseult are united, which nicely balance the rising and falling halves of the poem. Finally, twice during the poem Tristram dives . . . into the sea." (McSweeney, 691). By comparison, the 1857 poem's parallel between Tristram's and Irish Yseult's seaside vigils in cantos five and six seems obtrusive. On his bridal night with Brittanic Yseult, Tristram, avoiding the temptation[90/91] to consummate his marriage, moves away from his new wife, "Purer than the naked snow,"
And he bowed his body fair
Down athwart the window there,
Weeping for the golden hair. (Bonchurch, I, 53)
In a parallel scene immediately after this one, Irish Yseult lies in bed beside Mark, convincing herself that Tristram is dead, because she has heard nothing from him since his banishment. As Tristam had prayed to be faithful for the sake of Yseult's fame, Yseult articulates a more general "praise and prayer for Tristram dead" (Bonchurch, I, 56). Like Tristram, she moves away from her spouse. Then in preparation for a languidly erotic scene of bitter prayer, Swinburne inserts one of the poem's few really sensual passages:
No one saw her girdle slip,
Saw her loosen it to weep,
Thinking how he touched her lip.
Heavily her robe sank white,
Heavily her hair sank bright,
Rustling down in the dead night.
And her breast was loosened so
From the hunger of its woe,
When the samite rustled low. (Bonchurch, I, 56)
Then, facing the "white lines of the sea" as Tristram had,
Down athwart the window bright
Leant she into the dead light,
wept for Tristram the good knight. (Bonchurch, 1,57)
The exact verbal parallel in the scenes is reinforced by the repetition of the archaism athwart.
It is worth dwelling on this simple instance of parallelism because it is one of the several techniques in Queen Yseult upon which Swinburne by 1882 is able to improve enormously. He develops it into a fundamental organizing device for his epic poem. Swinburne thus by no means forgot his early works in the composition of his later ones. But neither do his poems reflect the "arrested development" that has repeatedly been insisted upon by critics. Although every important talent and interest of Swinburne's may be present in the poems before 1869, the poet never complacently assumed he had perfected his art.[91/92] His formal innovations make the contrast between his later and earlier styles fascinating, especially in light of his ability to adapt old materials to profoundly more sophisticated purposes. He does so when he ends "The Maiden Marriage" in Tristram with precisely the same image used to conclude canto five of Queen Yseult, but in a context that expands its thematic importance and its pictorial echoes to an extent undreamed of in the ingenuous verse of Queen Yseult. Canto five ends:
So from evening till the day
At her side in love he lay
Slept no child as pure as they.
So her love had all it would
All night sleeping as she could,
Sleeping in her maidenhood. (Bonchurch, 1,53-54)
The realism and the complexities of prosody and characterization in the parallel passage from Tristram are much greater. Despite the nearly exact borrowing of the concluding rhymes, the 1882 version fully reveals the distance between apprentice work and the product of mature genius:
He kissed her maiden mouth and blameless brow,
Once, and again his heart within him sighed;
But all his young blood's yearning toward his bride,
How hard soe'er it held his life awake
For passion, and sweet nature's unforbidden sake,
And will that strove unwillingly with will it might not break,
Fell silent as a wind abashed, whose breath
Dies out of heaven, suddenly done to death,
When in between them on the dumb dusk air
Floated the bright shade of a face more fair
Then hers that hard beside him shrank and smiled
And wist of all no more than might a child.
So had she all her heart's will, all she would,
For love's sake that sufficed her, glad and good,
All night safe sleeping in her maidenhood. (Poems, IV, 74-75)
This passage, like many from Tristram, employs a number of thematically loaded images that are used throughout the poem and that gain resonance with each use. In fact, John Reed convincingly argues that Tristram's success is largely a function of Swinburne's deft use of recurrent words and of such images as "motifs" that "establish [its][92/93] structural and atmospheric unity." (Reed, "Swinburne's Tristram," 100.) The quoted passage invokes the themes of will, passion, and transience, as well as complex natural and philosophical associations already established in the poem for such images as "wind abashed," "dumb dusk," and "bright shade."
Such sophisticated use of imagery, which continued in Swinburne's late poetry, extends the typically Pre-Raphaelite use of ostensibly nonessential detail. Such detail dominates Queen Yseult and many of Swinburne's other early poems. Rossetti has become notorious for his use of ornamental imagery, and Swinburne's early work imitates Rossetti's practice (see Mcgann). Yseult's seductive disrobing while praying and weeping for Tristram is one example. There are others in Queen Yseult. Sometimes gratuitous details are clearly added to fill out the meter of the tercets, as at Tristram's birth when Blancheflour "fain had suckled him, / There beneath the lindens dim / Round a fountain's weedy brim" (Bonchurch, I, 11) . Weedy in the context might have all sorts of useful implications, but none of them is developed in the rest of the poem. In a similar manner, imagery with potentially significant but undeveloped religious overtones is occasionally used to describe Blancheflour and Irish Yseult. After Tristram's birth, his mother is discovered, "Very beautiful and dead / In the lilies white and red"; and Yseult in various phases of anguish repeatedly appears more pallid "than a lily dead with dew." Even Tristram's behavior has explicit, but again unexplored, religious suggestions. For instance, when Tristram returns to reclaim his father's country, Swinburne invokes the trinity for no conspicuous reason:
When he came to Ermonie,
Bare upon the earth bowed he,
Kissed the earth with kisses three. (Bonchurch, I, 15)
Other passages similarly rich with detail seem purely decorative.
Yet Queen Yseult does contain intimations of Swinburne's later, more consistently significant use of imagery. Irish Yseult's golden hair and her brightness twice associated with that of Guinevere are suggestive of the life-giving properties of the sun. The obtrusiveness of that [93/94] image is retained in Tristram, where her hair is first described as a "golden sunrise." Here the condition of Yseult's brightness serves consistently as a sign either of her own or of Tristram's spiritual condition. That she looms on Tristram's wedding night above his bride-bed as a "bright shade" suggests the perfect balance in the myth between the joy and sorrow Yseult brings to Tristram's life. In the poem's final lines, thinking of Tristram dead, Yseult becomes pale as a "lily dead." She merely endures in a state of phlegmatic mournfulness, "gazing through the gloom." Antithetical image patterns are also used to define Brittanic Yseult's harmful potential, especially the repeated contrast of her celebrated whiteness and the dark objects that surround her. She lives in a "great grey castle" located by "ranges of black stone." And on her wedding night she significantly uses a "comb of jet and pearl."
The consistent and successful use of such imagery is, of course, characteristic of any good poet, but it is present in Queen Yseult alongside a plethora of inconsequential detail that reflects the Pre-Raphaelite influence. In combination with Swinburne's persistent use of repetitions and epithets, however, this use of imagery also reflects a potential for the kind of stylistic development we see realized in Tristram. There, as Reed has observed, repetitions of both theme and imagery serve to reveal developing character; to foreshadow events and imbue them with specific value; and to indicate the ubiquitous presence of governing metaphysical realities. Reed sees the complex use of repeated metaphors as important to define the philosophical touchstones of Swinburne's epic. (Reed, "Swinburne's Tristram," 104.) The metaphysics of Tristram are, of course, explicit, whereas Swinburne does not attempt to make Queen Yseult an overtly philosophical poem. In fact, he does nothing even to undermine the poem's authenticating background of religious orthodoxy. If we can detect a system of belief to which the narrative subscribes, beyond its insistence upon the supreme value of art and "song" to exalt human passion, it appears in the literary heritage of medieval romance and the courtly lore that dominate the poem and that subtend the action of Tristram itself, not obtrusively as in Rosamond and Chastelard, but as a donn´e of the myth.
Blancheflour both represents and articulates the governing courtly[94/95] ethos of Queen Yseult at its very beginning, when she describes her union with Roland:
"Lo!" she said, "I lady free
Took this man for lord of me
Where the crowned saints might see.
"And I will not bid him go,
Not for joyance nor for woe,
Till my very love he know." (Bonchurch, 1, 10)
The story of Roland and Blancheflour is a courtly tragedy in its own right, whose active principles are beauty, fidelity, stoical endurance, and heroism in the service of love. Roland, in protecting his kingdom of Ermonie, is, in fact, "Slain for Blancheflour the sweet." The tragedy of her son Tristram, as Swinburne saw it in 1857, was an extension of this tragedy, but with more numerous and attractive complications and therefore of larger proportions. What fascinates Swinburne about the Tristram myth, finally, is that in it courtly convention is transformed into tragic reality in highly lyrical fashion. It prophetically embodies essential truths about love and its beneficient as well as disastrous causes and consequences, and it demonstrates the potential of song to reveal such high truths. In the myth, fame is one consequence of love, and it is achieved by means of the sort of battle and adventure Swinburne delighted in, becoming for the knight what beauty is for his lady, demonstrating his worthiness to be loved, reinforcing a passion in progress, and consoling the knight in times of distress or physical deprivation. In order to prove himself worthy of Brittanic Yseult, for instance, Tristram must leave her and find an opportunity to display valor. As a result, "great praise he won," and "all men spake him fair for the wondrous name he bare" (Bonchurch, I, 47). Ultimately, it is fame of this sort, the fame that accrues from what each lover endures for the sake of passion, that establishes the immortality of the Tristram myth and of any courtly lover. Irish Yseult in the poem's last pages is described as having borne "for very love . . . Things no woman knew before, / And would bear for evermore" (Bonchurch, I, 59)
Indeed, in order to avoid footprints in the snow that would betray the lovers, Yseult in this early version has quite literally borne Tristram on her back to her chamber so that they might indulge their passion. Swinburne here devises a new version of the episode (from Thomas) in which a trap is laid. Flour is sprinkled on the chamber floor to evidence Tristram's entry and departure. Here snow serves the same function, and Tristram (Bonchurch, 1, 35-36) is, in fact, reluctant to meet Yseult for fear that the snow will betray him.
Queen Yseult is the focus of this poem (as Tris-[95/96] tram is of the 1882 version) because she is represented as having endured the greater sorrow for Tristram's sake and as having been the first cause of Tristram's passion. In Tristram of Lyonesse the hero himself is represented as the activator of passionate impulses and, thus, the extension of perennially generative life-forces. He is compared to the sun, and his radiance brings the passions of the two Yseults to blossom. As a result of love's power over them, in the later work all three of the major figures suffer enormously. In the last pages of the 1857 poem Yseult's soliloquy expressing her suffering and her hope for the supreme blessing of fame is really a prelude to the "Prelude" of Tristram of Lyonesse, for the mature poet's epic takes up the story where the journeyman poet had put it down.
Last modified 15 July 2002;
Thanks to Deborah Hyland for reporting some scanning errors.