lthough Swinburne himself considered Tristram of Lyonesse his masterwork, this medievalist poetic embodiment of his mature system of beliefs has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves from both readers and critics.1 Difficulties with Swinburne's long Arthurian poem have resulted from its philosophical, prosodic, and even grammatical complexities. But a more basic and surprising obstacle to appreciating the poem seems to arise from its formal peculiarities. Unlike most epic poems, this one appears more lyrical than narrative. In fact, many of its special felicities are due to this typically Swinburnean, antitraditional aspect of the work.
Readers seem perpetually unable to define exactly what kind of poem Tristram is, and they attempt to evaluate it solely in terms of its adherence to the prerequisites of narrative poetry — an imaginative failure on the part of Swinburne's critics that John D. Rosenberg has noted (xii-xiii). Often the best critic of his own work, Swinburne himself did not attempt to classify his magnum opus in [97/98] conventional terms. Rather, while working on the "Prelude" in December of 1869, he designated the projected poem a "moral history" (Letters, II, 78). Later, with Tristram nearly completed, Swinburne explained to Burne-Jones that he had tried to write merely a "harmonious narrative" with "as little manipulation as was possible of the different versions of the story" (Letters, IV, 287). But Swinburne's definitive statement on the work appears in the Dedicatory Epistle to the 1904 edition of his poems:
My aim was simply to present that story, not diluted and debased as it had been in our own time by other hands, but undefaced by improvement and undeformed by transformation, as it was known to the age of Dante wherever the chronicles of romance found hearing, from Ercildoune to Florence: and not in the epic or romantic form of sustained or continuous narrative, but mainly through a succession of dramatic scenes or pictures with descriptive settings or backgrounds: the scenes being of the simplest construction, dialogue or monologue, without so much as the classically permissible intervention of a third or fourth person. [Poems, 1, xvii-xviii]
In spite of Swinburne's explicit emphasis here on the dramatic and lyrical elements of his poem, critics until recently have been unyielding in their refusal to read the work on its own terms. Edmund Gosse insists upon its "total want of energy" as a narrative. There are, he rather inaccurately asserts, "no exploits, no feats of arms; the reader, avid for action, is put off with pages upon pages of amorous hyperbolic conversation between lovers, who howl in melodious couplets to the accompaniment of winds and waves." In his summary view of the work, Gosse castigates Swinburne for producing a long poem, interminably monotonous because of the "strain and effort to make every passage a purple one" (Bonchurch, XIX, 240). Most commentators have merely relied and expanded upon Gosse's wrongheaded critique.3
Although Tristram does not adhere strictly to the conventional criteria for narrative and epic poetry by which early critics evaluated it, and in spite of Swinburne's own disclaimers, his highly wrought masterwork is indeed a species of epic, and as such it is an undeniably [98/99] successful and unified tour de force. Not indeed merely a "sustained or continuous narrative," the poem is formally a complex hybrid, one that brilliantly synthesizes many narrative and dramatic elements of the traditional epic, as well as Romantic lyrical and visionary elements. In addition, its formal and philosophical accomplishment result in part of from Swinburne's use of various conventions of courtly love romance and troubadour poetry. Attention to the form as well as the literary and philosophical backgrounds of the poem can provide readers with at least a familiar context in which to approach what is one of Swinburne's greatest achievements and perhaps the most magnificent and truly cohesive "epic" poem of the Victorian age.
That Kerry McSweeney and John Reed have convincingly discussed the structural and thematic integrity of Tristram, as well as many of the techniques used to achieve it, attests to the effective artistry of Swinburne's works after 1860.(McSweeney, "Structure," 691-702; Reed, "Swinburne's Tristram," 101.) As a self-conscious craftsman, he was incapable of producing a merely episodic rhapsody during his mature period. It is not surprising, then, that Tristram does contain numerous qualities that unequivocally define its atmosphere, intent, and final effect as genuinely epic: it begins in medias res; an elevated tone dominates the narrative; Swinburne's Tristram and Iseult of Ireland are of epic stature, as is Brittanic Iseult when she becomes Tristram's demonic adversary; many of the verbal devices Swinburne employs are characteristic of the classical epics; and the subject of his narrative is represented as of supreme metaphysical importance.
Tristram is an epic, however, that could have been written only with the formal developments initiated by the Romantic poets well in mind. Karl Kroeber goes far in defining the nature of Swinburne's formal accomplishment in Tristram when he describes in general terms the kind of narrative form introduced and sanctioned by the Romantics. Kroeber, like Thomas Vogler after him, terms their use of story "visionary (rather than realistic)" and explains that "in many Romantic poetic tales the naturalistic function of story is minimized or dropped altogether and narrative is employed as a means of expressing a philosophic position, a moral attitude, or a vision of what the poet believes to be genuine reality, a reality which transcends naturalistic appearance." [99/100] In Swinburne's "moral history," narrative functions in all these ways. In contrast to Homer, Virgil, Dante, or Spenser, emphasis is not on action, but on expository metaphysical valuation of event and pure lyrical expression within a narrative framework. With Swinburne, as with the Romantic poets, "story is the realization of value. Narrative tension springs not from naturalistic suspense but from the . . . emergence of a system of precious truth, profound insight." (Karl Kroeber, Romantic Narrative Art (Madison, 1960), 76, 77.)
Swinburne's Tristram is, however, considerably more than a visionary poem that extends Romantic narrative innovations. All Swinburne's works invoke specific literary traditions, and, to a far greater extent even than most major poets, Swinburne was a superb parodist. His undergraduate lyrics, for example, are remarkable adaptations of the idiom of William Morris. In Erechtheus he produces the most starkly brilliant Aeschylean imitation in English. Even his ponderous closest dramas are extraordinary for their fidelity to the form and technique of his favorite Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. As we might expect, then, Tristram of Lyonesse is a self-consciously epic poem that simultaneously parodies epic tradition and tries to transcend traditional constraints. The poet strives for a formally (and thematically) original work that supersedes its models. Of course, Swinburne is by no means unique in literary history for his attempt. Brian Wilkie in Romantic Poets and Epic Tradition convincingly points out that
like the Old Testament prophets, the great poets of the literary epic have always shown . . . both a dedication to the past and a desire to reject or transcend it. No great poet has ever written an epic without radically transforming it or giving to it new dimensions, and often that intention is explicitly declared.... The poets observe the fine print in the letter of the law as markedly as they vaunt their independence in the larger matters of subject and heroic theme. [11-13]
For Swinburne "the anxiety of influence" presented a challenge. In a Blakean spirit, he did not wish his masterwork to be bound by generic definition. Wilkie explains that "the epic poet seldom states generic rules or delimits formal critical categories . . . for the epic poet must use or implicitly claim to use an old form, a tradition that everyone[100/101] already understands, so that the new values he preaches will stand out the more boldly." (25). Swinburne was content with his own ironic designation of Tristram of Lyonesse as a "moral history" because the poem's importance to him depended upon the truths self-consciously espoused and the unorthodox values defiantly embodied in it. In large part, these values represent a literal adaptation, a naturalized and sensualized version of the conventions that dominate medieval love poetry and romance. Indeed, Tristram can be viewed as an epic transposition of the troubadour love lyric.
In writing Tristram of Lyonesse, Swinburne found the perfect opportunity for a complete formulation of the unique synthesis of passion, pantheism, and the courtly love ethos upon which his most important philosophical intuitions were primarily founded. At the same time, however, he felt that the myth needed to be restored to something like its original integrity. Arnold's version (1852) and Tennyson's version (1871) had merely appropriated the legend, ignoring what Swinburne took to be the whole significance of the original myth. To R. H. Horne he wrote on February 13, 1882,
I am working just now as hard as ever I worked towards the completion of a poem in nine parts on the story of Tristram, which is and was always in my eyes the loveliest of mediaeval legends. I do not forget that two eminent contemporaries have been before me in the field, but Arnold has transformed and recast the old legend, and Tennyson-as usual, if I may be permitted to say so-has degraded and debased it. [Letters, IV, 260].
He suggests the purpose of his own projected poem (and provides a damning critique of Tennyson) in an earlier (1869) letter to Burne-Jones:
I want my version to be based on notorious facts, and to be acceptable for its orthodoxy and fidelity to the dear old story [and, one might add, its antagonism to current orthodoxies]: so that Tristram may not be mistaken for his late Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, or Iseult for Queen Charlotte, or Palomydes for Mr. Gladstone. I shan't of course include-much less tell at length, saga-fashion — a tithe of the various incidents given in the different old versions; but I want to have in everything pretty that is of any importance, and is in keeping with the tone and spirit of the story — not burlesque or dissonant or inconsistent. The thought of your painting and [101/102] Wagner's music ought to abash but does stimulate me: but my only chance I am aware will be to adhere strongly to Fact and Reality — to shun fiction as perilously akin to lying, and make this piece of sung or spoken History a genuine bit of earnest work in these dim times. Ahem. [Letters, II, 51]
The parody of Carlyle here has a double thrust, because this particular "fiction" for Swinburne is something that must be neither transformed nor debased. Like his formulation of the Tannhäuser myth, his rendering of the Tristram legend must be a supreme Reality, a metaphysical one. Tennyson's debasement of the essential truth of the legend constituted for Swinburne the same kind of anathema that Sham and Lying always represented for Carlyle. Although Swinburne emphasizes fidelity to "the dear old story" in describing his intent in Tristram, he is clearly concerned with preserving the philosophical precepts he saw embodied in this legend that had deeply moved him since early childhood (Letters, III, 332). At least eight centuries of sustained popularity surely seemed for Swinburne adequate validation of the spiritual truths underlying the Tristram myth and sufficient reason for adapting and designating it as the subject for "the very topstone of his poetical monument" (Bonchurch, XIX, 239).
The epic dimensions of Tristram become clearer from a brief survey of its use of traditional epic devices. Typical are the thematic repetitions and parallelisms already discussed by John Reed and Kerry McSweeney, but just as important is the strategic use of epic similes to transfigure the central characters. The poem's "Prelude" insistently sets the philosophical tone for the rest of the poem and defines the heroic stature of its two ideal lovers. Their story is no merely entertaining tale, but, like the legends of the other lovers cited in the "Prelude," one whose pattern has profound significance for our own lives.(For the best available discussion of the "Prelude," see McGann, Swinburne, 138-41.) In the symbolism of the poem, sun and light represent the irrepressible impulse of Love that governs all people who are totally receptive to the forces of life and therefore in harmony with nature. To the extent that they are always "subject to the sun," these two lovers are "sphery signs" for living generations, just as many of Dante's figures[102/103] and Spenser's exempla were intended to be. As such, Tristram and Iseult are frequently exalted, characterized in elevated terms with epic similes.
This is inevitably the case with the descriptions of Tristram's martial exploits. When Tristram assaults Iseult's kidnapper, Palamede, as he flees with Iseult from King Mark, the tumult of the two knights' encounter appears
As when a bright north-easter, great of heart,
Scattering the strengths of squadrons, hurls apart
Ship from ship labouring violently, in such toil
As earns but ruin. [Poems, IV, 47]
Later, after bloody and energetic battle with Mark's noblemen, Tristram is backed onto a pinnacle above the sea where, as he prepares to dive, his excitement culminates in a Hopkinsian intuition of a bird's love of its element:
And as the sea-gull hovers high, and turns
With eyes wherein the keen heart glittering yearns
Down toward the sweet green sea whereon the broad noon burns,
And suddenly, soul-stricken with delight,
Drops and the glad wave gladdens, and the light
Sees wing and wave confuse their fluttering white,
So Tristram one brief breathing-space apart
Hung, and gazed down. [Poems, IV, 71]
Emphasis on Tristram's heroism in the poem is reinforced not only by his chivalric accomplishments but also by such descriptions as this one, which demonstrate through the use of epic similes his harmony with the passionately receptive spirit of natural objects. His epic stature is further defined by his explicit association with other epic heroes. In "The Last Pilgrimage," for example, Tristram, on the morning of his last battle, is about to consummate his communion with nature by once again plunging into the sea. He stands at its edge,
Naked, and godlike of his mould as he
Whose swift foot's sound shook all the towers of Troy,
So clothed with might, so girt upon with joy
As, ere the knife had shorn to feed the fire
His glorious hair before the unkindled pyre
Whereon the half of his great heart was laid,[103/104]
Stood, in the light of his live limbs arrayed,
Child of heroic earth and heavenly sea,
The flower of all men: scarce less bright than he,
If any of all men latter-born might stand,
Stood Tristram, silent, on the glimmering strand. [Poems, IV, 127]
Like Tristram, Iseult of Brittany, his fatal antagonist, is the object of careful characterization in the poem. If she is to be worthy of her role as an instrument of Fate, this Iseult must be represented first as attractive and innocuous, but as a developing and finally implacable threat to the lovers. Only the crucial stage in her development is depicted at length by Swinburne, and that stage is portrayed in "The Wife's Vigil," primarily a long soliloquy parallel to the forceful monologue of Irish Iseult in "Iseult at Tintagel." Ironically, the soliloquy of Iseult of the White Hands is simultaneous with Tristram and Irish Iseult's last described moments at Joyous Gard, where they enjoy a rapturous sunset communion that includes observations on the fated tragedy of Arthur, Guenevere, and Morgause, as well as ominous speculations on death. "The Wife's Vigil" represents Brittanic Iseult's single night of "passion." Her monologue is adequately prepared for by a narrative introduction that associates her with the natural forces of darkness that are fated to overpower the forces of light. Swinburne's exact observations of nature are reflected here in the description of darkness ascending from the depths of earth toward heaven, an apt simile for the birth of evil from within Iseult:
As darkness from deep valleys void and bleak
Climbs till it clothe with night the sunniest peak
Where only of all a mystic mountain-land
Day seems to cling yet with a trembling hand
And yielding heart reluctant to recede,
So, till her soul was clothed with night indeed,
Rose the slow cloud of envious will within
And hardening hate that held itself no sin,
Veiled heads of vision, eyes of evil gleam,,br> Dim thought on thought, and darkling dream on dream. [Poems, IV, 106]
Here, Brittanic Iseult's metamorphosis is accomplished in simple natural images that contain moral resonances gathered as the poem has progressed. This extended simile endows Iseult with the epic qualities needed to make her fatality to Tristram plausible, and it provides a[104/105] clear, but not facile, counterpoint to the light imagery with which Tristram and Irish Iseult are consistently described and ennobled.
Indeed, the introductory description of Irish Iseult that opens "The Sailing of the Swallow" dazzles us with images of her radiance. She possesses "bright flesh" that appears to be made of "light woven and moonbeam-coloured shade / More fine than moonbeams." Her "eyelids shone / As snow sun-stricken that endures the sun." Eventually, she proves a very incarnation of light, the perfect complement to Tristram, a "man born at sunrise." As light and sun images used to describe them accumulate, Iseult and Tristram develop into beings who possess the highest kind of relationship that exists between omnipotent natural forces and all men. These lovers become symbolic: they are human extensions of the natural world, at once sources and unique receptacles of radiance. On this level Swinburne represents the relationship between each lover and nature as one of reciprocal illumination. For instance, at the conclusion of their first conversation at sea, Iseult looks into the sun and its "face burned against her meeting face / Most like a lover's thrilled with great love's grace / Whose glance takes fire and gives" (Poems, IV, 25-26). Earlier, Swinburne had described her "unimaginable eyes":
As the wave's subtler emerald is pierced through
With the utmost heaven's inextricable blue,
And both are woven and molten in one sleight
Of amorous colour and implicated light
Under the golden guard and gaze of noon,
So glowed their awless amorous plenilune,
Azure and gold and ardent grey, made strange
With fiery difference and deep interchange
Inexplicable of glories multiform. [Poems, IV, 14]
In this extraordinary instance of synecdoche Iseult's eyes are symbolic of the whole complex of symbiotic relationships that characterize the natural world and without which it cannot be imagined to exist. Iseult's proportions in this epic simile become universal. Like Tristram, she is not merely in harmony with the natural world, she is indistinguishable from it. She contains elemental creation and is contained by it. And since the central power behind that creation is defined throughout the poem and especially in the "Prelude" as love[105/106] whose essence is light, Iseult is depicted as the very power of love itself, a power that is compelled to irradiate, to anoint, and to attract all things.9
Strategically placed epic similes, along with a repeated but less conspicuously epic use of images from nature, result in what might best be described as the pantheistic vision of Tristram of Lyonesse. However, other epic qualities of the poem depend largely on its courtly love elements, its stress on particular values and patterns of behavior derived from courtly literature, and its explicit setting in the legendary court of King Arthur.
The Arthurian context has a more significant function in Tristram than commentators have yet acknowledged.10 In fact, it occupies dialogue that dominates two of the three time-periods that Tristram and Iseult are able to spend freely together, their journey to Tintagel in — "The Sailing of the Swallow" and their sojourn at Joyous Gard. In these episodes they speak mostly of the Arthurian court, emphasizing the fatal passions of Arthur for his sister Morgause and of Merlin for Nimue, the enchantress. The first discussion is a prelude to their drinking the love potion, and serves much the same function as a foreboding chorus would in a Greek tragedy. Unaware of the ironic significance of their conversation for their own lives, Tristram and [106/107] Iseult openly speculate on the accidental relationship between Arthur and Morgause, whose sin, like that predestined for Tristram and Iseult, was unavoidable and fatal.
Both discussions of Arthurian matter originate from Iseult's preoccupation with two characteristic courtly concerns: "fairness," or beauty viewed from the competitive aspect, and the fidelity of her lover; see Poems, IV, 20, 97. Also note how both Iseults consistently require and are exalted by their lover's praise of their beauty (for example, Poems, IV, 65-67, 99-102), as well as the significance to them of fame. Palamede also demonstrates an adherence to courtly courtesies that we would hardly expect.) In these dialogues Iseult appears always ingenuous. She actually begins her relationship with Tristram, in Swinburne's version of the myth, by innocently suggesting a comparison of herself with Guenevere. Tristram's first words to Iseult constitute an apotheosis of her, one that has already been verified in the "Prelude" and that becomes powerfully ironic in retrospect. He praises her with conventional courtly exaggeration: "'As this day raises daylight from the dead / Might not this face the life of a dead man?'" In reply, Iseult cleverly denies any interest in her own beauty, but displays enormous concern for the beauties at Camelot she will be compared with as Mark's Queen. She tells Tristram not to " 'Praise me, but tell me there in Camelot, / Saving the queen, who hath most name of fair?' " (Poems, IV, 20). She thus initiates a discussion of Morgause and the doom presaged for Arthur and, by extension, for his knights.
This discussion explicitly formulates the visionary fatalism that characterizes the whole body of Arthurian legends and that has become inextricable from the courtly conception of love as expressed by medieval romanceurs and, very often, by the troubadours and trouvère poets. Courtly love implicitly rejects the possibility of any adequate or final consummation to passion. It requires obstruction to perpetuate its ennobling conventions of chivalric praise and virtuous service by the knight on his lady's behalf. In troubadour lyrics the passion involved is inevitably beyond gratification; it is an idealized passion. And, of course, death is exalted as the most profound consolation for the courtly lover. Thus, as I have suggested, in myths that take up the courtly themes, all true love becomes tragic by definition, and it is a natural step to represent a love situation, with all its original courtly values, as predestined to be tragic.
In Tristram of Lyonesse, as in all the major versions of this courtly legend, the presiding deity is Fate. Here that omnipotent power is the source of energy behind all generation, of all unity and diversity, change and changelessness. "The Sailing of the Swan" begins with an invocation to Fate that is comparable to passages that ritually invoke God (or the gods) in the traditional epic, and it is also suggestive of invocations to the poem's acknowledged muse, the active hand of Fate, Love. (The two major invocations to the muse of Love include, of course, the entire "Prelude" and, in the body of the poem, a passage in "Joyous Gard" where Love is addressed as an Apollonian "Lord," "Bard," and "Seer;" see Poems, IV, 92.) Unlike such invocations in earlier epics, however, the poet does not figure self-consciously in those of Tristram. The rhetoric is that of exposition rather than humility and deference:
Fate, that was born ere spirit and flesh were made,
The fire that fills man's life with light and shade;
The power beyond all godhead which puts on
All forms of multitudinous unison,
A raiment of eternal change inwrought
With shapes and hues more subtly spun than thought,
Where all things old bear fruit of all things new
And one deep chord throbs all the music through,
The chord of change unchanging, shadow and light
Inseparable as reverberate day from night;
Fate, that of all things save the soul of man
Is lord and God since body and soul began. [Poems, IV, 133]
In this poem's delineation of Swinburne's mature philosophy, Fate is analogous to the world's presiding monistic life-force, Hertha. In Tristram, before the main action begins, the discussion of Arthurian matter in "The Sailing of the Swallow" serves to suggest the two conflicting religious systems in the poem: that of orthodox Christianity, and that presided over by Fate and Love, which have inexorable power over men's lives but are always only half-perceived by men. In this iconoclastic epic, whatever suspense the stories of Arthur, Merlin, and Tristram hold for us must depend upon the gradual discrediting of orthodox religion and the realization of an ultimately benevolent visionary destiny for these legendary victims of Fate, one that is inevitable but only partially discerned by them. [108/109]
Because of its fatal implications for Tristram and Iseult, their initial discussion of the Arthurian court is full of irony. At the mention of Morgause's beauty, for instance, Iseult asks in typical courtly fashion, " 'is she more tall than I? / Look, I am tall."' Indeed, if Arthur's sister is so tall and fair, she insists, then "God" must have "'made her for a godlike sign to men.'" In response, Tristram explains at length the disconcerting significance of this "godlike sign": the prospects for Arthur's kingdom that result from his affair with Morgause. In fact, Arthur's sister is both a woman and the vehicle of destiny's self-fulfillment and self- knowledge; she reveals a "fearful forecast of men's fate" in Arthur's realm. To Tristram's explanation Iseult again reacts innocently, and her response would be comical, were it not ironic: "'The happier hap for me, I With no such face to bring men no such fate'" (Poems, IV, 21). But the entire discussion is a pedagogical experience for Iseult. When she learns what events resulted from Morgause's beauty and what they foreshadow, her faith in the orthodox deity begins to be undermined. The conversation ends with her (once again innocent and ironic) observation:
"Great pity it is and strange it seems to me
God could not do them so much right as we,
Who slay not men for witless evil done;
And these the noblest under God's glad sun
For sin they knew not he that knew shall slay,
And smite blind men for stumbling in fair day,
What good is it to God that such should die?
Shall the sun s light grow sunnier in the sky
Because their light of spirit is clean put out?" [Poems, IV, 25]
The obvious answer to Iseult's first question is that the lovers sinned and therefore should die in order to vindicate the Christian God's repressive laws. However, in terms set out by the "Prelude" and by the recurrent use of sun and light imagery, the answer to her second question is an unequivocal yes, a response that underscores one of the central motifs of the work. We are told in the "Prelude" that the sungod, Love, is fed by the fame of tragic lovers. It is "One fiery raiment with all lives inwrought / And lights of sunny and starry deed and thought" (Poems, IV, 5). Moreover, its radiance is enhanced at second hand by those who celebrate the tragedies it presides over. The orthodox God, by contrast, is discredited by the apparently unjust doom of[109/110] tragic lovers. The fate of Tristram and Iseult themselves, who commit less culpable a sin than that of Arthur and Morgause, proves finally (in "The Sailing of the Swan" ) that God is a fiction devised by men to rationalize their insipid inhibitions, their fear of opening themselves to life's primal passions.
Iseult's ingenuous questions in "The Sailing of the Swallow" suggest the opposition maintained throughout the poem between the orthodox God and the sun-god. The latter is continually and expansively defined as the poem's images of light and day accumulate. The former is characterized in appeals by the central figures, especially the two Iseults, and in an iconoclastic denunciation of God following the apostrophe to Fate near the end of the poem. There, as a prelude to Tristram's delirious monologue in which the absolute value of guiltless passion is revealed to him, the narrative describes in Blakean metaphors men's vision of God as
That sovereign shadow cast of souls that dwell
In darkness and the prison-house of hell
Whose walls are built of deadly dread, and bound
The gates thereof with dreams as iron round.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
That shade accursed and worshipped, which hath made
The soul of man that brought it forth a shade
Black as the womb of darkness, void and vain,
A throne for fear, a pasturage for pain,
Impotent, abject, clothed upon with lies. [Poems, IV, 136]
Fate in the end is a far more benevolent deity than man's God or than men can understand. It bestows death and promises no punishment for joy; rather, it assures an "undivided night" that is "More sweet to savour and more clear to sight" than life itself. Fate alone, in fact, promises the traditionally desired consummation to courtly passion: release.
Yet the poem's narrative vision, which keeps us continually conscious of this fact, is always far in advance of Tristram's and the two Iseults' limited personal vision. The most that Tristram is able to hope for on his deathbed is the gift of a courtly consolamentum to undercut the threat of God's punishment. Only Irish Iseult can cure his wound, heal him of life, and bestow a blessing that irradiates the dimness of death and transcends even the radiance of life: [110/111]
"Ay, this were
How much more than the sun and sunbright air,
How much more than the springtide, how much more
Than sweet strong sea-wind quickening wave and shore
With one divine pulse of continuous breath,
If she might kiss me with the kiss of death,
And make the light of life by death's look dim! [Poems, IV, 143]
At this moment, as at other moments of epiphany in the poem, Tristram's voice seems to merge with that of the omniscient narrator. Yet, although the narrative voice validates Tristram's sentiments here, this speech is, ironically, mere courtly rhetoric. Throughout his experiences with Iseult, he never really learns what the poem makes explicit — that his posthumous destiny will not consist in hellish torments but will be the same as that envisioned for Merlin in this work and for Meleager in Atalanta in Calydon: perfect peace in harmonious union with the elements. Thus, in spite of Tristram's more typical insistence that only "unrest hath our long love given," Fate is throughout the poem a force of goodness, a deity whose benevolence, however, is never permanently believed in by Tristram or Iseult. The fact is that the courtly ethos, literally subscribed to, defines passion as a source of pain and prevents a full vision of the inevitable and beneficial interaction of Love, Fate, and natural creation that Swinburne in his mature years intuited as fundamental to all life. The joy of passion is always mitigated (as it is in Rosamond, Atalanta in Calydon, Chastelard and "Laus Veneris" ) by fears of transience, concern for fidelity, or a sense of sin. The courtly lovers' vision is tragically limited to the sorrow that attaches to their love, but that becomes a value in itself because it is a consequence of the supreme spiritual experience.
Thus, in "The Queen's Pleasance" and "Joyous Gard" the lovers dwell in part on the dolorous aspects of their passion-its transience, its sinfulness-or the inevitability of death. Similarly, in "The Sailing of the Swallow" the vision that Morgause's passionate moments with Arthur precipitate is wholly dark. It is a vision informed by orthodox taboos rather than by natural sanctions:
"then there came
On that blind sin swift eyesight like a flame
Touching the dark to death, and made her mad
With helpless knowledge that too late forbade [111/112]
What was before the bidding: and she knew
How sore a life dead love should lead her through
To what sure end how fearful." [Poems, IV, 23]
This description, we must remember, is Tristram's and characterizes only his perception of the event. In spite of the joy that has transfigured his own sin with Iseult, he is not able to transcend the limitations of his courtly and Christian perspective, even by the time he dies. He sees in death only the perpetuation of his life's unrest and still perceives Merlin as "Exempt alone of all predestinate" (Poems, IV, 98). He is unable even to imagine the truth that Swinburne repeatedly prepares for and explicitly states at the poem's end: that the rest to which Tristram and Iseult are delivered is much the same as the "strange rest at the heart of slumberland" that occupies Merlin's spirit in Broceliande. Tristram is saved by following his passions, as Merlin is by Nimue, whose "'feet . . . move not save by love's own laws'" (Poems, IV, 100), according to Swinburne's interpretation of the myth. Tristram and Iseult instinctively perceive their passion as a supreme good, but their joy is burdened by guilt. At the end of "Joyous Gard," Iseult confesses to Tristram the destiny she desires:
"To die not of division and a heart
Rent or with sword of severance cloven apart,
But only when thou diest and only where thou art,
O thou my soul and spirit and breath to me,
O light, life, love! yea, let this only be,
That dying I may praise God who gave me thee,
Let hap what will thereafter." [Poems, IV, 102]
Despite her partial defiance of threatening Christian laws here, Iseult's devotion to passion is finally requited precisely as she wishes. She kisses Tristram just after he has died, and "their four lips" become "one silent mouth." Similarly, although at the end of her soliloquy in "Iseult at Tintagel" she rejects abstinence and disdains the hell promised by God as punishment for her sin, her final prayer for reunion with Tristram is granted. In explicit opposition to what we would expect of the orthodox God, whose efflcacy in the world the poem is at pains to disprove, the lovers are allowed a respite from sorrow at Joyous Gard.
Nonetheless, neither Iseult nor Tristram ever feels worthy of the posthumous blessing they know Merlin and Nimue have "earned." In [112/113] their discussion of death at the end of "Joyous Gard," Iseult, with only momentary belief in the possibility of her own worthiness, rhetorically asks Tristram,
"am I — nay, my lover, am I one
To take such part in heaven's enkindling sun
And in the inviolate air and sacred sea
As clothes with grace that wondrous Nimue?" [Poems, IV, 100]
But both are worthy of such an organic apotheosis because
This many a year they have served [Love], and deserved,,
If ever man might yet of all that served,
Since the first heartbeat bade the first man's knee
Bend, and his mouth take music, praising thee,
Some comfort. [Poems, IV, 92]
Indeed, Tristram and Iseult have been devoted, faithful, and long-suffering courtly lovers, examples to the world, whose sensual indulgences are vindicated by the power of the symbolic love-draught that first united them. And in typical courtly fashion, their indulgences never dissipate, but rather intensify, their passion.
In spite of the epic qualities of Tristram, Swinburne's first description of the poem as a "moral history" may be the most useful, because he believed that the Tristram legend and the courtly mythology that inspired it embody the highest laws that govern men's lives, those of Love and Fate. His primary intent was to communicate and glorify that belief. Like Carlyle, Swinburne knew that the supreme spiritual truths constantly realize themselves in history and thus in individual lives, which are governed by a unitary and presiding impulse in the world. For him, Fate was no intelligent, supernatural force, but rather a sort of natural necessity whose active essence was Love. All vital men and women succumb to its power and are tormented by the obstacles to its full consummation until death bestows fulfillment, and the greatest of these men and women function as immortal exempla for the rest of us.
As early as 1857, Swinburne appears to have perceived this philosophy intuitively. In writing Queen Yseult, he harbored an aesthetic purpose that grew and nourished him through much of his career. In the final pages of that work, Yseult, mourning Tristram, consoles herself [113/114 with the knowledge that her love "'Shall not perish though I die,'" because "'men shall praise [Tristram] dead,'" and thus, "'All my story shall be said"' (Bonchurch, I, 59). Swinburne is the perennial bestower of such praise. Long before writing Tristram, of course, Swinburne had enrolled himself in the small class of Sapphic poets devoted to preserving in song the high reality of insatiable and doomed love, whose fatality ensured that its participants' immortality would be sustained by poets like himself. Swinburne literally gives "Out of my life to make their dead life live" [Poems, IV, 12]. His relentless devotion to the stories of tragic lovers evidences his feeling of kinship with them, a kinship more strongly attested, perhaps, by the incorporation of a legend of tragic love into his own life. Swinburne's concept of the appropriate functions of great poetry, along with that sense of spiritual kinship, inspired him to treat in a unique but predominantly epic manner the greatest medieval myth of tragic love in order to preserve his intuition of the ultimate philosophical truths behind the legend. As he confides at the end of the "Prelude" to Tristram of Lyonesse,
So many and many of old have given my twain
Love and live song and honeyhearted pain,
Whose root is sweetness and whose fruit is sweet,
So many and with such joy have tracked their feet,
What should I do to follow? yet I too,
I have the heart to follow, many or few
Be the feet gone before me. [Poems, IV, 12]
The philosophical perceptions that Swinburne's epic rendering of the Tristram legend enabled him to articulate depend for their validity upon his aesthetic vision. Only the true poet, finally, has the capacity to recreate and thus transmit the profound beauty of amatory tragedies. Doing so, he provides images, in the form of "historical" examples, of that "deep truth" that Shelley — in his own epic, dramatic, philosophical poem, Prometheus Unbound — insisted was "imageless."
Created June 2000; reformatted 16 March 2015