“Balin and Balan“
“Geraint and Enid” shows the limits of hope in an ironic world. With “Balin and Balan” the hope has disappeared, and the rest of the Idyllstraces the decay of Arthur's comic society and the resurgence of that bestial irony which had reigned before Camelot. The middle four idylls — “Balin and Balan,” “Merlin and Vivien,” “Lancelot and Elaine,” and “The Holy Grail” — demonstrate how comic expectations are foiled by an ironic actuality. These idylls presage the fall of Camelot and offer, by the way, preliminary analyses of the reasons for that fall. Hopeful values are still widespread in these idylls, in the sense that many characters still hold to them. But the values themselves seem progressively less in accord with reality, and the comic assumptions seem more and more to be illusions. Fewer and fewer people cleave to Arthur until, by the time of “The Last Tournament” in the next section, the prevailing temper is cynicism. Only Arthur and the fool still believe. Comedy is still present, at least on the periphery of the four idylls in the center of the poem, but its vital life is gone.
The first poem in this section, “Balin and Balan,” is by far the least popular poem of the Idylls; Valerie Pitt, for instance, dismisses it as an “abominable wreckage” of Malory's story (Pitt, p. 188). Only J. M. Gray makes a successful attempt to come to grips with the poem's details, and does so in such a way as to make us recognize the full [177/178] coherence that it is very easy to miss (Gray, Doppelgänger; Gray, Fact, Form and Fiction). Despite a heavy, sometimes overinsistent allegorical framework, “Balin and Balan” works very well as an inversion of many of the principal themes and values of the Geraint-Enid books. The central theme in all three poems is repentance, but in “Balin and Balan” it is repentance gone wrong. The first ironic poem traces a dual failure, a failure within and without. It shows the inability of man to find genuine renewal and rehabilitation. Both Balin and Geraint retreat into the wilderness of their own selves. Both annihilate the beast within; but for Geraint that death is preliminary to a new and purified life, for Balin it is final. Balin parodies the comic recreation of self.
The tale follows the same pattern as Geraint's, except that none of the consequences hold, none of the lovely comic solutions arrive. Arthur's playful overthrowing of Balin and Balan should result in the same humility and reformation that works with Edyrn. Arthur obviously thinks it will, for he invokes the same moral:
Rise, my true knight. As children learn, be thou
Wiser for falling. [ll. 72-73]
The court prepares to welcome Balin as “The Lost one Found” (l. 78); all nature joins in the festivity: “With joy that blazed itself in woodland wealth / Of leaf, and gayest garlandage of flowers” (ll. 79-80).
Balin, like Edyrn, is, or should be, taught and subdued by gentleness and courtesy. As a result of this training he should learn the control and patience that come from recognizing the ultimate harmony of things: “all the world / Made music, and he felt his being move / In music with his Order, and the King” (ll. 206-08). He has “fought / Hard with himself, and seemed at length in peace” (ll. 233-34). By force of will, it appears, he has mastered circumstances and overcome his own animalism and egocentricity. This is exactly the point of Enid's lovely song on the irrelevance of Fortune and all external circumstances; it is really the point of the Geraint-Enid idylls. But in “Balin and Balan” external and trivial circumstances finally conquer the human will entirely, and the parallels are maintained only to be mocked. The emphasis on crude chance and improbable coincidence in the narration of Balin's fall may have an allegorical point, but it also functions to highlight the utter triviality of his death. [178/179]
Such a victory of mere circumstance is possible because the unity of the world is disrupted. “Balin and Balan” is a poem that deals with unnatural and fatal divisions. The most obvious form of this split, of course, is that between the two brothers, the divorce of the rational and social man from the instinctive and private one. Behind this rupture is the shadow of the rumored separation of Guinevere from Arthur, body from soul. The idyll's emphasis on lying or slander continues the important motif of the word. Creation falls apart in a lie, since a lie destroys all coherence and denies the ability of man to create a permanent order.
All this is obvious enough. But there are splits in “Geraint and Enid” too, and they are healed. The more central question in “Balin and Balan” is why the healing process will no longer work, why instinct and reason meet in mutual destruction rattler than reunification. As in “Geraint and Enid,” this is the fallen world, the world of experience. It may be morefallen, I suppose, but still, Balin's ordeal is nothing like Enid's. Enid has almost infinite stability, whereas Balin cracks hysterically when he sees Guinevere blush. “How to deal with moral outrage.” seems a reductive formulation of the poem's problem, but it is the concrete form by which the narrative handles the more general issue of how to live in a fallen and imperfect world. Enid needs only to be patient and she will emerge from the wasteland into the ordered world of Camelot. For Balin, there is no other world waiting; he sees chaos in the very heart of order. The only legitimate pattern of response — patience, courtesy, forgiveness — is unavailable to him because the ethical and moral life has been removed entirely from the practical and the instinctive.
The only alternatives Balin seems to have take him into extremes: unnatural spirituality or unnatural and cynical empiricism. The demon in the woods is not slander but revenge, the unbalanced response of an isolated hatred of injustice. The demon symbolizes all ethical discontinuity, the irrational measures man is forced to when he finds no external coherence, no just scheme to which to appeal his cause. In a chaotic world the search for justice leads to a self-destructive separation from the general scheme of things, chaotic and unjust as they may be. The demon was “driven by evil tongues / From all his fellows, lived alone, and came / To learn black magic, and to hate his kind” (ll. 122-24). He is the type of those who, searching for purity in an impure world, are forced [179/180] into indiscriminate and wild attempts to invoke order and cleanliness where none exist.
This is not a poem on extremism; it is not at all clear that Balin is wrong, and it is certainly not clear that he has any choice. It is a sad and ironic poem on the absurd disjunction of things, a disjunction that leaves man no reasonable choices. We are less likely to judge Balin, then, than to judge both the condition of the world that drives him to such wildness and the power of chance that can so easily overcome the best intentions. Thus, the poem opens not on Balin but on the ascetic Pellam, a man who, like the demon, has retired from a society he no longer feels part of He seeks for inner coherence and looks for a purity there he cannot find outside himself. Ironically paralleling Balin, the demon, and, later, Vivien and Garlon, he is the heightened and most ludicrous symbol of the mistaken reaction to a fallen world. Camelot exists on the perilous and creative balance of spirit and body, ideal and real. Pellam is the first of many who misunderstand and destroy the balance.
Balin similarly tries to defeat his own pollution, not with proper controls, which are symbolized by his absent brother, but with a perverse and extreme obsession with purity, an obsession he unluckily but naturally attaches to the queen. That is why he can be shattered by the single glance he sees exchanged between Lancelot and Guinevere. The conversation preceding that blush interestingly forecasts Balin's wild search for an answer. It also bids farewell to comedy. Lancelot calls forth an image of extreme purity much like Pellam's. He has a dream of a maiden saint and her “spiritual lily” (l. 259). She is “perfect-pure” in her absolute whiteness; “As light a flush / As hardly tints, the blossom of the quince / Would mar their charm of stainless maidenhood” (ll. 261-63). Surely this is a denial of life; so extreme a wish to preserve purity reveals its motivating fear. Guinevere's response seems not only healthier but in full accord with comedy: “Sweeter to me. . . this garden rose / Deep-hued and many-folded! sweeter still / The wild-wood hyacinth and the bloom of May” (ll. 264-66). But full acceptance is possible only in a harmonious world; Guinevere's hearty openness now is made to sound suspicious, causes her to blush, and utterly destroys Balin's faith. The ironic world's strength is brilliantly indicated by making a comic affirmation the signal of doom.
Balin immediately perceives the crack in the world: “Queen? [180/181] subject? but I see not what I see. / Damsel and lover? hear not what I hear” (ll. 276-77)-Guinevere and Arthur are sundered, sense is divorced from spirit. He has no way to accept the implications of what he has seen (or thinks he has seen, since the senses no longer connect with truth) and retain purity, even sanity. His reaction is destructive, but it is the only one possible for him. He seeks the devil, then, in order to purify himself: “To lay that devil would lay the Devil in me” (l. 296). But there is no purity and no external devil. The devil is, of course, himself, the disjoined and misanthropic idealist.
It is quite appropriate that Balin finds Pellam's castle, where he meets the two opposite but similar errors that will destroy Camelot: ascetic mysticism and skeptical empiricism. Pellam, of course, has totally denied the senses; his nephew, Garton, can ask sneeringly, “Hast thou eyes?” (l. 353) because he trusts nothing but eyes. Garton's doubts can infect Balin now because doubt, is the reigning principle in the world. The poem had begun with Pellam's refusal to pay tribute, that is, to obey the chief dictum of Camelot, which Arthur repeats again: “Man's word is God in man” (l. 9). The poem is, as Clyde deL. Ryals says, in one sense. “an exemplum on [this] text.” (Ryals, p. 181). Because the word no longer has meaning, God has disappeared, and Garton's ironic cynicism has taken over.
Balin leaves, discarding the shield with its emblem of Guinevere. This act causes his death (Balan fails to recognize him without it and attacks him by mistake), but Balin has no alternative. The shield was his one protection, but he could no longer believe in it or use it. Nor, perhaps, should he have. When he leaves it behind, however, he naturally meets Vivien, Guinevere's parody, The queen's springlike beauty and fertility become, in Vivien, wantonness and lust. Vivien sings of sun-worship, of a mindless unity of carnality and violence. Guinevere's mild conception of nature and natural objects is twisted into the dark and threatening nature. that is to dominate the rest of the Idylls. Vivien's easy lies about Lancelot and Guinevere strike the defenseless Balin immediately as valid. “It is truth” (l. 519), he says-and in a way it is. Tennyson carefully confounds lying and truth to depict the chaos of the world. Vivien's lies contain the truth, while the honorable Balan dies violating the word with a reassuring but false statement: “Foul are their lives; [181/182] foul are their lips; they lied. / Pure as our own true Mother is our Queen” (ll. 605-606). Liars tell the truth; truthful men lie.
Vivien's epitaph on the two slain brothers indicates the pointlessness and brutality of the ironic world that is in control: they “butt each other here, like brainless bulls,/ Dead for one heifer!” (ll. 568-69). But the idyll is not finally this cynical. The two brothers wake for a moment and, with “a childlike wail” (l. 585), “all at once they found the world, / Staring wild-wide” (ll. 584-85). There is a slight but fine ambiguity here: two children suddenly wake and stare at a world that is blankly staring back at them. All their innocence and trust mean nothing now; they can only promise one another a reunion in heaven, Comedy has been pushed altogether out of this world.
“Merlin and Vivien“
“Merlin and Vivien” is less dramatic, more diagnostic, less an image than an analysis of Camelot's fall. What saves the idyll from didacticism is that it is, in the end, a parody of didacticism. It pretends to find reasons for Merlin's fall but finally reduces all reasons to triviality.30. In such a world, calamities are natural; there need be no causes. Again, as in the two preceding idylls, there is a retreat into “the wild woods” (l. 202), no longer to reclaim them from the beast but to confirm the triumph of the wilderness. Merlin's defeat by Vivien signals the end of hope: the architect of Camelot and the representative of all wisdom is lost. Merlin is the artist who could once sustain the imaginative life and support the balance of the spiritual and the physical — A point discussed by Lawrence Poston III and by Fred Kaplan.. He had provided the continuity for the creative word. His fall, as F. E. L. Priestley, p. 40, points out, does not represent just the defeat of reason by passion, or even the larger victory of the senses over wisdom (Priestley's terms). True wisdom has now lost touch with the proper working of the senses and thus upsets the dynamic balance on which Camelot is built. The victory does not belong to the senses but to a perversion of the senses. [182/183]
To put it less abstractly, the victory is Vivien's, who surely provides the poem with whatever concrete narrative force it has. Whatever one may say of Vivien, she is no abstraction; she is “about the most base and repulsive person ever set forth in serious literature,” if one is to believe Swinburne, p. 408. She enters Merlin's life, just as in the last idyll she had entered Balin's, as both a symptom and a cause of disillusionment. She is the naturalistic and logical representative of pure irony, coming into the Idyllsas its chief spokesman just at the point where the poem becomes ironic. She is Arthur's antithesis, bringing her assumptions into competition with his world: “Then as Arthur in the highest / Leavened the world, so Vivien in the lowest” (ll. 138-39). She strives to dislocate Arthur's bonds, to rend body from soul. She loves to burlesque comedy, passing herself off as a champion of its values, of love and loyalty: “In Love, if Love be Love, if Love be ours, / Faith and unfaith can ne'er be equal powers: / Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all” (ll. 385-87).
Vivien is cynical here, of course, but she is deeply sincere when she speaks to Mark, invoking against Arthur's purity the awesome force of nature: “This Arthur pure! / Great Nature through the flesh herself hath made / Gives him the lie! There is no being pure” (ll. 49-50). She is the representative of the new and increasingly threatening natural world. For the most part, the Idyllsagrees with her: all of nature is on her side. Arthur is not betrayed by a single sin but by the indifferent dishonorableness of nature herself. All this does not, of course, make Arthur less heroic, rather more so, nor does it in any way reduce Vivien's vulgar and immense evil. She is an agent of death itself — “born from death was I / Among the dead and sown upon the wind” (ll. 44-45) — out to destroy all comedy and all hope.
Because she is so nearly accurate in her cynical way of explaining things, she has a frightening power that is increasingly denied the idealists. This is not to say that she understands the truth; she understands nothing. She is simply more in tune with the bestial world that is crowding back into Camelot. Tennyson uses this very combination of stupidity and unwitting perspicacity to discredit very carefully what might otherwise seem to be reasonable arguments. It is the reptilian Vivien who is made to state the best [183/184] arguments against Arthur: that he is naïve, absurdly unreal, actually at fault for his kingdom's failure, and, in the end, a fool: “Man! is he man at all, who knows and winks? / Sees what his fair bride is and does, and winks?” (ll. 779-80). She says she “Could call him the main cause of all their crime; / Yea, were he not crowned King, coward, and fool” (ll. 786-87).
This about sums up the charges that have been made against Arthur, from Swinburne to the present. By anticipating them in this way and putting them in the mouth of Vivien, Tennyson shows how crudely naturalistic the bases of these arguments usually are, how narrow and unsubtle in their relentless, cocky logic. Vivien discredits such simple rationalism and draws our attention to the enormous demands Arthur's new kingdom makes, not only on will but on intelligence. Merlin may smile at her “blind and naked Ignorance / [Which] Delivers brawling judgments, unashamed” (ll. 662-63), but it is this crude, self-assured vulgarity that is about to inherit the earth.
The poem opens with a completed picture of this absurd invasion:
A storm was coming, but the winds were still,
And in the wild woods of Broceliande,
Before an oak, so hollow, huge and old
It looked a tower of ivied masonwork,
At Merlin's feet the wily Vivien lay. [ll. 1-5]
The huge oak, the national symbol of stability and endurance that meant so much to Tennyson, is now old and hollow, lacking its firm heart and thus helpless against the impending storm. The single question posed by the idyll is “why?” Why does Merlin yield? The answer is that there is no answer. There is no adequate cause, just a series of trivial and wildly inappropriate “reasons.” Tennyson makes Vivien's words and wiles so elaborately unsubtle that it would take no wizard to see through her, much less wisdom personified.
That, of course, is the point: Merlin is never really fooled. He knows what Vivien is but yields anyway. Deliberate references to the fall of man are inserted in the tale-Merlin tells Vivien he “stirred this vice in you which ruined man / Through woman the [184/185] first hour” (ll. 360-61), for example-along with echoes from Book 9 of Paradise Lost (traced by Thomas P. Adler, pp. 1397-1403.), but these allusions only highlight the irony. Merlin does not choose “love,” (Adler, p. 1400), or Eve, certainly not uxoriousness; he simply gives in, without making any choice at all. There is no conflict of loyalties or values-all loyalties and values alike are overthrown.
In fact, Tennyson parodies these tragic and grand themes while emphasizing the grotesque irony of another allusion: the January / May theme. Merlin is originally drawn to Vivien by mere flattery and allows this physical flattery to overtake his judgment again and again. It is not his great melancholy, the foresight of Camelot's fall, that causes him to yield to her. He foresees the fall distinctly, but that vision fades in the presence of Vivien's gorgeous sexuality, which he says has “broken up my melancholy” (l. 265)“Your pretty sports,” he claims, “have brightened all again” (l. 303) — One can almost see the glinting eye, the nervous, palsied hand, the drool. Time and again, Tennyson forces the physical contrast between Merlin and Vivien on our attention: Vivien
Clung like a snake; and letting her left hand
Droop from his mighty shoulder, as a leaf,
Made her right a comb of pearl to part
The lists of such a beard as youth gone out
Had left in ashes. [ll. 240-44]
Tennyson deliberately associates the venerable sage with perhaps the least dignified of all literary archetypes in order to impress on us the ironic pointlessness of his fall. This is not only Adam being expelled from Paradise; it is also Chaucer's befuddled carpenter crashing to the ground.
These ironies are all sharpened and brought into focus at the poem's climax. Tennyson first has Vivien lose her composure and give herself away completely, revealing “How from the rosy lips of life and love, / Flashed the bare-grinning skeleton of death“' (ll. 844-45). The pure ironic principle of death-in-life stands exposed, and Merlin understands completely what Vivien is. There is no disguise now, no real deception possible. Nonetheless, Vivien wins. She merely flatters him some more and half-heartedly adopts some set postures of sexual allurement. Merlin then simply folds; he is weary: “he let his wisdom go/ For ease of heart” (ll. 890-91). [185/186]
Heaven's warning lightning strikes, but nothing can touch Merlin now; for he is caught by her sexuality: “The pale blood of the wizard at her touch / Took gayer colours, like an opal warmed” (ll. 947-48). Man loses his best hope in this act of mockery, a profanation of sexuality, of beauty, grace, and reason.
The storm that follows suggests not only the natural chaos now in control but, on the coarsest narrative level, the grotesque coupling of Merlin and Vivien. All man's wisdom is in the shape of the goat who, satiated and worn, tells Vivien the secret of the charm. The final irony is contained in Vivien's triumphant howl that she has “made his glory mine” (l. 969). She has, in fact, obliterated all glory. She can gain no fame because she has wrecked the social fabric that creates fame. She has destroyed the world and is thus captured more fully than she knows. Merlin was, as he says, the last who could read the words that could establish contact with the mysterious. He was the last who could build the comic city. All the hopefulness one might possibly see at the end of “The Passing of Arthur” cannot erase the image of Wisdom himself ludicrously betrayed by the balance he had sought to maintain, caught in eternal silence.
“Lancelot and Elaine“
“Lancelot and Elaine” just as clearly acts to cancel any hope, now or later. Comic expectations are presented here in their purest and most justifiable form, but they are flatly denied. Lancelot, by turning his back on Elaine, confirms her death and the death of Camelot. “Lancelot and Elaine” makes the same point about the dissolution of comedy as “Merlin and Vivien,” but it does so in a very different vein. Instead of emphasizing grand events and moving in the direction of generalization this idyll deliberately simplifies and concentrates entirely, almost naïvely, on the details of its narrative. “Lancelot and Elaine” is a domestic idyll, quite different in scope and manner from the poems surrounding it. One of the unique virtues of the Idylls is its ability to support the ironic vision on various levels and in various forms, showing how it controls all perspectives. It is also important that the tendency toward abstraction we see in “Merlin and Vivien” and “Balin and Balan” be balanced by a poem that is highly particularized. “Lancelot and Elaine” restores the concrete base to the symbolic motifs running through the poem. It takes the images of cosmic disjunction and refocuses them on a personal basis. “Lancelot and [186/187] Elaine” is still a poem on ironic disharmony, but it sees this disharmony in its most simple social form: personal disloyalty.
The idyll emerges from a single evocative statement in Malory: “she cast such a love unto sir Launcelot, that she could not withdraw her love, wherefore she died.” Tennyson expands the fragment into a narrative of more than fourteen hundred lines, but he does not lose the force of its simplicity, particularly the calculated naïvety of “wherefore she died.” The enormously suggestive and illogical connection between love and death is made the subject of Tennyson's irony. Once Camelot has decayed, love equals death, even when that love is directed toward the very best man of all. The poem has one major theme, betrayal, and one major direction: the search for a cause that leads only to the recognition that there is no cause, no fault. There is no one to blame, since everyone is caught in the same trap.
Least of all can Elaine be blamed. The poem is so deliberately plain that explication might be mostly a matter of pointing out the obvious but for the existence of the now popular notion that Elaine herself at least shares the responsibility for her own doom. She is, one is told, overly idealistic, naïve, consumed by fantasy, suicidal, willful, absurdly empircal.36 She thus is the victim of her own nature, as well as of Lancelot's guilty and dishonorable alliance with Guinevere. Such interpretations add other interesting ironies, but I think the Victorian critics were, in this case, more sensitive. Gladstone, for instance, called the poem “a new 'Maid's Tragedy,' ” (p. 474) and I think he is right. Elaine is as guiltless as Aspatia. She dies only because she loves.
“She lived in fantasy” (l. 27) with Lancelot's shield, of course, creating an imaginary past for him from the markings on the shield and further changing and embroidering it by “her wit” (l. 10). Fantasymay suggest illusion, but it can just as well suggest legitimate creative activity. Elaine's illusions are only that Camelot is Camelot, that Lancelot is what he appears to be, and that the word providing coherence to the world has not been broken. She is herself an artist, and she has an artist's faith in Arthur's poetic creed. [187/188]
It is also true that she was won by Lancelot's voice “before she looked” (l. 242), but a precedent for just this response had already been established and approved with Geraint. As with Geraint, Elaine falls in love not just with a sound but with the total being suggested by the voice; the voice is the impetus to imaginative re-creation, not only a legitimate but a necessary activity. Geraint hears Enid's lovely song about Fortune; Elaine hears Lancelot's noble and modest words about fellowship and courtesy. Neither Geraint nor Elaine is an empiricist; they are artists, using their senses to serve, not dominate, their imaginations. The difference between the two is that in Geraint's world sense and spirit are united, in Elaine's they are not. She sees in Lancelot's manner a unity that is not in fact there: “There brake [from Lancelot] a sudden-beaming tenderness / Of manners and of nature: and she thought / That all was nature” (ll. 326-28). Manners and nature are now severed; the courtesy that had once tamed Edyrn and by outward discipline taught him an inward peace has now become a habit unrelated to true grace. Elaine is mistaken only in assuming that there is what there most certainly should be: a unity of manners and nature. Lancelot, however, has become a dissembler.
Not that Elaine is blind to the real Lancelot. On the contrary, she has the penetrating artistic gift that enables her to see what he really is:
As when a painter, poring on a face,
Divinely through all hindrance finds the man
Behind it, and so paints him that his face,
The shape and colour of a mind and life
Lives for his children, ever at its best
And fullest. . . [ll. 330-35]
Like all artists, she gives life by perceiving full vitality. She does not falsify; she essentializes, piercing through superficialities. She does so, one notes, divinely. She shares the artistic godlike assurances that are Arthur's: the trust that man's word, in art as elsewhere, is permanent.
But it is no longer a divine world. It no longer serves to cast aside superficialities; superficialities are all that remain. Elaine, then, is miscast as a comic artist in an ironic world. That is her only fault. [188/189] The union of red and white in her favor indicates very pointedly her willingness to join body with spirit. She is not Edenic nor merely “innocent,” much less blind. She is a creature of the fallen world, prizing love over convention: “And never woman yet, since man's first fall, / Did kindlier onto man” (ll. 854-55). Like Enid, she has the virtues of experience: patience and compassion.
Elaine is contrasted to the pathetic Guinevere, who simply does not understand. At the heart of Camelot is this blank ignorance, the inability to get beyond the simplicities of naturalism. Guinevere is like a naïve critic, prattling on about “probabilities” and “believable characters.” She unwittingly repeats most of Vivien's arguments: Arthur is too remote and inhuman: “That passionate perfection, my good lord — / But who can gaze upon the Sun in heaven?” (ll. 123-24); he is at fault for “swearing men to vows impossible” (l. 130); in fact, he is the problem: “He is all fault who hath no fault at all” (l. 132). She misses her only chance to be genuinely human, throwing it away with jejune flippancy. Priestley rightly calls this "the false but comforting doctrine of the fallen" (p. 40)
Lancelot's defects are largely moral ones, but even he is presented as ironically dim. He sees that love now involves lying, but he is entirely untouched by the ironic point, being vexed only “at having lied in vain” (l. 102). He wonders how he will be able to mend the lie, “Before a King who honours his own word, / As if it were his God's” (ll. 143-44). The whole point of Arthur's pledge to Lancelot was that man's word isGod in man. It is God, not a fanciful equivalent for him. Lancelot's substitution indicates both moral and intellectual laxity. He is an honorable man, insofar as he understands honor, but he sees it only as proximate, not total, and he is therefore bound to be a breaker of words.
Tennyson carefully constructs parallels between this poem and earlier idylls in order to heighten these ironies. Lancelot retires both into the physical waste of the hermit's castle after the battle and also, periodically, “into wastes and solitudes” (l. 251) within. Also like Geraint, he is awakened from a point near death by the cry of one who loves and is faithful to him. But Enid's faithfulness is fruitful; Elaine's is arid. Lancelot is not reborn; he simply rejoins his earlier condition: “His honour rooted in dishonour stood, / And [189/190] faith unfaithful kept him falsely true” (11, 871-72). These terms are not paradoxical but ironic. For Lancelot, honor is dishonor; loyalty, treachery.
It is not coincidental, then, that he is tied symbolically to the hermit in the woods or to Gawain, who visits Elaine in search of him. Together, the hermit and Gawain represent the opposite extremes of Camelot's divisions: false asceticism and empiricism, Having given in to the senses, Lancelot must then, like the hermit, deny their proper use. The destructive opposites meet in Lancelot. By keeping himself faithful to Guinevere, he denies true faith and reveals a heartless insensitivity even worse than Gawain's “a diamond is a diamond” (l. 691). As it turns out, a diamond for Lancelot is also only a diamond.
He is so caught in his loyal disloyalty that, at the poem's climax, he can only play the part of a senex, denying love and standing against youthful life, armed with all the clichés of sterile age. Again Tennyson evokes incongruous comic echoes to make more emphatic the pointlessness of his ironic climax. With grand and impassive callousness, Lancelot offers to give Elaine any present for saving his life, never imagining that a genuine, nonmaterialistic demand may be made on him. She asks for love, even if it does not include marriage. His response creaks with banality: “Nay, the world, the world, / All ear and eye, with such a stupid heart” (ll. 935-36). It is the bigot's appeal to others' bigotry.
She senses immediately that there is no hope; “Alas for me then, my good days are done” (l. 942). Eager to blunt the potential tragic pathos of all this, Lancelot drones on with the consolations known to all the emotionally wizened: “This is not love: but love's first flash in youth, / Most common; yea, I know it of mine own self” (ll. 944-45). He does recognize the impotence of all this, though, and he has no wish to be unkind. Like Elaine, Lancelot is trapped in the impossible situation. The greatest of all romantic knights is reduced to sounding like everyone's dull grandfather. He ends by again offering money and land, the final, pointless gesture. “Of all this will I nothing” (l. 961), says Elaine, confirming by her death the futility of more words. The “wordless man” (l. 171) who accompanies her funeral barge suggests the final death of the word, of art, and of Camelot.
As always in these ironic idylls, Tennyson adds a coda, a turn of the screw; here it is the meeting between Lancelot and Guinevere. [190/191] Lancelot presents the diamonds he has won to Guinevere with the finest words he can manufacture:
Take, what I had not won except for you,
These jewels, and make me happy, making them
An armlet for the roundest arm on earth,
Or necklace for a neck to which the swan's
Is tawnier than her cygnet's. [ll. 1174-78]
The artificiality of this language strikes even Lancelot, who turns from it embarrassed: “these are words” (l. 1178). They are, as he says, only words, and words no longer really signify. Any speaking, therefore, is a kind of sin (ll. 1179-82), an act of deception, since the coherence that underlies genuine speech has been lost. The queen, unconsciously tearing away leaves from a vine and surrounding them with the wreakage of youth and hope, fails to respond at all to Lancelot's gift or to his flattery. She deities that they have any permanent bond between them, since there are now no permanent bonds of any kind. In pure spite she throws away the diamonds he nearly died for, assuring the absurdity of the quest and of Elaine's death.
Arthur's final verdict is very clear: Elaine was shaped “By God for thee alone” (l. 1356). Lancelot has rejected all that was divine in man. His attempt to wriggle out of Arthur's scrutiny — “free love will not be bound” (l. 1368) — is met immediately with Arthur's important comment on the nature of self and society, freedom and obedience: “Free love, so bound, were freëst” (l. 1369). Lancelot turns away, answering nothing because he is beyond the reach of Arthur's truth. The only knowledge that comes to him is the dusty knowledge of irony: he has lost a world and a life, perhaps for nothing, not even for love but for “Dead love's harsh heir, jealous pride” (l. 1387). He now desires to reject his name, but he cannot bring himself to renewal or repentance, even now. In a moment of bitter clarity he sees that he can never leave his terrible prison; he has become accustomed to the pain: “I needs must break / These bonds that so defame me: not without / She wills it: would I if she willed it? nay, / Who knows?” (ll. 1409-12).
As Elaine drifts by on her barge, some of the ignorant Camelot society think that she may be that fairy queen “come to take the King to Fairyland” (l. 1249). In a way, they are right. Lancelot's failure to make Elaine a second queen — she achieves that distinction only in being buried “like a queen” (l. 1325)-is a sign that the centrifugal growth of Camelot, suggested so clearly in the unions of Gareth and Lynette, Geraint and Enid, has been stopped at its [191/192] source. There is now no growth except the growing awareness of decay.
“The Holy Grail,“
The next idyll, “The Holy Grail,” represents the last great attempt to save man from bestiality, to recover the values that are already lost:
tell thy brother knights to fast and pray,
That so perchance the vision may be seen
By thee and those, and all the world be healed.[ll. 126-28]
The imbalance is simply shifted from Garlon to Pellam, from empiricism to mysticism. The well-meant search for the Grail assures the divorce of the sensual from the spiritual life as certainly as Vivien's victory over Merlin. Tennyson is willing to allow for the reality of the Grail and the legitimacy of its vision in a proper life; what devastates the realm is the separation of this spiritual reality from any other. The Grail quest is a quest for harmony that in the end helps to destroy the comic society. Like Bosola, in Webster's equally ironic The Duchess of Malfi, it proceeds with the best intentions to murder that which it had sought to preserve.
Tennyson's vehicle for this tale of ironic heroism is a variation on the dramatic monologue: in the main it is made up of two dramatic monologues. Sir Percivale's reconstruction of the story and his defense of the quest is presented for the admiration and awe of Ambrosius, Percivale's brother monk, who occasionally interrupts with very pointed questions and exclamations. The poem builds its tensions between the poles of these irreconcilably different speakers. Tennyson himself, Hallam says, “would . . . call attention to the babbling homely utterances of the village priest Ambrosius as a contrast to the sweeping passages of blank verse that set forth the visions of spiritual enthusiasm” (Ricks, p. 1661).
Both men, Ambrosius and Percivale, are in touch with a different version of reality. They are warm, loving friends, but they fail even remotely to understand one another. Words in this poem go nowhere and make no contact. Ambrosius can wonder at Percivale's account of spiritual enthusiasm, but that is all; Percivale is alike impervious to Ambrosius's instinctive warmth and to Arthur's statements on the proper spiritual life. The heroic comedy of [192/193] Percivale is disjoined completely from the domestic comedy of Ambrosius, almost as in The Princess. But here, the values dear to the individual ego fight against and destroy the values that bind men together. “The Holy Grail” is a story of fruitless beauty and grandeur. Arthur's vision of integration is a lonely and alien one: it gets no response, only these two good men chatting away and ignoring the destruction around them.
It has been customary, ever since Clyde deL. Ryals's startling arguments42 in defense of Ambrosius as “Arthur on a smaller scale” to take sides between the two speakers. The form of the dramatic monologue, at least in Tennyson's use of it, seems to me to disallow such judgments. The values held by the two main speakers are in opposition, but neither is victorious. The third voice in the poem, that of Arthur, does not encourage judgments; it emphasizes the distance between an integrated life. and the lives implied by both of the equally compelling monologues to which we had been listening. Like all dramatic monologues, “The Holy Grail” works on a tension between sympathy and judgment, though our sympathies are this time split. The necessity forjudgment is very strong: a whole kingdom is being thrown away. But the immediacy and force of the monologues and the melancholy resignation of Arthur's final speech all act to freeze judgment. It is all very well to argue that Percivale and Ambrosius are complementary and need to be combined (Reed, pp. 95-96), but the whole force of the poem goes to convince us that there is no possibility of effecting this coalition.
The poem is the most subtle of Tennyson's exercises in ironic rhetoric. He insists, everywhere on the moral and rational framework whose validity he is just as emphatically denying. “The Holy Grail” shows us the destruction wrought by good men, and Tennyson manages a unique irony by making us acknowledge not only that these men are good but that they are, in their way, right. Instead of every choice being the wrong choice, every one is correct. By a refinement of irony, then, Tennyson again makes judgment both essential and trivial. Everyone except Gawain is treated sympathetically. It is a poem which defends the good intentions of the killers. [193/194]
Though Arthur himself sees very clearly that the quest is destructive, he also grants that it is authentic, that salvation may and will be obtained through the Grail. Percivale's sister has originated a new order that both complements and mocks Arthur's. Though her desire to cleanse and reunify the kingdom is exactly the king's own desire, her means for accomplishing that cure are too impatient, too partial. The ardor of her wish for the return of the healing Grail derives from “a fervent flame of human love, / Which being rudely blunted, glanced and shot / Only to holy things” (ll. 74-76), Her own incomplete life, the denial of her natural human love, leads her to a holy but disastrous compensation.
The quest for the Grail is entirely a negative one, unconsciously conceived as a substitute and sworn to by Percivale and his fellow knights, it is emphasized, because they had not seen the Grail: “Then when he asked us, knight by knight, if any / Had seen it, all their answers were as one: / 'Nay, lord, and thereforehave we sworn our vows” [emphasis mine] (ll. 283-85). All of these men are driven by the same desperate sense of spiritual inadequacy, the same perception of loss and fragmentation that had infused Percivale's sister. When Galahad hears of her vision, “His eyes became so like her own, they seemed / Hers” (ll. 141-42). This recalls exactly the earlier creation of the Round Table, when the momentary likeness of the king had passed over the faces of all the knights. The new order, however, is one of fanaticism and dissolution, not unification. It is based on spiritual truth and an acute perception of the rapid disappearance of the spiritual life. For all this, it is a disaster. The point is that in an ironic world the search for comedy only thickens the prison walls.
“The Holy Grail” once again repeats the wasteland motif, the image of elementary inner chaos that one must conquer. The theme of losing oneself to find a new self is not at all submerged in this idyll, nor are the means to that salvation ineffective. Galahad, Bors, and Percivale, perhaps others, do see the Grail. But now, without a background of social harmony, salvation acts to make man unfit for social life. One emerges from comic testing into a world that has no place for comedy. This process of rejuvenation, the same undergone by Gareth, Edyrn, and Geraint, was once essential to the life of society; now it becomes a source of its destruction. By defending the Quest, then, Tennyson emphasizes the decay of the Arthurian [194/195] society and the terrible sickness of an order attacked by its own legitimate and necessary supports.
This disruption is signaled by continually heightened discontinuities, principally those between Percivale and Ambrosius, of course. The fact that Ambrosius, an unworldly and secluded monk, should defend communal values while Percivale, from the very center of the social world, expresses the values of the solitary, is more than a neat specific irony. It emphasizes further the dissociation of man from his experiences and suggests his inability ever to learn, even from what is directly around him. Even a monk cannot understand what a spiritual life means; even a member of the Round Table itself cannot understand community. Neither is wrong, nor are they especially limited people. On the contrary, they are eloquent and sensitive.
Percivale can sometimes appear rigorously single-minded and prosaic, but he is also capable of great exaltation, as, for instance, in the passage beginning “O brother, had you known our mighty hall” (l. 225) and ending with a description of Arthur's statue on the top of the hall:
till the people in far fields,
Wasted so often by the heathen hordes,
Behold it, crying, 'We have still a King'. [ll. 243-43]/p>
The center of the poem is occupied by Percivale's impassioned description of his trials. These are not, as is often stated, “temptations.” (Lawrence, p. 380; Ryals, pp. 170-71). It is rather Percivale, as Jacob Korg points out, who brings “waste and destruction wherever he rides.” (Korg, p. 11) His journey into the wasteland can be seen as a symbolic attack on the values of comedy, particularly domestic comedy. Specific aspects on that form are deliberately and successively annihilated. Running brooks and apples on fertile lawns turn to dust in his hands; a woman, gracefully spinning, opens her arms to welcome him, but innocent and expansive hospitality is also turned to dust; the plowman (interestingly, the same image Arthur uses at the end of the poem to invoke the perfect, balanced life.) dies at his plow, the milkmaid in her milking; all productive and simple unity is destroyed. Beauty, in the form of a jewelled casque and golden armor, offers itself to him, but it is also destroyed by Percivale's touch. [195/196]
Out of all this, though, he still finds holiness. After further testing in the chapel, ensuring his humility and the loss of his old self, he goes on to see the Grail. There is no doubt of this, Tennyson insists on the reality of his salvation and on its terrible effects; for, after seeing the Grail, Percivale comes on a lady whom he had once loved. She now offers to renew that love, expressing the same directness and openness as Elaine:
And calling me the greatest of all knights,
Embraced me, and so kissed me the first time,
And gave herself and all her wealth to me. [ll. 594-96]
He refuses love, not because of sin or guilt, as Lancelot did, but because of virtue.
Percivale is given the opportunity to carry on, like Gareth and Geraint, the expanding force of Camelot, the re-creation of the pattern set by Arthur and Guinevere's wedding, the union of soul and body that should connect and unify the kingdom. The lady's people cry to Percivale to “Wed thou our Lady, and rule over us, / And thou shalt be as Arthur in our land” (ll. 604-05), but he must turn his back on them and break the Arthurian chain and the Arthurian promise. He remembers the holy vow, which, in turn, allows him to forget his lady: “Then after I was joined with Galahad / [I] Cared not for her, nor anything upon earth” (ll. 610-611). Nothing on earth now has any connection to the Grail, for spiritual values have withdrawn utterly from life. Thus, Percivale has no choice; the love he is offered cannot be fulfilled in a world that denies love. It is not Percivale who is criticized.
Ambrosius's own song, his dramatic monologue, is subversive of Percivale's values, but it does not supplant them. Ambrosius's great simplicity, his earnestness, and his emotional honesty are extremely well-caught. They are undeniably made attractive, especially when they are added to his ability to ask the most uncomfortable and piercing questions quite innocently: “Tell me, what drove thee from the Table Round, / My brother? was it earthly passion crost?” (ll. 28-29) or “What is it? / The phantom of a cup that comes and goes?” (ll. 43-44). He peppers Percivale's speech with these deflating remarks, bringing to bear on religious mysticism the simple and naïve skepticism of humanitarian values.
It is, of course, an intuitive skepticism; Ambrosius is not Tristram, but a warm and loving man of the earth. He has imagination and he certainly has creative powers: he can even create a love in Percivale by the very force of his own warmth (ll. 9-12). Still, his artistry is of a very limited kind. He is amazed by [196/197] the Grail story, stunned by a notion of spiritual reality so far beyond him. Again, he is not Tristram, but if we take his naïve doubts about the Grail — “these books of ours . . . seem / Mute of this miracle” (ll. 65-66)-too seriously, we are responding to the poem as Tristram would.
For Ambrosius does not control the poem and give it a new unity; he supports, indeed partly creates, its theme of disunity. By the very power of his dramatic monologue, he helps demonstrate the inadequacy of the purely spiritual life, just as the power of the Grail legend itself renders insufficient his own domestic naturalism. Ambrosius is the spokesman for the values of “The May Queen,” but he is speaking in the world of “Tithonus.” Full approval and great force are given to the life he leads, but it is not the life to heal Camelot. It can only emphasize how far beyond cure Arthur's kingdom is. At the height of Percivale's eloquent recitation of the Grail quest, Ambrosius interrupts to stress by contrast his own world and, therefore, the radical disjunctions that now exist:
. . . [I love to] mingle with our folk;
And knowing every honest face of theirs
As well as ever shepherd knew his sheep,
And every homely secret in their hearts,
Delight myself with gossip and old wives,
And ills and aches, and teethings, lyings-in,
And mirthful sayings, children of the place,
That have no meaning half a league away:
Or lulling random squabbles when they rise,
Chafferings and chatterings at the market-cross,
Rejoice, small man, in this small world of mine,
Yea, even in their hens and in their eggs [ll. 549-60]
His capacity for joy, for a full and imaginative participation in the life about him, is given rich expression in order to show how incapable of full extension that capacity is. The love of man he values is no longer the love of God, since the word, that is, God in man, has been violated. Percivale's quest for God, therefore, necessarily takes him away from man:
“O brother [said Ambrosius,] saving this Sir Galahad,
Came ye on none but phantoms in your quest,
No man, no woman?” [197/198]
Then Sir Percivale:
“All men, to one so bound by such a vow,
And women were as phantoms.” [ll. 561-65]
At the end of the poem, Arthur surveys the tithe of his men that have returned and the mutilation wrought on his kingdom by this last search for order. The king turns sharply(l. 736) away from Percivale when the knight announces that the sight of the Grail has made it necessary for him “to pass away into the quiet life” (l. 735). Quiet is now all that is possible for holiness; as in “Merlin and Vivien” the poem moves toward frozen stillness. Fully aware of the largeness of the ironies that surround him, Arthur turns just as sharply on Gawain's shallow ridicule of the quest. He then makes one last statement of the image of ideal balance: the hind who dedicates his life to immediate duty and for that reason — in the very immersion in common duty, not in escape from it — finds the superfluity of the purely physical — “this earth he walks on seems not earth” (l. 908) — and a confirmation of God and self: he
knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a vision, nor that One
Who rose again. [ll. 913-1].
These last lines, which Tennyson called “the (spiritually) central lines of the Idylls,” (Memoir, 2: 90) are also the saddest; for they are uttered by a king who no longer believes in the efficacy of utterance. They once constituted the hope that built a permanent kingdom; they are now only words that go nowhere and teach nothing: “So spake the King: I knew not all he meant” (l. 916). Percivale uses the past tense knew, surely, not to suggest that he now does know, but to imply that the matter is now just part of the past, something he has long since ceased to think about.
Web version created March 2001
Last modified 8 August 2016