Idylls of the King Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The following entry presents criticism of Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1859; enlarged edition, 1874; final version, 1899). See also In Memoriam Criticism.
Tennyson is often regarded as the most skilled stylist and most representative poet of the Victorian period, and Idylls of the King is his magnum opus. Throughout his tenure as poet laureate he repeatedly revised the volume, and its themes concerned him for most of his life. Idylls addresses what Tennyson considered to be a growing tendency toward hedonism in Victorian society and an attendant rejection of spiritual values. While many critics have since found his idylls excessively moralistic, Idylls of the King attests to Tennyson's remarkable lyrical skill and his place as one of the greatest poets in the English language.
As a child, Tennyson's reading of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur sparked his interest in Arthurian myth. As this interest developed, so did Tennyson's concern that ancient English ideals, as well as society's sense of common decency, were being desecrated by the gradual corruption of accepted morality. Drafts of Arthurian poems from Tennyson's youth still exist, and he would later write his friends that he had mentally "composed" a number of other Arthurian poems for inclusion in an envisioned monumental achievement. The first full-length idyll that Tennyson wrote and that would later be included in the finished Idylls was "Morte d'Arthur," which was written at the same time as In Memoriam (1850); fragments of each appear in the same notebook. In Memoriam was written in 1833 at the time of the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson's closest friend. Meanwhile, Tennyson, still convinced of the degeneration of Victorianism, continued work on his visionary masterpiece. He read most of the available sources on Arthurian legend and even learned sufficient Welsh to read some of the original documents. He also visited Wales and the west country of England to view the actual sites connected with Arthur: Bude, Tintagel (King Mark's Castle), Land's End at the tip of Cornwall (where Lancelot is said to have been), and Glastonbury.
All told, Tennyson spent nearly thirty years considering the subject, and the sales of Idylls of the King in 1859 were substantial: forty thousand copies were printed, and in a few weeks more than a quarter of these were sold.
The extensive and intricate publication history of Idylls of the King reflects Tennyson's lifelong preoccupation. "Morte d'Arthur" was published in a two-volume collection of Tennyson's poetry in 1842, but was later wholly incorporated into "The Passing of Arthur" (the very last idyll), which did not appear in the Idylls until 1870. In the intervening period, Tennyson privately printed a "trial book" of four idylls—"Enid," "Vivien," "Elaine," and "Guinevere"—with the title The True and the False. Four Idylls of the King. He later changed the title to Idylls of the King when it was published in 1859; this version contained only four of the eventual twelve idylls. After the 1859 edition, however, Tennyson continued to produce material that would find its way into later editions. "A Dedication," in honor of Prince Albert, an admirer who died in 1861, was published as a pamphlet in 1862. In December of 1869 Tennyson published The Holy Grail, and Other Poems, which, along with a selection of other poems, includes "The Holy Grail" and three other idylls—"The Coming of Arthur," "Pelleas and Ettarre," and "The Passing of Arthur." The "Dedication" and the four Arthurian idylls from The Holy Grail were included in Idylls of the King of January 1870, which also contained renamed versions of the four original idylls. In 1871 Tennyson published "The Last Tournament" in a periodical, and a year later republished it together with "Gareth and Lynette" in a book called Gareth and Lynette, along with notes locating their places in the Idylls. In 1885 "Balin and Balan" appeared in Tiresias and Other Poems, with a note that it would introduce "Merlin and Vivien." The poetry of Idylls of the King is comprised of poetry written over an extended period of Tennyson's life, and even when the twelve idylls had been assembled, Tennyson continued to make small changes to the volume; the final state of the Idylls did not appear until 1899, after the author's death, when Hallam Tennyson, on his father's verbal instruction, inserted a line into the epilogue.
Plot and Major Characters
Framed by "The Coming of Arthur" and "The Passing of Arthur," Idylls of the King portrays the rise and fall of Arthur's kingdom, and coextensively, the decline of the Arthurian ideal. At the beginning of the book, Arthur becomes leader not because of birthright, but because of his extraordinary military skill and leadership. He subsequently surrounds himself with a group of dedicated knights who vow to uphold a standard of sexual purity: the knights restrict themselves to monogamous sexual relationships, holding themselves to the same standards to which women had traditionally been held. In the springtime of Arthur's reign, his knights are inspired to extraordinary feats of bravery; in "Gareth and Lynette," for example, the "kitchen-knave" Gareth overcomes three knights and even Death itself. But the Arthurian pledge begins to deteriorate when rumors of Guinevere's (the king's wife) affair with Lancelot are spread by Vivien, the emissary of Arthur's enemy King Mark. Guinevere's deed and Vivien's word attack the code of purity that had held the kingdom together. Among other things, the disillusionment with the destruction of the civilized pact in favor of animalistic passions hastens Merlin's pitiful demise. Arthurian society dissolves, precipitated by the transgression of its moral code. In an effort to bolster Arthur's waning ideal, the knights seek out the Holy Grail, but only a few return from the quest. Without his young knights, Arthur and his remaining forces must then face an attack by Mordred (rumored to be Arthur's bastard son) and the Saxons. On the way to the battle, Arthur visits Guinevere in the nunnery to which she has confined herself; Guinevere repents, but too late to save the dying Arthurian ideal. Arthur defeats and kills Mordred, but is also mortally wounded. Guinevere's adulterous affair with Lancelot has led to the downfall of the Arthurian moral code and to Arthur's own death.
Although Tennyson always thought of the idylls as allegorical (his word was "parabolic"), he refused to make literal identifications between incidents, characters, or situations in the poems and what they stood for, except to indicate generally that by King Arthur he meant the soul, and that the disintegration of the court and the Round Table revealed the disruptive effect of the passions. Indeed, the decay of the Round Table came increasingly to seem to him an apt symbol for the decay of nineteenth-century England. Idylls of the King expresses his ideal of the British Empire as an exemplar of moral and social order: the "Table Round / A glorious company" would "serve as a model for the mighty world." However, when individual acts of betrayal and corruption result from adultery committed by Guinevere and Lancelot, the ensuing disorder destroys the unity of the Round Table, symbolizing the effects of moral decay that were Tennyson's chief contemporary concern. Although Malory's Morte d'Arthur pictures Mordred—the alleged product of Arthur's incestuous relationship with his half-sister—as the cause of Arthur's downfall, Tennyson instead concentrates on Guinevere's adultery with Lancelot. This moralizing of Arthurian legend led many, particularly William Gladstone, to expect in the Idylls a national, Christian epic comparable to that of John Milton's Paradise Lost in terms of its moral vision; Tennyson wrote, "I tried in my Idylls to teach men the need of an ideal"—a moralistic, Victorian standard of proper conduct.
Critical reception varied with the different editions of Idylls of the King, and many critics regretted its piecemeal publication and complained that the separately created idylls resist treatment as a cohesive whole. Furthermore, although they almost universally applauded Tennyson's style and particularly his use of blank verse, critics were divided between those who thought it a worthy companion to Malory and those who found it more play-acting than drama, with the costumes failing to disguise Tennyson's contemporaries and their concerns. According to many critics, Idylls of the King fails to generate tragic interest in the characters: characters like Vivien, Ettarre, and King Mark are despicable; Guinevere and the rest of the women are generally too weak; and, for nineteenth-century poet and critic Algernon Swinburne, Arthur is no more than an uninspiring cuckold. A clear moral distinction and didactic undercurrent also drain the volume of significant dramatic interest, some critics have noted, while others contend that Tennyson's vision of a spiritually elevated world was betrayed by his concessions to a smug and materialistic Victorian ethic. Recently, however, a growing number of critics have dismissed such generalizations, and Idylls has come to be viewed as the embodiment of the Victorian period and of a poet who reflected both the thoughts and feelings of his generation.