Idylls of the King Alfred, Lord Tennyson - Essay

Alfred, Lord Tennyson


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Textual History

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.

Major Themes

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

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.

William Ewart Gladstone (essay date 1859)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "W. E. Gladstone on the Idylls of the King (1859) and Earlier Works," in Tennyson: The Critical Heritage, edited by John D. Jump, Routledge and Kegan Paul, and Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1967, pp. 241-66.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1859, Gladstone positively reviews Idylls of the King and considers the poems' Arthurian subject matter.]

We now come to the recent work of the poet—the Idylls of the King. The field, which Mr. Tennyson has chosen for this his recent and far greatest exploit, is one of so deep and wide-reaching an interest as to demand some previous notice of a special kind.

Lofty example...

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Algernon Charles Swinburne (essay date 1872)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A. C. Swinburne on the Idylls," in Tennyson: The Critical Heritage, edited by John D. Jump, Routledge and Kegan Paul, and Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1967, pp. 318-21.

[In the excerpt that follows, which was originally published in Under the Microscope in 1872, Swinburne contends that Tennyson extirpates the tragic interest of Arthurian legend by portraying the characters in base moral terms.]

. . . The enemies of Tennyson .. . are the men who find in his collection of Arthurian idyls,—the Morte d'Albert as it might perhaps be more properly called, after the princely type to which (as he tells us with just pride) the poet has been fortunate enough...

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Clyde de L. Ryals (essay date 1963)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Moral Paradox of the Hero in Idylls of the King," in ELH, Vol. 30, No. 1, March, 1963, pp. 53-69.

[In the following essay, the critic describes the Idylls as a pessimistic picture of the self's moral relationship with the world.]

For Tennyson, as for other modern thinkers, the starting-point of all philosophy lies in the reality of self. As C. F. G. Masterman, in his much neglected book on Tennyson's religious thought, has shown, the self for Tennyson "is the one and only thing of which by direct conviction we can assert reality."1 Yet, the question remains, how is the self to be apprehended? This problem of identity is, I believe,...

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W. David Shaw (essay date 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Idealist's Dilemma in Idylls of the King," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 41-53.

[In the essay that follows, Shaw discusses the ramifications of the idealist metaphysics that Tennyson outlines in the Idylls.]

Idylls of the King is one of Tennyson's most extensive and illuminating treatments of a problem that had long preoccupied him in poems like "The Two Voices," "The Ancient Sage," and parts of In Memoriam: how is the idealist to act on the basis of a priori categories that have only an accidental relation to external process? How is he to be fulfilled in his own loneliness in the midst of...

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Clyde de L. Ryals (essay date 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eros and Agape," in From the Great Deep: Essays on Idylls of the King, Ohio University Press, 1967, pp. 113-45.

[In the following essay, de L. Ryals examines Arthur as a mediator between divine and human love, and as the hope for redeeming the world.]

If the hero with a divine mission cannot redeem the world, how then may the world be saved? This is the question implicitly confronting the actors in the Idyllsof the King when they doubt the authority of the King. Years earlier in the nineteenth century when it became impossible for the thinking man to accept unquestioningly an inherited world view, the same question had...

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John R. Reed (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Idylls of the King: Themes," in Perception and Design in Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," Ohio University Press, 1969, pp. 139-237.

[In the following chapter from Perception and Design in Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," Reed contends that Arthur enacts an idealistic transformation "through emancipating the imagination."]


"To live in the Idea," said Goethe, "means treating the impossible as though it were possible."1 This is both a justification and an explanation of Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Arthur's vows, we are told early in the poem, are not such as men can keep, yet any man...

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J. Philip Eggers (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dissolving Image: Patterns of Meaning in the Completed Poem," in King Arthur's Laureate: A Study of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, New York University Press, 1971, pp. 185-214.

[In the following essay, Eggers considers the imagery of the Idylls as it contributes to its themes.]

The Idylls became an organic whole when Tennyson added "Balin and Balan" in 1885. In 1888 he divided the Geraint story into two separate idylls to give a mechanical completeness to the structure, and in 1891 he added the final touch, a single line in the epilogue. The poem had become an intricately developed tragedy stressing man's inability to remain civilized without...

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John D. Rosenberg (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Character and Symbol" and "Symbol and Story," in The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973, pp. 101-33 and 134-44.

[In the following chapters from The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," Rosenberg examines the dream-images that reinforce the cyclical structure of the Idylls.]

Chapter V: Character and Symbol

In his lectures on dreams Freud remarks that "things employed as symbols do not thereby cease to be themselves."1 All of the characters in the Idylls have difficulty in distinguishing between symbols...

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David Staines (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "1869: The Holy Grail: The Coming of Arthur,' 'The Holy Grail,' 'Pelleas and Ettarre,' 'The Passing of Arthur'," in Tennyson's Camelot: The Idylls of the King and Its Medieval Sources, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982, pp. 64-97.

[In the following essay, Staines discusses Tennyson's struggle with the story of the Holy Grail and how it shapes the theme of the Idylls.]

As to Macaulay's suggestion of the Sangreal, I doubt whether such a subject could be handled in these days, without incurring a charge of irreverence. It would be too much like playing with sacred things. The old writers believed in the Sangreal.1


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William E. Buckler (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Returning to 1859," in Man and His Myths: Tennyson's Idylls of the King in Critical Context, New York University Press, 1984, pp. 77-138.

[In the essay that follows, Buckler examines some of the idylls as symbolic meditations on the literary enterprise.]

One of the great advantages of coming to the 1859 idylls from a close consideration of the compositions that went into the Holy Grail volume is the deep reinforcement which the later volume gives to the critical perception that Idylls of the King is a literary artifact and that unfailing attention must be given to the whole poem and to its several parts as literary structures...

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Herbert F. Tucker (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Epic Plight of Troth in Idylls of the King," in ELH, Vol. 58, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 701-20.

[In the following essay, Tucker finds that in the Idylls, Tennyson "did some of the most interesting ideological work of nineteenth-century epic by abdicating his own initiative in favor of the authority of legend."]


Epic poetry, we are told by a firmly consensual line of Romantic theorists from J. G. Herder to Northrop Frye, teaches a nation its traditions.1 Epic tells a culture-making story, which both embodies in the incidents it narrates, and enacts in its narrative practices, values that bind a people in a...

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Arthur L. Simpson, Jr. (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elaine the Unfair, Elaine the Unlovable: The Socially Destructive Artist/Woman in Idylls of the King," in Modern Philology, Vol. 89, No. 3, February, 1992, pp. 341-62.

[In the following essay, Simpson contends that "Elaine presents the personally and socially destructive effects of the wrong kind of artistic life and the wrong kinds of attitudes toward, behavior by, and treatment of women. "]

As "Guinevere" opens, Tennyson's narrator recalls Modred's spying on a provocative cameo scene displaying the range of feminine virtue and vice: Guinevere seated in her garden between Enid and Vivien—between the best and the wiliest and worst. If Elaine had come...

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U. C. Knoepflmacher (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Idling in Gardens of the Queen: Tennyson's Boys, Princes, and Kings," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1992, pp. 343-64.

[In the essay that follows, Knoepflmacher explores Tennyson's treatment of gender in the Idylls.]

The child is the link through the parts.

—Tennyson on The Princess

'Since the good mother holds me still a child!
Good mother is bad mother unto me!
A worse were better; yet no worse would I.'

—"Gareth and Lynette," 11. 15-17

Tennyson's completed Idylls of the King...

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James Eli Adams (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Harlots and Base Interpreters: Scandal and Slander in Idylls of the King," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter, 1992, pp. 421-439.

[In the essay that follows, Adams claims that Idylls of the King advances a sexual morality in relation to forms of publicity.]

"Confound the publicities and gabblements of the 19th century!"

—Tennyson to Edward Moxon, 1847

In 1856 Tennyson sent James Spedding an early draft of what was then called "Nimue" (subsequently "Merlin and Vivien"), the first installment of Tennyson's sustained work on what would become...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Andrew, Aletha. An Annotated Bibliography and Study of the Contemporary Criticism of Tennyson's Idylls of the King: 1859-1886. New York: Peter Lang, 1993, 243 p.

Bibliography of Idylls scholarship from 1859-1886, including an overview of the criticism.


Adicks, Richard. "The Lily Maid and the Scarlet Sleeve: White and Red in Tennyson's Idylls." The University Review XXXIV, No. 1 (October 1967): 65-71.

Considers Tennyson's symbolic use of red and white in the Idylls.


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