The Path – June 1888

THEOSOPHY IN TENNYSON'S "IDYLL OF THE KING": II — F. S. Collins

(A PAPER READ BEFORE THE MALLEN THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY.)

In Two Parts.

PART II.

While as a whole the poem may perhaps be best held to represent the struggle between the highest in a man and the lower elements of his self, yet it may also indicate the fate of a higher spirit come to earth to help humanity, and whose work is constantly marred and his plans thwarted by the opposition of enemies and the misunderstandings of friends, and who needs must stand alone, none even of those who love him best being able to rise to his level.

In the "Holy Grail" especially, we seem to see the sad results, of undertaking to do another's work, a work for which one is not fitted. At a banquet of the knights in the great hall there suddenly appears a glorious light, breaking through the roof and flashing over them all; the light is so blinding that they cannot see what it is that makes it, but all know that it must be the Holy Grail. And each knight swears a solemn vow that he will ride a twelvemonth and a day, searching for it until he can clearly see it. The King is not with them at the time, but with some of his knights is away, ridding the country of a band of robbers that have been devastating it. On his return he is told of the event and of the vow, and is saddened at hearing it; and as Percivale tells the story: —

     "Woe is me, my knights," he cried,
"Had I been here, ye had not sworn the vow."
Bold was mine answer, "Had thyself been here,
My King, thou would'st have sworn." "Yea, yea," said he,
"Art thou so bold and hast not seen the Grail?"
"Nay, lord, I heard the sound, I saw the light,
But since I did not see the Holy Thing,
I swore a vow to follow it till I saw."
Then when he asked us, knight by knight, if any
Had seen it, all their answers were as one:
"Nay, lord, and therefore have we sworn our vows.'
"Lo now," said Arthur, "have ye seen a cloud?
What go ye into the wilderness to see?"
Then Galahad on the sudden, and in a voice
Shrilling along the halls to Arthur, call'd,
"But I, Sir Arthur, saw the Holy Grail,
I saw the Holy Grail and heard a cry —
O Galahad, and O Galahad, follow me.' "
"Ah, Galahad, Galahad," said the King, "for such
As thou art is the vision, not for these.
Thy holy nun and thou have seen a sign —
Holier is none, my Percivale, than she —
A sign to maim this Order which I made.
But ye, that follow but the leader's bill"
(Brother, the King was hard upon his knights)
"Taliessin is our fullest throat of song,
And one hath sung and all the dumb will sing.
Lancelot is Lancelot, and hath overborne
Five knights at once, and every younger knight,
Unproven, holds himself as Lancelot,
Till overborne by one, he learns — and ye,
What are ye? Galahads? — no, nor Percivales"
(For thus it pleased the King to range me close
After Sir Galahad): "nay," said he, "but men
With strength and will to right the wronged, of power
To lay the sudden heads of violence flat,
Knights that in twelve great battles splash'd and dyed
The strong White Horse in his own heathen blood —
But one hath seen, and all the blind will see.
Go, since your vows are sacred, being made:
Yet — for ye know the cries of all my realm
Pass thro' this hall — how often, O my knights,
Your places being vacant at my side,
This chance of noble deeds will come and go
Unchallenged, while ye follow wandering fires,
Lost in the quagmire! Many of you, yea most,
Return no more."

And indeed few return at the end of the year. Galahad, already fit for it, sees the Grail, and after riding far and in its strength fighting bravely for the right, is carried with it to the spiritual city, to return no more to earth. Percivale sees it only at a distance; he sets out on the quest, first glorying in his strength and sure of success, then at the thought of his sins overwhelmed with despair and feeling that this quest is not for him; and in this is the cause of his partial failure, for as the hermit tells him: —

     What is this
Thou thoughtest of thy prowess and thy sins?
Thou hast not lost thyself to save thyself
As Galahad."

But even this distant view makes him renounce his knightly career and spend the rest of his days in a convent.

Lancelot, great and noble soul, has yet in him a sin from which he cannot free himself; as he tells the king: —

     "in me lived a sin
So strange, of such a kind, that all of pure,
Noble, and knightly in me twined and clung
Round that one sin, until the wholesome flower
And poisonous grew together, each as each,
Not to be pluck'd asunder."

When he makes his vow to seek the Grail, it is with the hope that it will help him to so pluck them asunder; through terrible trials and ordeals he reaches at last to where the Grail is; but the door is closed: madly breaking it open,

     "thro a strong glare, a heat
As from a seven-times heated furnace, I,
Blasted and burnt, and blinded as I was,
With such a fierceness that I swoon'd away —
O, yet methought I saw the Holy Grail,
All pall'd in crimson samite, and around
Great angels, awful shapes, and wings and eyes,
And but for all my madness and my sin,
And then my swooning, I had sworn I saw
That which I saw; but what I saw was veil'd
And cover'd; and this Quest was not for me."

Sir Bors alone, good and true knight, has clearly seen the Grail, when, bound and imprisoned by the heathen, he is only thinking of dying like a brave man. All unexpectedly the vision is given him; he returns to his work as a true knight, but, though the glory of the vision is in his heart ever after, he cannot tell it to any one else. Only these four see it at all; the rest have followed vain phantoms, or have early given up the Quest; and only one in ten of those who took the vow returns at all. The closing lines of this Idyll, Arthur's words to the few returning knights, are but an amplification of Krishna's words to Arjuna; —

"Finally this is better that one do
His own task as he may, even though he fail,
Than take tasks not his own, though they seem good."

"And spake I not too truly, O my knights?
Was I too dark a prophet when I said
To those who went upon the Holy Quest,
That most of them would follow wandering fires,
Lost in the quagmire? — lost to me and gone,
And left me gazing at a barren board,
And a lean Order — scarce return'd a tithe —
And out of those to whom the vision came
My greatest hardly will believe he saw;
Another hath beheld it afar off,
And leaving human wrongs to right themselves,
Cares but to pass into the silent life.
And one hath had the vision face to face,
And now his chair desires him here in vain,
However they may crown him otherwhere."
"And some among you hold that, if the King
Had seen the sight, he would have sworn the vow:
Not easily, seeing that the King must guard
That which he rules, and is but as the hind
To whom a space of land is given to plow.
Who may not wander from the allotted held
Before his work be done; but being done,
Let visions of the night or of the day
Come, as they will; and many a time they come.
Until this earth he walks on seems not earth,
This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,
This air that smites his forehead is not air
But vision -yea his very hand and foot-
In moments when he feels he cannot die,
And knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a vision, nor that One
Who rose again: ye have seen what ye have seen."

After this loss of the knights in the vain quest, all grows worse. The King himself remains pure and lofty in all his aims, but all the rest changes His knights no longer keep their vows,

     "Such vows, as is a shame
A man should not be bound by, yet the which
No man can keep."

His queen Guinevere, whom he loves wholly and purely, is false to him, and that with his noblest knight and dearest friend; Lancelot: even the King, slow to believe evil, must see it, and he parts from her forever in this life; in his farewell the only hope he can give her is —

"Perchance, and so thou purify thy soul,
And so thou lean on our fair father Christ,
Hereafter in that world where all are pure
We two may meet before high God, and thou
Wilt spring to me, and claim me thine and know
I am thy husband, — not a smaller soul,
Nor Lancelot, nor another. Leave me that.
I charge thee, my last hope. * * *
* * * Now must I hence.
Thro' the thick night I hear the trumpet blow;
They summon me their King to lead mine hosts
Far down to that great battle in the west,
Where I must strike against the man they call
My sister's son — no kin of mine, who leagues
With Lords of the White Horse, heathen, and knights,
Traitors — and strike him dead, and meet myself
Death, or I know not what mysterious doom."

This battle is told in "The Passing of Arthur," which begins, —

"That story which the bold Sir Bedivere,
First made and latest left of all the knights,
Told, when the man was no more than a voice
In the white winter of his age, to those
With whom he dwelt, new faces, other minds."

This battle is not like those that have been fought before, but is rather the last great struggle through which every man must pass, when all the mortal powers fail one by one until nothing is left but the immortal soul. Every line of this part of the poem, and especially of the part added in the final completion, is full of meaning, so that it is very hard to select for quotation.

"Then rose the King and moved his host by night,
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse —
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.
There the pursuer could pursue no more,
And he that fled no further fly the King;
And there, that day when the great light of heaven
Burn'd at his lowest in the rolling year,
On the waste sand by the waste sea they closed.
Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight
Like this last, dim, wierd battle of the west.

A death white mist slept over sand and sea:
Whereof the chill to him who breathed it, drew
Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold
With formless fear; and ev'n on Arthur fell
Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew;
And some had visions out of golden youth,
And some beheld the faces of old ghosts
Look in upon the battle; and in the mist
Was many a noble deed, many a base,
And chance and craft and strength in single fight,
And ever and anon with host to host
Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn,
Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash
Of battleaxes on shattered helms, and shrieks
After the Christ, of those who falling down
Looked up for heaven, and only saw the mist;
And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights,
Oaths, insult, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,
Sweat, writhings, anguish, laboring of the lungs
In that close mist, and cryings for the light,
Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.

Last as by some one deathbed after wail
Of suffering, silence follows, or thro' death
Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore,
Save for some whisper of the seething seas,
A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day
Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came
A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle: but no man was moving there,
Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave
Brake in among dead faces, to and fro
Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down
Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,
And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome,
And rolling far along the gloomy shores
The voice of days of old and days to be.

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere,
And whiter than the mist that all day long
Had held the field of battle was the King:

"Hearest thou this great voice that shakes the world,
And wastes the narrow realm whereon we move,
And beats upon the faces of the dead,
My dead, as tho' they had not died for me?
O Bedivere, for on my heart hath fall'n
Confusion, till I know not what I am,
Nor whence I am, nor whether I be King.
Behold, I seem but King among the dead."

Now at the very last, when only Bedivere is left of all his knights, Arthur sees Mordred, the traitor knight, who has brought back the heathen into the realm, standing unharmed; with the last blow of his sword Excalibur the King strikes him dead, but falls himself grievously wounded by Mordred's stroke. But though all his knights have fallen, though all that was dear to him is gone, though everything on which he leaned has failed him, he cannot die; yet in the mist and uncertainty of the battlefield he knows not where he is to go. His sword Excalibur must be given back to the hand from which it came; the sword which had

     "on one side,
Graven in the oldest tongue of all this world,
'Take me;' but turn the blade and ye shall see,
And written in the speech ye speak yourself
'Cast me away!' And sad was Arthur's face
Taking it, but old Merlin counsell'd him,
'Take them and strike! the time to cast away
Is yet far off.'"

This was at Arthur's Coronation: and now at his command Sir Bedivere casts the sword far out over the lake, from the water of which rises

     "an arm,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
That caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere."

Then Sir Bedivere carries the King to the margin of the lake, whence the three Queens bear him in a funeral barge far off from sight: his last words to Bedivere, —

"But now farewell, I am going a long way
With these thou seest. * * *
To the inland-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail or rain, or any snow,
Nor even wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

As Sir Bedivere sees the black hull moving far off, he cries

"He passes to be King among the dead,
And after healing of his grievous wound
He comes again."

And I think the glory of the return from this world to the true life of the higher self has seldom been better shown than this: —

"Then from the dawn it seem'd there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars."

Throughout the whole of the poem we feel, even when we cannot distinctly see, deep meanings for the inner consciousness. We cannot make any definite formulas, that this character represents this, and that, that; but everywhere we see that the King represents the highest; fealty to him is the chief duty.

"Strike for the King and live! his knights have heard
That God hath told the King a secret word.
Fall battleaxe and flash brand! Let the King reign.

Blow Trumpet! he will lift us from the dust.
Blow trumpet! live the strength and die the lust!
Clang battleaxe, and clash brand! Let the King reign.

Strike for the King and die! and if thou diest
The King is King, and ever wills the highest.
Clang battleaxe, and clash brand! Let the King reign."

The King is immortal; the lower self may, it must, die, and if it die in obedience to the King's command, it is an honor and glory to it; again and again in the poem, in speaking of the bravery and honor of a good knight, the end is

     "and fell at last
In the great battle fighting for the King,"

or like Geraint,

     "he crown'd
A happy life with a fair death, and fell
Against the heathen of the Northern Sea
In battle, fighting for the blameless King."

In this sense the King may be considered as the true spiritual self, of which we various lower selves are but fragments, which can only win unity by giving up the fragmentary personality.

Guinevere, too late for this life, sees how she has been false to her duty and honor;

     "Ah, my God,
What might I not have made of thy fair world
Had I but loved thy highest creature here?
It was my duty to have loved the highest;
It surely was my profit had I known;
It would have been my pleasure had I seen.
We needs must love the highest when we see it,
Not Lancelot, nor another."

In the last battle, Bedivere speaks thus plainly: —

     "My King,
King everywhere! and so the dead have kings,
There also will I worship thee as King."

And Arthur replies,

"And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,
When all the purport of my throne hath failed,
That quick or dead thou holdest me for King.
King am I, whatsoever be their cry."

At first sight it seems as if, in the failure of the high hopes with which the Round Table was founded, all is lost, that the King's passage "from the great deep to the great deep" has been fruitless. But though earthly plans have failed, the soul bears to its higher realm of rest and joy a strengthened character, which, when he returns once more, will fight a stronger fight, and

     "then or now
Utterly smite the heathen underfoot.
Till these and all men hail him for their king."

His knights have fallen, but many, like Sir Bedivere, living or dead, will hold him for their King. Guinevere and Lancelot wronged him worst of all: but Guinevere, deeply repentant, after a holy life,

     "past
To where beyond these voices there is peace."

And Lancelot, tearing the poisonous from the wholesome flower, died at last a holy man. The good in Arthur has stirred up the evil around him to sharper, fiercer opposition; but the world is the better for his reign.

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."

The Path

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