The Path – May 1888



In Two Parts.


Of all of Tennyson's works, the two in which we find the deepest thought and the broadest scope are "In Memoriam" and the "Idylls of the King". In the former the thoughts, the questionings, the hopes of a strong intellect and warm heart in the presence of a great sorrow are clearly written in beautiful verse; one may read, study, and meditate long on it, for it deals with the profoundest problems of life: but one does not have to look for a second meaning hidden beneath the apparent. Quite different is it with the "Idylls," where the external form is that of a collection of legends from the misty past of Britain, from that period between the times of the Roman and the Saxon of which history tell us nothing. And probably the greater part of the readers of these poems, even among those who admire them, see nothing more than this; overlooking the clear statement of the author in the Epilogue: —

     "this imperfect tale
New-old, and shadowing Sense at war with Soul,
Rather than that gray king, whose name, a ghost,
Streams like a cloud, man-shaped, from mountain peak,
And cleaves to cairn and cromlech still."

It may be interesting to us to look at this a little more closely; and the first thing we notice is that the Idylls are not so many independent poems, but constitute one organic whole, though written at widely different times.

The idea of a great poem, based on the Arthurian legends, appears to have been a favorite conception of Tennyson at an early date. The fragment "Mort d' Arthur" was published in 1842, but the poet apparently not having received encouragement for the greater work of which this was to be a part, the original plan was forgotten, or at any rate kept back; and four of the idylls appeared in 1859 as separate poems, without indication of belonging to a larger work. But when, in 1870, the four other idylls and the introduction had been given to the public, and the work appeared in the form we now have it, the earlier parts were found to fit perfectly into their places, though these were not at all determined by the order in which they had previously appeared. Only slight verbal alterations had been made in them; but the "Mort d' Arthur" had now the title "The Passing of Arthur," a very significant change; its length was about doubled by the verses prefixed and added to the original, which remained almost unchanged in the midst. As a counterpart to this, an entirely new "Coming of Arthur" was prefixed to the series; and in these two, the Coming and the Passing, we shall find a great part of the occult and symbolical ideas which we are seeking.

As a general statement of the work, nothing that I can say will be so satisfactory as some quotations from an article which appeared in the Contemporary Review at the time of the first publication of the complete work. Though in some of the details we may differ from this writer's interpretation, his appreciation of the great motive is certainly striking.

"Our first impression on reading the Idylls is one of simple and complete external loveliness — of a series of gorgeous landscapes taken exactly from nature — of a glittering and splendid revival of the past — of knightly days and doings set to mellifluous music under the shining skies of chivalry. Soon, however, artistic unities begin to emerge and add the charm of purpose and intention, if only in the sense of aesthetic completeness. We go from the marriage season of Spring in the "Coming of Arthur," where the blossom of the May seems to spread its perfume over the whole scene, to the Early Summer of the honeysuckle in "Gareth," the quickly following mowing season of "Geraint," and the sudden summer thunder shower of "Vivien"; thence to the "Full Summer" of "Elaine," with oriel casement "standing wide for heat;" and later to the sweep of equinoctial storms and broken weather of the "Holy Grail." Then the Autumn roses and brambles of "Pelleas," and in the "Last Tournament" the close of Autumntide with all its "slowly mellowing avenues," through which we see Sir Tristram riding to his doom. In "Guinevere" the creeping mists of coming winter pervade the picture, and in the "Passing of Arthur " we come to the "deep midwinter on the frozen hills," and the end of all, on the year's shortest day, — "that day when the great light of heaven burned at his lowest in the rolling year." The King, who first appears on "the night of the new year," disappears into the dawning light of "the new sun bringing the new year," and thus the whole action of the poem is comprised precisely within the limits of the one principal and ever-recurring cycle of time.

Note also the keeping which exists between the local color in each poem proper to the season, and the dramatic action which is presented in it.

* * * * *

But, by the time we have discovered and followed out such unities as these, we find that the whole series of poems is gradually transforming itself into a moral series and unity, with a significance far greater than any aesthetical one. We come to see, at length, that the high cycle of the soul on earth is set before us, as completely by the human actions and passions of the piece as the cycle of the year by its landscapes and seasons.

* * * * * The central figure of the poem appears and reappears, through all the series of events, in a way which irresistibly suggests that more, if not quite clearly what, is meant by his kingship than mere outward kingliness. So that when we are at last plainly told in the Epilogue that he shadows Soul in its war with Sense, a sudden clearance of haze seems to take place, and a sort of diffused and luminous gleaming of which we had been dimly conscious all along "orbs into a perfect star" of meaning.

If now we read the poems by the light of this meaning, we shall find the Soul come first before us as a conqueror in a waste and desert land, groaning under mere brute power. Its history before then is dark with doubt and mystery, and the questions about its origin and authority form the main subject of the introductory poem: "Many, themselves the basest, hold it to be base-born, and rage against its rule." —

     "And since his ways are sweet,
And theirs are bestial, hold him less than man;
And there be those who hold him more than man
And dream he dropt from heaven." * * *

The inscrutableness of its origin being thus signified, we see next the recognition of its supremacy, and its first act of knighthood the inspiration of the best and bravest near it with a common enthusiasm for Right. The founding of the Order of the Round Table coincides with the solemn crowning of the Soul. Conscience, acknowledged and throned as King, binds at once all the best of human powers together into one brotherhood, and that brotherhood to itself by vows so straight and high, — "That when they rose knighted from kneeling, some were pale as at the passing of a ghost, some flushed, some dazed," etc. At that supreme coronation moment, the Spirit is surrounded and cheered by all the powers and influences which can ever help it; earthly servants and allies, and heavenly powers and tokens; the knights, to signify the strength of the body; Merlin, the intellect; the Lady of the Lake, who stands for the Church and gives the soul its sharpest and most splendid earthly weapon; and, above all, three fair and mystic queens, "tall, with bright, sweet faces," robed in the living colors sacred to Love and Faith and Hope, which flow upon them from the image of our Lord above. These surely stand for those immortal virtues which only will abide "when all that seems shall suffer shock," and leaning upon which alone, the Soul, when all else falls from it, shall go towards the golden gates of the new and brighter morning.

As the first idyll seems to indicate the coming and the recognition of the Soul, so the ensuing ones show how its influence waxes or wanes in the great battle of life. Through all of these we see the body and its passions gain continually greater sway, till in the end the Spirit's earthly work is thwarted and defeated by the flesh. Its immortality alone remains to it, and with this, a deathless hope. From the sweet spring breezes of "Gareth" and the story of "Geraint and Enid," where the first gush of poisoning passion bows for a time with base suspicion, yet passes and leaves pure a great and simple heart, we are led through "Merlin and Vivien," where, early in the storm, we see great wit and genius yield; and through "Lancelot and Elaine," where the piteous early death of innocence and hope results from it; to the "Holy Grail," where we see Religion itself, under the stress of it, and despite the earnest efforts of the soul, blown into mere fantastic shapes of superstition. In "Pelleas and Ettare" the storm of corruption culminates, whirling the sweet waters of young love and faith out from their proper channels, sweeping them into mist, and casting them in hail upon the land. Then comes the dismal "autumn-dripping gloom" of the "Last Tournament," with its awful and potentous close; and then in "Guinevere" the final lightning stroke, and all the fabric of the earthly life falls smitten into dust, leaving to the soul a broken heart for company, and a conviction that, if in this world only it had hope, it were of all things most miserable.

Thus ends the "Round Table" and the life-long labor of the Soul.

There remains but the passing of the soul "from the great deep to the great deep," and this is the subject of the closing idyll. Here the "last dim, weird battle," fought out in densest mist, stands for a picture of all human death, and paints its awfulness and confusion. The Soul alone enduring beyond the end wherein all else is swallowed up sees the mist clear at last, and finds those three crowned virtues "abiding" true and fast, and waiting to convey it to its rest. Character, formed and upheld by these, is the immortal outcome of mortal life. They wail with it awhile in sympathy for the failure of its earthly plans; but at the very last of all are heard to change their sorrow into songs of joy, and departing vanish into light."

Looking now at the individual parts of the poem, what strikes us most in the "Coming of Arthur" is the doubt and obscurity that cover the origin of the King, that is, of the soul. No two can agree as to it, and every man's judgment is a standard for determining his own character. Merlin, hearing all their conjectures, laughs at all, and answers in half mocking words that show the impotence of the intellect to trace the origin of the soul;

"Rain, rain, and sun! a rainbow in the sky!
A young man will be wiser by and by;
An old man's wit may wander 'ere he die.

Rain, rain, and sun! a rainbow on the lea!
And truth is this to me, and that to thee:
And truth or clothed or naked let it be.

Rain, sun, and rain! and the free blossom blows;
Sun, rain, and sun! and where is he who knows!
From the great deep to the great deep he goes."

But almost immediately after we have again Merlin's word, as Bellicent tells it;

     " Merlin in our time
Hath spoken also, not in jest, and sworn
Tho' men may wound him that he will not die,
But pass, again to come! and then or now
Utterly smite the heathen underfoot,
Till these and all men hail him for their king."

The intellect may not comprehend the soul; whence it came and whither it goes are beyond the range of the intellect; but its supremacy must be acknowledged, its immortality asserted, and its certain victory soon or late, if not in this earth life, then sometime when it returns again, over all that is beneath it. This belief that Arthur cannot die, but only pass to come again, is repeated again and again in the poem.

In the idyll "The Holy Grail" is a description of the great hall of the knights at Camelot, where the King held his court, which seems to me very suggestive.

All the sacred mount of Camelot,
And all the dim, rich city, roof by roof,
Tower after tower, spire beyond spire,
By grove, and garden-lawn, and rushing brook,
Climbs to the mighty hall that Merlin built.
And four great zones of sculpture, set betwixt
With many a mystic symbol, gird the hall;
And in the lowest beasts are slaying man,
And in the second men are slaying beasts,
And on the third are warriors, perfect men,
And on the fourth are men with growing wings,
And over all one statue in the mould
Of Arthur, made by Merlin, with a crown,
And peak'd wings pointed to the Northern Star,
And eastward fronts the statue, and the crown
And both the wings are made of gold, and flame
At sunrise till the people in far fields.
Wasted so often by the heathen hordes.
Behold it, crying, "We have still a King."

Compare with this what the old man says to Gareth of this same city:

"And as thou sayest, it is enchanted, son,
For there is nothing in it as it seems,
Saving the King; tho' some there be that hold
The King a shadow, and the city real."

The Path