The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 5. Idylls of the King
The great poem, the magnum opus, to which Tennyson’s critics summoned him insistently and on which his mind dwelt with almost too conscientious a desire to fulfil what was expected of him, began to take shape finally, in the only form in which his genius could work at ease (the concentration, in a poem of not too great length on a single mood of feeling), with the composition of Idylls of the King. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur had early arrested his attention.
In the later poems, the epic, Homeric flavour of the first Morte is abandoned for a more purely idyllic tone, a chiselled, polished, jewelled exquisiteness of Alexandrian art. Of blank verse, Tennyson was an exacting critic and a master in a manner as definitely his own as Thomson’s, but with a greater claim to be compared with the finest of English non-dramatic blank verse, that is Milton’s. And when the theme is reflective, oratorical or dramatic—at least in monologue—Tennyson’s blank verse is melodious and sonorous, variously paused and felicitously drawn out into effective paragraphs. A continuous study reveals a greater monotony of effect than in Milton’s ever varied harmonies, and there is never the grand undertone of passion, of the storm that has raised the ground swell. It is in narrative that the faults of Tennyson’s blank verse become apparent—its too flagrant artificiality. The pauses and cadences are too carefully chosen, the diction too precious, the movement too mincing, the whole “too picked, too spruce, too affected”:
The over-exquisite elaboration of form is in keeping with Tennyson’s whole treatment of the old legends, rich in a colour and atmosphere of their own. With the spirit of the Arthurian stories, in which elements of a Celtic, primitive world are blended in a complex, now hardly to be disentangled, fashion with medieval chivalry and catholic, sacramental symbolism, the Victorian poet was out of sympathy. Neither the aimless fighting in which they abound, nor the cult of love as a passion so inspiring and ennobling that it glorified even sin, nor the mystical adoration of the Host and the ascetic quest of a spotless purity in the love and service of God, appealed deeply to Tennyson, who wished to give to the fighting a philanthropic purpose, to combine love with purity in marriage and to find the mystic revelation of God in the world in which we move and serve.
It is not easy to pour new wine into old bottles, to charge old stories with a new spirit. If Milton’s classical treatment of Biblical themes is a wonderful tour de force—and it is not a complete success—it is because the spirit of the poet and the poem is, after all, rather Hebraic than Hellenic. There is as much of the Hebrew prophets in his work as of the Greek poets. It is still harder to give a new soul to old legends if one is not quite sure what that soul is to be. The allegory which was to connect the whole, “the conflict continually maintained between the spirit and the flesh,” is, at once, too obvious and too vague, too vague as an interpretation of the story as a whole, too obvious when it appears as an occasional intrusion of a double meaning—in Gareth and Lynette or The Holy Grail. It was, indeed, a misfortune that Tennyson was determined to tie the tin kettle of a didactic intention to the tail of all poems of this period. The general moral significance of the old story was clear enough—“do after the good and leave the evil and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee”—and needed no philosophic pointer. The sole justification for rehandling the legends was the possibility of giving them a new and heightened poetic beauty and dramatic significance.
In the latter, the poet has certainly not wholly failed, and it is this dramatic significance, rather than the vague allegory, which connects the stories and gives to the series a power over and above the charm of the separate tales. As in In Memoriam, so in Idylls of the King, the connecting link between the parts is a gradually induced change of mood. Each Idyll has its dominant mood reflected in the story, the characters and the scenery in which these are set, from the bright youth and glad spring-tide of Gareth and Lynette to the disillusionment and flying yellow leaves of The Last Tournament, the mists and winter-cold of the parting with Guinevere and “that last, dim, weird battle of the west.” The dramatic background to this change of mood is the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the final test of Tennyson’s success or failure in his most ambitious work is his handling of this story; the most interesting group of characters are the four that contemplate each other with mournful and troubled eyes as in some novel of modern life, Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and Elaine. In part, Tennyson has succeeded, almost greatly; in part, he has inevitably failed. Elaine is perfect, a wonderful humanising of the earlier, half mystical Lady of Shalott. Lancelot, too, is surely a great study of the flower of knighthood caught in the trammels of an overpowering, ruining passion, a modern picture drawn on the lines of the old; and Guinevere, too, slightly, yet distinctly, drawn