TROUBADOURS and Trouvères! The English - speaking student of the early Provençal poetry feels himself constantly solicited and allured by the echoes of that antiphonal singing which men were beginning to essay north of the Loire, and which was fostered with especial enthusiasm at the Norman court and in the Norman halls of our own ancestral England. While William of Poitiers boasted of the vanquished hearts that vied for his choosing, or dolorously deplored the loves and luxuries which he left behind him when parting for the Holy Land, Wace was chanting the victories of Rollo in Normandy, the exploits of Brutus, and the woes of Lear, and Marie (that prototype of the modern literary lady, who felt that it would be wrong to suffer her powers to lie idle) was weaving into her Lay of the Honeysuckle an incident from the amours of Cornish Tristram and Irish Isolt. These are themes nearer to our Anglo - Norman hearts, or at least our imaginations, than most others of that primitive time; and when some of the foremost singers of our own generation apply themselves to illustrating the incomparable cycle of romances of which these are but the crude beginnings, we can no longer resist their fascination.
It is to be hoped that all true lovers of the laureate will re - read the Idyls of the King in the edition of 1875. Here, for the first time, we have these memorable poems, so strangely named idyls, and so unfortunate in the long intervals at which they appeared and in their lawless manner of straying before the public, arranged in an order which fairly exhibits their unity of purpose, their cumulative interest, and the matchless moral force and beauty of the one story of which they are all, the less equally with the greater, essential parts. We must also conclude, whether willingly or not, that the present is their final arrangement, since the author has himself added an epilogue or envoi, in which he formally presents to the reigning queen of England the complete series of poems, of which four of the most famous had been dedicated, on their first appearance, to the memory of the Prince Consort.
Not for itself, but through thy living love
For one to whom I made it o'er his grave
Sacred, accept this old, 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 mountainpeak
And cleaves to cairn and cromlech still; or him
Of Geoffrey’s book or him of Malleor’s.”
The fresh touches, which the reader familiar with the separate poems will detect in many parts of the united work, are almost all applied to the central figure of Arthur himself, —a figure which, despite its melancholy grandeur, more than one of the laureate’s critics have heretofore pronounced the weakest in his book. The outlines of that figure are now finished and strengthened. The lights of the king’s destiny are enhanced and its shadows deepened. The grandeur of his dream and the cruelty of his disappointment are set in more distinct and affecting contrast than before, and yet the changes and additions are made with so masterly a care and restraint that the result — for a wonder in the emendations of this or of any poet — is only and exceedingly beautiful. Some reasons will by and by be given for the private fancy that Mr. Tennyson’s Arthurian epic is not exactly, in all respects, what he once meant to make it; but it is fully an epic, vindicating the capacity of the age for that high style of composition made out of the proper epical material, that is to say, the mythology, the pre-literary traditions, and the first literature of the poet’s own country, with much the noblest of all epic heroes aud a marvelously picturesque group of subordinate characters. It can but enhance our admiration of his work to ascertain just how much of this impressive story the poet found ready to his hand in the ancient metrical and prose romances of England and France, especially in the two English authorities which he distinguishes in his final dedication, and how much we owe to his own inventive genius and exquisite skill in composition. This, in brief, is the argument of the complete poem.
Copyright, H. O. HOUGHTON & Co. 1876.
Arthur, believed of men to be the child of King Uther Pendragon and Ygerne, or Igerna, the Queen of Cornwall, was set on the throne of Britain by the might of the great magician Merlin. For then the Romans no longer ruled in the island, but it was rent by factions and laid waste by heathen hordes from over the seas. And Arthur was in truth not Uther’s son, but cast up, a babe, out of the stormy sea, being sent by Heaven to appease the land and establish the faith of Christ therein; and he was delivered to Merlin to be brought up. And Merlin sang of him at his coming, “ From the great deep to the great deep he goes.” Arthur founded a new order of knighthood, called that of the Round Table, and his knights he made swear to uphold the faith of Christ, and right all wrongs of men; and, above all, themselves to live chaste lives, each with the one woman of his sacred choice. Of the knights whom Arthur made, the first in time was Sir Bedivere, but the first in prowess, and his own dearest friend and brother-in-arms, was the famed Sir Launcelot of the Lake. Him Arthur sent to fetch his betrothed bride Guinevere out of the land of Cameliard, for she was a princess of that province, and the fairest woman upon earth. After Sir Launcelot, Arthur’s greatest knights were Sir Tristram of Lyoness, Sir Gawain, Sir Gareth, and Sir Modred, sons of Arthur’s reputed sister, the Queen of Orkney, and true grandsons of Uther Pendragon; Sir Kay, his foster-brother, Geraint, a tributary prince, Sir Pelleas of the Isles, Sir Galahad, and Sir Percivale. All these kept their vows for a time, and lived purely, and the heathen were overthrown in twelve great battles and the land was at peace. And Merlin, of his deep wisdom, showed Arthur how to rule, and made the cities of the realm beautiful by his magic arts, and built for the king, on a hill in the ancient city of Camelot, the most glorious palace under the sun. But first the great Sir Launcelot, who had loved Queen Guinevere from the time when he brought her to her wedding, broke his vows and sinned with her, and Arthur knew it not, nor, being himself incorruptible, so much as dreamed of this treachery for many years. Howbeit, others knew, and this sin became the occasion and excuse for many more. For then Sir Tristram of Lyoness loved guiltily Isolt the Fair, the wife of King Mark of Cornwall, and she returned his love, and in the end Mark slew Tristram, not in open fight, but treacherously, having tracked him to his lady’s bower. Next, Merlin the Wise was himself beguiled by a fair and wicked woman, — some say a sprite,— who robbed him of his mighty wit and allured him into some strange orison, so that he was lost to Arthur and no man saw him more. And Prince Geraint withdrew from Arthur’s court because he had heard the scandal against Queen Guinevere, and would not that his own true wife should be beloved by her. And Sir Pelleas of the Isles, being young and himself spotless, loved a lady who deceived him and was false with Sir Gawain, the reputed nephew of Arthur, which when Sir Pelleas knew he went mad for grief and shame. And Sir Galahad and Sir Percivale, who were also pure knights, grieved by the growing baseness of the time, vowed themselves to the quest of the Holy Grail or cup of the Last Supper, in the hope that if the sacred vessel were brought back among men, their hearts might become clean once more, and the work of the Lord and of the righteous king be revived. And Galahad found the grail, indeed, but was himself immediately caught away to heaven, and the holy vessel with him; but Percivale went into a monastery and took vows. There were many other knights also, who, following these, undertook the quest of the Holy Grail, but idly and from motives of vanity; and not being themselves pure, they could achieve nothing; but some perished on their adventures, and many went far astray and returned no more, so that the might of the Round Table was broken and the heathen were no longer held at bay. Erelong the treason of Launcelot was discovered to the king, and the queen fled and found sanctuary with the nuns in the convent of Almesbury, and Launcelot himself withdrew to his own realm over-seas, whither Arthur pursued and where he besieged him; albeit, Launcelot would not lift his hand against the king who had made him knight. Finally, while Arthur was yet away, Modred revolted and seized the crown, and Arthur, returning, met Modred and his forces in Lyoness, and there was fought a great battle in which an hundred thousand men were slain, and nearly all the remnant of the Round Table perished. Last of all, Arthur slew Modred in a single contest, and was himself wounded unto death, but certain queens removed him by ship from the battlefield, promising to cure his wounds in the mystic island of Avallon. Howbeit, he returned no more, and the prophecy was fulfilled, “From the great deep to the great deep he goes.”
Now it can hardly be necessary to say that for this mystical and moving tale there is not the faintest foundation in veracious history. We may cherish in our secret hearts, but we would blush to have discovered, the wild hope that Dr. Schliemann may yet drain some Welsh lake and lay bare Excalibur, or unearth the sculptured gates of sacred Camelot. What students of early mediæval literature do know for certain, and a gracious point of support they find it, is that the Normans marched to victory at the battle of Hastings to the unimaginable tune of the Chanson de Roland, as chanted by one Taillefer, who fell gallantly in the forefront of the invaders, with that rude strain upon his lips. But once planted and at peace in those ill-gotten new homes, — the remote inheritance of which is so particularly glorious, — the Norman gentry must have had but a dreary time of it, and they early learned to vary the monotony of their indoor entertainments by inviting the performances of the bards and wandering gleemen of the conquered land. Brutus, Lear, Merlin, Arthur, Tristram, Gawain, these were the heroes whom those gleemen sang, and their names, however barbarous to Norman ears, were new, or at least had been but rarely and faintly heard before in the echoes of Armoriean song, and their exploits made an exhilarating variety after the hackneyed tales of the Moorish wars and the monstrous rhymed biographies of Grecian heroes and early saints. We conclude, at all events, that this British lore had come fully into fashion eighty years after the Conquest; for then, in 1147, the enterprising monk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, himself a Norman, dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, his Historia Britonum, triumphantly announced as a Latin translation out of a “ precious treasure ” of early manuscript written on parchment, in the ancient British tongue, and brought to light with exultation by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, in a convent in Armorica. If such a manuscript ever existed, it was likely enough to have been found in Armorica, that early civilized and Christianized province, to which so many Britons fled for refuge during the era of the Saxon invasions that it came in time itself to be called Brittany. But whether or no the Walter who discovered it were Walter Mapes the poet, alias Calenius, a famous enthusiast in Celtic story, and himself the reputed author of sundry French Arthurian romances of the twelfth century, must depend, unhappily, on the date of Calenius’ birth, which some of the authorities place later, by a few years, than the appearance of Geoffrey’s book. And it is certainly remarkable that so Complete a work in prose should have been composed in any other tongue than monkish Latin, before the adoption by the Normans of the British legendary lore, and the date of the first prose romances. Moreover, there is, so to speak, an absurd consistency, an incredible richness and roundness, about Geoffrey’s tale which convince us that at least his Armorican material suffered nothing by its passage through his hands. Curious it is to learn from his conscientious chronology that Brutus, the grandson of Æneas, emigrated to Britain at the time when Eli governed Israel and the ark of the Lord was taken by the Philistines, that Lear divided his kingdom among his ingrate daughters in the days of Elijah, and that Christ was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Cymbeline. But our present concern is with Geoffrey’s Arthur only, a splendid figure, the clearly defined and obvious prototype of him who continued to shine without a peer in Norman song and story for more than three hundred years. Not until 1485 did Sir Thomas Malory sum up the growth of legend concerning the king and his knights in his Morte d’ Arthur, the latest and finest of the great chivalric romances, whose artless and beautiful phraseology Tennyson himself has not always cared to alter.
The following is the story of Arthur’s birth as it is told by Geoffrey, afterwards with more fullness of detail by the French romancers, and finally, with that added grace of characterization which was far beyond Geoffrey’s range, by Malory.
King Uther Pendragon was enamored of Igerna, the wife of Gorlöis, King of Cornwall, on which account Gorlöis shut her up in the strong castle of Tintagil, but himself withdrew to another castle, —“hight Terrabil,” says Sir Thomas Malory,—where Uther besieged, conquered, and slew him. The king, by the assistance of the magician Merlin, then assumed the appearance of Gorlöis and hastened to Tintagil, where Igerna gave him a wife’s welcome. Immediately he dropped his disguise, informed her of her husband’s death, and compelled her to wed him. Their child was Arthur.
In this narrative the only supernatural element is the transformation of Gorlöis by Merlin, and Merlin, Geoffrey candidly allows, was not canny. He was, by all accounts, the child of a mortal maiden and a spirit descended from one of the angels who fell with Lucifer, and bearing a general resemblance to the Dæmon of Socrates; not a common mode of origin, certainly, but one of which, the historian assures us, divers instances were known.1 The beautiful fancy of a dragon-shaped vessel, “ bright with a shining people on its decks,” which appeared off Tintagil on the night of Uther’s death without issue, and of the naked babe “ descending in the glory of the seas ” to the beach at Merlin’s feet, is Tennyson’s own. He made it, as a poet abundantly may, to correspond with the really ancient and tenacious fable that Arthur, when his lifework was ruined and his kingdom rent, passed to a sleep of ages in the isle of Avallon, but did not die. On the whole, it is worth, for purposes of art, the sacrifice of the rather touching scene in Malory where Igerna is roughly accused of treasonably protracting the quarrels over the succession, by concealing the circumstances of Arthur’s birth: “ Then spake Igraine and said, ‘ I am a woman, and I may not fight. . . . But Merlin knoweth well how King Uther came to me in the castle of Tintagil, in the likeness of my lord that was dead three hours tofore. And after, Uther wedded me, and, by his commandment, when the child was born it was delivered to Merlin and nourished by him; and so I saw the child never after, nor wot what is his name, for I knew him never yet.’ And there Ulfius said to the queen, ‘Merlin is more to blame than ye.’ ‘Well I wot,’ said the queen, ‘ that I bare a child by my lord, King Uther, but I wot not where he is become. ’ Then Merlin took King Arthur by the hand, saying, ‘ This is your mother! ’ And therewith King Arthur took his mother, Queen Igraine, in his arms and kissed her, and either wept upon other.”
The account of Arthur’s progressive subjugation of native factions and heathen invaders in the twelve great battles which Nennius had enumerated as early as the fifth century 1 is that which, in Tennyson, first fires our imagination and enlists our sympathy for the king. In both Geoffrey and Malory this pacification of the realm is dwarfed by comparison with the pompous details of Arthur’s Roman war, of victories over the Emperor Lucius Tiberius, a court held at Paris, and a coronation at Rome. All such chimeras the laureate’s fine sense of symmetry compelled him to dismiss in a single passage: —
The slowly-fading mistress of the world,
Strode in and claimed their tribute as of yore.
But Arthur spake, ‘ Behold, for these have sworn
To wage my wars and worship me their king ;
The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And we that fight for our fair father Christ,
Seeing that ye be grown too weak and old
To drive the heathen from your Roman wall,
No tribute will we pay : ’ so those great lords
Drew back in wrath, and Arthur strove with Rome.”
Indeed, a sovereign so enamored of foreign conquest as Geoffrey’s Arthur could hardly claim our sympathy for the ignominious but not very unnatural catastrophe of his reign, which the monk records in these few dry words: —
“As he was beginning to pass the Alps he had news brought him that his nephew Modred, to whose care he had entrusted Britain, had, by tyrannical and treasonable practices, set the crown upon his own head, and that Queen Guanhumara, in violation of her first marriage, had treasonably married him ” (!) This is actually the only time that the gracious Guinevere is mentioned by name in Geoffrey’s history, although she is alluded to in his thirteenth chapter, where he gives a description of the king’s coronation-feast, far more stately than Malory’s transcript from the French, and a worthier preliminary to Tennyson’s noble picture of the royal wedding. To this last is added, in the recent edition, a passage full of splendor: —
The sacred altar blossomed white with May,
The sun of May descended on their king,
They gazed on all earth'S beauty in their queen,
Rolled incense, and there passed along the hymns
A voice, as of the waters, while the two
Sware at the shrine of Christ a deathless love :
And Arthur said, ' Behold, thy doom is mine:
Let chance what will, I love thee to the death! ’
To whom the queen replied with drooping eyes,
‘ King and my lord, I love thee to the death ! ’
And holy Dubric spread his hands and spake,
' Reign ye, and live and love, and make the world
'Other, and may thy queen be one with thee,
And all this order of thy Table Round
Fulfill the boundless purpose of their king! ’ ”
Nor must we omit here to notice — for this also is new — the strange pæan sung by Arthur’s victorious knights as they march in the bridal procession, to the sound of trumpets, through a city “ all on fire with sun and cloth of gold; ” more especially the refrain, “Fall battleax and flash brand,” where the movement of the verse expresses so curiously the descent of the heavy-headed primitive weapon.
In a passage which is indirectly of unusual interest, as reflecting the Norman ideal of chivalry in the twelfth century, Geoffrey says that in the reign of Arthur “ Britain had arrived at such a pitch of grandeur that in abundance of riches, luxury of ornaments, and politeness of inhabitants, it far surpassed all other kingdoms. The knights in it, that were famous for chivalry, wore their clothes and arms all of the same color and fashion; and the women also, no less celebrated for their wit, wore all the same kind of apparel, and counted none worthy of their love but such as had given proof of their valor in three successive battles. Thus was the valor of the men an encouragement for the women’s chastity, and the love of the women a spur to the soldiers’ bravery. ”
And this is the sum of what the monk of Monmouth contributes to the epic of Arthur, if we except the matter-of-fact statement to the effect that after Arthur was mortally wounded he had himself conveyed to the island of Avallon, — where, by the way, was situated the Castle Perillous in which Lynette, or Linet, wrought so many cures,—in the hope that he might there be healed.
There is no allusion in Geoffrey’s chronicle to the mysterious manner of Merlin’s taking-off, although great stress is laid on his weight in Arthur’s councils, and his famous prophecy, which the monk had previously translated from an independent source, is incorporated with the Historia Britonum entire. Even the comparatively late English metrical romance of Merlin, although ten thousand lines long, is unfinished, and breaks off in the midst of the war in which Arthur engaged on behalf of Leodogran, the father of Guinevere. But there is little doubt that the story of the great magician’s dishonorable death is of French origin, as the name of his enchantress, whether Vivien or Niume, is undoubtedly French. In Malory, Merlin is made to foreshadow his own sombre end, at the same time that he foretells to Arthur the ruin of the kingdom through his marriage with Guinevere.
“ ‘ Ah,’ said King Arthur, ‘ ye are a marvelous man, but I marvel much at thy words that I must die in battle.’ ‘ Marvel not,’ said Merlin, ' for it is God’s will. ... But I may well be sorry,’ said Merlin, ' for I shall die a shameful death, — to be put in the earth quick, —and ye shall die a worshipful death.’ . . . So after these quests, it fell so that Merlin fell in dotage on one of the damsels of the lake. But Merlin would let her have no rest. . . . And ever she made Merlin good cheer till she learned of him all manner thing that she desired, and he was asotted upon her that he might not be from her. So on a time Merlin told Arthur that he should not dure long, but for all his crafts he should be put in the earth quick; and so he told the king many things that should befall, but always he warned the king to keep well his sword and the scabbard, for he told him how the sword and the scabbard should be stolen from him by a woman whom he trusted. Also he told King Arthur that he should miss him: ‘ Yet had ye lever than all your lands to have me again.’ 'Ah,’ said the king, ‘ since ye know of your adventure, purvey for it, and put away by your crafts that misadventure. ’ ‘ Nay,’ said Merlin, ‘ it will not be.’ So then he departed from the king. And within a while the damsel of the lake departed, and Merlin went with her, evermore, wheresoever she went. And often Merlin would have had her privily away by his subtle crafts. Then she made him swear that he should never do none enchantment upon her, if he would have his will. And so he sware. So slie and Merlin went over the seas. . . . And always Merlin lay about the lady to have her love, and she was ever passing weary of him, and fain would have been delivered of him, for she was afeard of him, because he was a devil’s son and she could not put him away by no means. And so it happed on a time that Merlin showed to her in a rock which was a great wonder, and wrought by enchantment, that went under a great stone. So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone, to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the marvels he could do.”
It will be seen that Malory has not distributed the balance of censure, so to speak, for the wizard’s unhappy end precisely as Tennyson does. But the passage is quoted entire because it illustrates better and more briefly than almost any other the miraculous development which Tennyson sometimes gives his material. The breathless interest and appalling beauty of the story of Merlin and Vivien as we have it in the Idyls, the sublime fitness of the scenery, the subtle analysis of instinct and motive, and, above all, the irresistible force and solemnity of the lesson conveyed, — they are all here in embryo, in this dreamy fragment of a garrulous old tale. But the power which can evolve the one out of the other seems to us like the power which causes the seed to grow. “ What thou sowest, thou sowest not that body which shall be, but bare grain; it may chance of wheat or of some other grain.”This is indeed the maker’s proper function among men, but here we see it almost in its highest exercise. Sir Thomas Malory himself must have possessed no small share of this vivifying and organizing power, or he never could have wrought, as he assuredly has, the heterogeneous materials which he collected from so many sources into a naïve, consistent, and affecting whole. But usually, except in one remarkable instance to be noticed hereafter, Tennyson’s mode of treatment is as great an advance in art and in refinement on Malory’s, as Malory’s is on the crudeness and puerility of Wace or the lusty coarseness of Thomas the Rhymer of Ercildoune.
The story of Geraint and Enid is more purely episodical than any other Idyl, and is derived from an entirely independent source. The story of Gareth and Lynette, as we have it in Tennyson, belongs wholly to the earlier and happier period of Arthur’s reign. Its events bear a general resemblance to those which are recounted, in this instance very much more at length, in Malory; and the marked peculiarities of Lynette, her rudeness and petulance and entire lack of the softer graces which belonged, as a rule, to the lady of chivalry, are fully indicated in the old story. In fact, Lynette, or Linet, is called in Malory the “ damsel savage,” although considerable stress is laid on her skill in the arts of healing, which she practiced on many a wounded knight besides Gareth in the Castle Perillous of her beautiful sister Lyonors. There is a very life-like scene in Malory where the mother of Gareth, Queen Belicent, alarmed at his protracted absence on his first adventure, appears at Arthur’s court and reproaches the king for the lad’s non-appearance, with the true, unreasoning fierceness of feminine anxiety; there is also a particularly pretty scene at court where Gareth and Lyonors finally meet and both confess to Arthur their love for one another.
“ And among all those ladies she [Lyonors] was named the fairest and peerless. Then when Sir Gareth saw her, there was many a goodly look and goodly words, that all men of worship had joy to behold them. Then came King Arthur and many other kings, and Dame Guinevere and the Queen of Orkney, and there the king asked his nephew, Sir Gareth, whether he would have that lady to his wife. ‘ My lord, wit you well that I love her above all ladies living.’ ' Now, fair lady,’ said King Arthur, ‘what say ye?’ ‘Most noble king,’ said Dame Liones, ‘wit you well that my lord, Sir Gareth, is to me more lever to have and hold as my husband than any king or prince; and if I may not have him I promise you I will never have none. For, my Lord Arthur, he is my first love, and he shall be my last.’” Malory, it will be observed, is that “ earlier ” author who says “ that Gareth married Lady Lyonors,” and a stately wedding is described, while Arthur is represented as taking rather an active part in bringing about the marriage of Lynette to Sir Gaberis, a comparatively obscure brother of Gareth, Modred, and Gawain, but still a very suitable parti for that spirited damsel. Malory’s Gareth continues to figure with distinction throughout Arthur’s reign, and is closely involved in its catastrophe. He was slain by Launcelot’s own hand “ unwittingly,” amid the bloodshed which followed the discovery by Modred of the great knight’s treason, thus causing Gawain, who, up to this time, quite consistently with his character in Malory, had been inclined to screen the distinguished lovers from Arthur’s wrath, to swear an oath of mortal vengeance against Launcelot, in performing which he was himself slain. Tennyson’s Gawain is identical with the Gawain of Malory, and hardly more elaborated: a brave, unprincipled man, adorned with all chivalric accomplishments, but of a vindictive temper, as unlike as possible to the proud and patient magnanimity of Arthur, Launcelot, and his own young brother, Gareth. “ For,” says Malory, “ after Sir Gareth had espied Sir Gawain’s conditions, he withdrew himself from his brother Sir Gawain’s fellowship, for he was vengeable, and where he hated he would be avenged with murder, and that hated Sir Gareth.”
Gawain though a frequent is seldom a principal actor in the great scene of Arthur’s life, and the sad story of Pelleas and Ettarre, in which he figures most conspicuously, is but the briefest of episodes in Malory, illustrating, hardly less remarkably than the story of Merlin and Vivien, Tennyson’s magnificent power of amplification. It is proper, however, to observe that the Gawain of all elder romance is a very different person from Malory’s, much more admirable and commonplace. His chivalric rank is second only to that of Launcelot and Tristram. He is the hero of many an honorable adventure, and is confidently identified with the golden - tongued Gwalzmai of the Welsh triads, as Tristram is identified with Tristan the Tumultuous, the son of Tallwyz.
Let us now consider briefly Tennyson’s treatment of the world-renowned story of Tristram and Isolt. The high antiquity of this tale, its peculiar picturesqueness, and the prominent place which it occupies in the Arthurian cycle of romances, including Malory’s, of which it constitutes at least a quarter part, would have led us to expect that the laureate would give it more space than he has done in the dreary fragment of The Last Tournament. That singular poem, as it first appeared independently, did certainly seem to deserve much of the severe criticism which it received for obscurity of style, repulsive details, and inconsequent action. It can hardly be re-read in its proper connection without receiving a tribute of admiration. The last ray of sunshine swallowed up in storm, the last gleam of honorable courtesy vanishing in a cynical and lazy libertinism, the last flamingup of passion quenched by a stealthy revenge; these things, and the dun, sallow tints of latest autumn in which they are all represented, give The Last Tournament a marvelous fitness for its place in the thick-coming shadows of an imminent tragedy. And yet every verse of the poem presupposes on the part of the reader a previous knowledge of the story of Tristram and Isolt, which most readers doubtless possess, but which the poet had, artistically speaking, no right to assume. And we cannot rid ourselves of the fancy that he once meant to have told it in full in a separate and earlier idyl. The epic, even in its latest form, falls short of the canonical number by two books. We infer from the introduction to the fine fragment which first appeared a generation ago under the title of Morte d’Arthur, and has since been expanded into the Passing of Arthur, that this, in the poet’s original scheme, was to have been the eleventh book of the epic. It seems impossible but that the earlier missing canto was to have rehearsed all of the romantic story, except its grim catastrophe, of those lovers who are so constantly compared with Launcelot and Guinevere in all old romance, nay, even poetically styled the only two in the world beside them. Why was this classic tale rejected? Was it because the poet deemed it too hackneyed, or because of its utter impracticability for that strenuous moral purpose which came so palpably to modify his treatment of the Arthurian story, and which must have deepened so fast between the purely æsthetic days of the Morte d’Arthur and those of the supreme idyl of Guinevere? Sir Walter Scott, in the fascinating preface to his edition of Thomas the Rhymer’s Tristram, speaks of the “ extreme ingratitude and profligacy of the hero.” In Malory, and apparently in the later French prose romance which he closely followed, these ugly qualities are veiled by every lesser chivalric grace, by consummate skill in music and the arts of the chase, and by an almost fantastic magnanimity in combat. But the character is essentially the same. Tristram is the most notorious and the most elegant of libertines; and the full knowledge and open toleration of his intrigues on the part of Arthur himself, as compared with his noble incredulity and righteous wrath when he was himself wronged, constitute the most glaring inconsistency in Malory’s romance, and the greatest blemish on the character of his king. In Malory, indeed, the dénouement of the story, which is the same as that recorded in The Last Tournament, is retributive, and so may be considered, in a general way, moral. There is another and much more commonly received ending, which may be called the sentimental, to distinguish it from the other. In this, Tristram, after deserting his wife, Isolt of the White Hands, and dallying a while with his former paramour, Isolt the wife of King Mark, returns again to Brittany, and receives in battle a wound from a poisoned spear which even the skill of his injured wife is powerless to cure. The sick man takes a fancy that Isolt the queen could cure him, and sends his faithful squire, Gouvernail, to beg her to come and save his life. His weakness warns him that the least delay will be fatal, and accordingly he orders Gouvernail on his return to the Breton coast to hoist white sails if he shall have prevailed on the queen to accompany him; black, if she shall have refused. Isolt the wife overhears the charge, and heartsick awaits the return of the vessel: when its approach is announced, and Tristram gasps out a question as to the color of the sails, she tells him a lie, says black, and he dies. And when Isolt the queen arrives, amid the universal lamentation over Tristram, she refuses to survive him.
It would be interesting to know whether the moral or the sentimental ending of the story is the elder. Sir Walter Scott assumes the latter, but does not give his reasons for so doing, and there seems at least a possibility that the moral ending may also be of great antiquity. Thomas of Ercildoune wrote his metrical romance of Sir Tristram somewhere about the middle of the thirteenth century. Sir Walter, in the preface and notes to his edition of this ancient English poem, has illustrated it with all the wealth of his curious antiquarian lore, and argues with much ardor for the Celtic origin and character of the story. He admits, however, that Marie’s Lay of the Honeysuckle, which relates one of its incidents, and two French metrical fragments which correspond much more closely with the Rhymer’s version than the later romances, are earlier than his; and the best modern French criticism places them nearly a century earlier. Now the Rhymer’s Tristram is incomplete. Not only are the illuminations which surmounted the original black-letter cut away from every page, but the last half of the last fytte or canto is gone entirely, and it is Scott who supplies the defect by adding the usual sentimental ending of the story in an exquisite imitation of Thomas’s own quaint verse, hardly to be distinguished from it in style, and much more tender and delicate in spirit. But it is singular that in one of the old French metrical fragments, whose place is near the end of the story, there is a passage which Sir Walter Scott himself quotes in his preface, for its bearing on another question, where the author, after saying that the tale was even then told in a great many different ways, proceeds to argue that it is absurd to suppose that Gouvernail could ever have gone to Cornwall and taken away Queen Isolt.2 How this author eventually disposed of the difficulty, we shall probably never know, but we may safely conclude that it was not exactly in the sentimental fashion. Here is a curious point for future researches.
We have now glanced at the originals of nearly all the great Arthurian heroes whom Tennyson has restored, except the two who move us most deeply — Launcelot the Peerless, and Galahad the Spotless. To these immortal figures we must allow a purely French origin. In Malory, and in the French prose romances of Launcelot du Lac and the Saint Grael, they are father and son. In the refined version of Tennyson it would hardly have been possible to admit this relation, yet it adds a peculiar interest and pathos to some of the scenes in that quest of the Holy Grail in which from motives so dissimilar they both engaged. For example, Malory tells us how once, during that fateful year of the quest, they met on board the ship which was conveying to their last rest the remains of Percivale’s holy sister. It was just before Sir Launcelot had the veiled vision which taught him that his own quest was vain, in an interval of his so-called madness, when he was enjoying a great but transitory peace of mind.
“ ‘ Ah,’ said Sir Launcelot, ‘ are ye Galahad? ’ ' Yea, forsooth,’said he. And so he kneeled down and asked him.
his blessing, and after took off his helm and kissed him. And there was great joy between them, for there is no tongue can tell the joy that they made either of other, and many a friendly word spoken between as kind would, the which is no need here to be rehearsed. And there every each told other of their adventures and marvels that were befallen to them in many journeys sith that they departed from the court. . . . So dwelled Launcelot and Galahad within that ship half a year, and served God daily and nightly with all their power. . . . Then came to the ship a knight armed all in white, and saluted the two knights on the high Lord’s behalf, and said, ‘ Galahad, sir, ye have been long enough with your father ; come out of the ship and go where the adventures shall lead thee in quest of the Sancgreal.' Then he went to his father and kissed him sweetly, and said, ' Fair, sweet father, I wot not when I shall see you more till I see the body of Jesu Christ.' ‘ I pray you,’said Launcelot, ‘ pray ye to the high Father that He hold me in his service.' And so he took his horse, and there they heard a voice that said, ' Think to do well, for the one shall never see the other before the dreadful day of doom.' ‘Now, son Galahad,’said Launcelot,
‘ since we shall depart, and never see other, I pray to the high Father to preserve both me and you both.' ‘ Sir,’said Galahad, ‘ no prayer availeth so much as yours! ' ”
Galahad’s death occurred shortly after, and Launcelot was never again at ease in his sin. The mighty struggles of this great and tender soul with the guilt that was crushing it are plainly foreshadowed in Malory, but of course they do not receive anything like the searching examination with which he is made in Tennyson to face his own “ remorseful pain " at the close of the thrilling episode of Elaine of Astolat; although otherwise, in this episode, Tennyson follows Malory with unusual closeness. The cruel reaction of Launcelot’s divided loyalties, the deep “ dishonor in which his heart’s honor was really rooted,” are set in stronger light than ever in Tennyson’s last edition in two interpolated passages of such unusual beauty and significance that we make room for them, our last quotations from the Idyls here. The first occurs on the threshold of the story, before Launcelot had sought and brought Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife, —which, by the way, in Malory, he does not do, — when Arthur had finally broken the might of the last insurgent army: —
As dreadful as the shout of one who sees
To one who sins and deems himself alone
And all the world asleep, they swerved and brake
Flying, and Arthur called to stay the brands
That hacked among the flyers. ‘Ho! They yield !’
So like a painted battle the war stood
Silenced, the living quiet as the dead,
And in the heart of Arthur joy was lord.
He laughed upon his warrior whom he loved
And honored most: ' Thou dost not doubt me king,
So well thine arm hath wrought for me to-day.’
' Sir and my liege,’ he cried, ‘ the fire of God
Descends upon thee in the battle-field ;
I know thee for my king ! ’ Whereat the two
Sware on the field of death a deathless love.
And Arthur said, ' Man’s word is God in man;
Let chance what will, I trust thee to the death.’ ”
And the second is after the final parting of the king and Guinevere: —
“ On their march to westward, Bedivere,
Who slowly paced among the slumbering host,
Heard in his tent the moanings of the king:
‘ I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find him not.
I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.
Oh, me ! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter in and make it beautiful?
Or else as if the world were wholly fair
But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,
And have not power to see it as it is :
Perchance because we see not to the close ;
For I, being simple, thought to work His will,
And have but stricken with the sword in vain,
And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend
Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm
Reels back into the beast and is no more.
My God, Thou hast forgotten me in my death!
Nay, God, my Christ; I pass, but shall not die.’ ”
So the king goes away into the mist and darkness of that “ last, dim, weird battle in the west,” —a marvelous picture in its wintry tints of white and monotonous gray, indelibly drawn on the memory of the present generation. And this, with Tennyson, is the end. But here at last we venture to think that the poet’s art has overreached itself, and that his finale, fine and imaginative though it be, is less impressive than that of the simple old master. It seems impossible to read the Idyls in their connection, and to go directly from Guinevere to the Passing of Arthur, from the verity, solemnity, and intense humanity of the former, and the extraordinary moral elevation which it induces, to the mists and portents and fairy uncertainties of the latter, without experiencing a painful shock and chill. The two poems, both so beautiful, belong to different spheres. There is a life-time, a spiritual revolution, between the two. Malory’s story and that of his “ French book ” by no means end with the battle. Is it possible that the absent twelfth book of Tennyson’s epic was to have related these subsequent incidents?
At all events Malory’s ending is realistic and credible, sad but satisfying. On the morning after Sir Bedivere had seen, as in a dream, the king conveyed away, he came in a maze of grief and weariness to a chapel, where he heard of a hurried funeral which had taken place there the midnight before. Certain weeping ladies had brought to this humble hermitage a stately corpse and prayed for it sepulture. “ Alas,” cried Sir Bedivere, “that was my Lord Arthur, and there he lies;” and Sir Bedivere straightway vowed to live always in that hermitage and pray for Arthur’s soul. But when the tidings of Arthur’s death had traveled over-seas, Launcelot arose in despair, and returning to England prayed for a last interview with Guinevere. It was granted, and they met in the cloister of her convent and in the presence of her nuns.
“ Then she said to all her ladies, ‘ Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knights of the world, for through our love that we have loved together is my most noble lord slain. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, wit thou well, I am set in such a plight to get my soul’s health; and yet I trust through God’s grace that after my death to have a sight of the blessed face of Christ, and at doomsday to sit on his right side; for as sinful as ever I was are saints in heaven. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, I require thee and beseech thee heartily, for all the love that ever was betwixt us, that thou never see me more in the visage; and I command thee on God’s behalf that thou forsake my company and to thy kingdom thou turn again and keep well thy realm from war and wrack. For as well as I have loved thee, my heart will not serve me to see thee; for through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, go to thine own realm and there take thee a wife and live with her with joy and bliss; and I pray thee heartily, pray for me to our Lord that I may amend my misliving.’ ' Now, sweet madam,’ said Sir Launcelot, ' would ye that I should return again to my country and there wed a lady? Nay, madam, wit you well that shall I never do, for I shall never be so false to you of that I have promised; but the same destiny that ye have taken you to, 1 will take me unto, for to please Jesu, and ever for you I cast me specially to pray. ... I insure you faithfully I will ever take me to penance, and pray while my life lasteth, if that I may find any hermit, either gray or white, that will receive me. Wherefore, madam, I pray you kiss me, and never no more.’ ' Nay,’ said the queen, ' that shall I never do, but abstain you from such works.’ And they departed. But there was never so hard an hearted man but he would have wept to see the dolor that they made.”
In all this there is a grave and simple fitness to the inalienable majesty of the guilty pair. They never met again; but six years later, after long prayer and penance, there came to Launcelot one night a vision, warning him to seek once more the convent at Almesbury, where he would find Guinevere dead, and to see that she was buried beside her lord, King Arthur.
“Then Sir Launcelot rose up or day, and told the hermit. ' It were well done,’ said the hermit, ' that ye made you ready, and that ye disobey not the vision.’ Then Sir Launcelot took seven followers with him, and on foot they went from Glastonbury to Almesbury, the which is little more than thirty miles. And thither they came within two days, for they were weak and feeble to go. And when Sir Launcelot was come to Almesbury, within the nunnery, Queen Guinevere died but half an hour before. And the ladies told Sir Launcelot that Queen Guinevere told them all, or she passed, that Sir Launcelot had been priest near a twelvemonth. ' And hither he cometh, as fast as he may, to fetch my corpse; and beside my lord King Arthur he shall bury me.’ Wherefore the queen said, in hearing of them all, 'I beseech Almighty God that I may never have power to see Sir Launcelot with my worldly eyes.’ ' And thus,’ said all the ladies, ' was ever her prayer these two days till she was dead.’ Then Sir Launcelot saw her visage, but he wept not greatly but sighed.”
The Idyls themselves contain no touch finer than this last. Sir Launcelot’s own release was not long delayed, " For he did never after eat but little meat, nor drank; and evermore night and day he prayed, but sometime slumbered a broken sleep, and ever he was lying groveling on the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere. ” His brethren remonstrated with him for his despair, but his answer was simple: " ' When I remember me how by my default, mine orgule, and my pride, that they were both laid full low that were peerless that ever was living of Christian people, wit you well,’ said Sir Launcelot, ' this remembered of their kindness and mine unkindness sank so to my heart that I might not sustain myself. ’ So the French book maketh mention. ”
In six weeks he also died. " Thou, Sir Launcelot,” cried his brother Sir Ector, as he stood by his wasted remains, " there thou liest that were never matched of earthly knight’s hand; and thou wert the courtiest knight that ever bare shield; and thou wert the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse; and thou wert the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou wert the kindest man that ever strake with sword; and thou wert the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights; and thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest. ”
It is evident that both Malory and the author of the “ French book” believed far too sincerely in the reality of their characters seriously to doubt that Arthur’s mysterious evanishment was indeed death. However, Malory observes that " some men yet say in many parts of England that Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu in another place. And men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: ‘Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus.’ ”
May not the laureate have closed his tale with Arthur’s mystic removal to Avallon rather than with these last affecting incidents,— which undoubtedly confirm our human sympathy with the creatures from whom we are now loath to part, —by way of additional tribute to the character of the Prince Consort, who seemed to him “scarce other than his own ideal knight,” as an unspoken professional intimation that in him the fancy of the early ages had actually found its fulfillment?
So much for the material out of which the great Victorian poet has constructed the frame of his most durable work. How entirely we owe to himself the spiritual unity and symmetry of it is too obvious for further remark. Yet we are far from agreeing with those who think that he has defaced the naïveté of ancient story by infusing into it a too modern scrupulousness. It is a question whether morality is ever modified by time so much as by those other influences, clime and race. The endeavor to cast off the conscience which we know, and to substitute for it the supposed conscience which regulated a by-gone state of society, almost always fails deplorably, sometimes disgustingly. Thus the Defense of Guinevere and the other Arthurian poems of William Morris, with all their melody and passion, barely escape repulsiveness; and for a similar reason the studies of Matthew Arnold in the Story of Tristram, though pretty, are in their fancied reality exquisitely unreal. It is the mistake of painting things preposterously because they “seem so,” which is the favorite foible of our generation in more than one branch of art. Chivalry, the motif of all mediæval romance, was the youngest dream concerning social relations of the modern world after its conversion to Christianity, — a part of the general ecstasy of its recent regeneration. It was the bright, audacious ideal of a love between mortal man and woman as wholly supersensual as the fabled love of the Redeemer for his bride, the church. The knight assumed, under the formal sanction of the church, a triple vow which constituted his practical religion: to serve his master Christ, to succor the defenseless, to love one woman and her supremely. It seems not naturally to have occurred to the Latinized mind of Southern Europe to inquire what woman. If — as indeed usually happened — she chanced to be the wife of another man, it was equal. The love of chivalry was a something which transcended all accidental relations and prudential arrangements. And the love which is so melodiously celebrated by the more refined of the Southern troubadours is, in very truth, just such a sublimated sentiment. It is incapable of coarse offense. Natural jealousy cannot attain unto it. We may listen for hours to the echoes of those rapturous lyrics, and find them always the same, sweet, ardent, innocent because unmoral, breathing an air of sunny license, awakening not the faintest vibration of the sense of right and wrong.
But the Trouvères and the minstrels were for the most part the descendants, or at least the near kindred, of those quaint barbarians of whom Tacitus wrote with languid wonder and approbation, “ Quanquam severa illic matrimonia nec ullam morum partem magis laudaveris.” The theoretic lady-love of the Norman or Scandinavian knight could hardly be other than his wife, present or future. Behold an earnest restriction ! The path of honor at once becomes narrow, strait, and difficult. All deviations from it are recognized as transgressions, all tragic results of such deviations as punishment. Where, as in the story of Launcelot and Guinevere, there are struggles, remorse, and a piteous expiation, our keenest sympathies are, no doubt, demanded, and not vainly, for those who love and sin. But where, as in the story of Tristram and Isolt, the constitutional instinct of chastity is unblushingly defied, the effect is one of extreme coarseness. Here is precisely the spirit of conscious and blasphemous brutality which M. Taine is always encountering amid his researches through our early literature, and which partly fascinates and partly horrifies, but always amazes him. He barely recognizes the apparently irresistible truth that the very impudence and desperation of the spirit in question argue the presence of a more tyrannous conscience than can be inferred from the milder and more graceful licentiousness of softer climes.
If there ever could have been a knightly Arthur, and he could ever have founded an ideal code and state, they may well have been essentially the code and state whose brief glory Tennyson has so splendidly portrayed. It was a sublime but very premature dream, the disappointment of which appeared inevitable even in the days of Malory. Let us derive what consolation we may from the fact that it appears no more than probable in the days of Tennyson.
Harriet W. Preston.
- For a monstrous amplification of this bit of “ history,” with the addition of all manner of unpleasant details, see abstract of the English metrical romance of Merlin, in Ellis’s Specimens of Early English Romances.↩
- “ Then it was that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, nnd fifth were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis; the sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britous call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion Castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, Mother of God, on his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Mary put the Saxons to flight and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the city of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Brenguorn, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest when Arthur penetrated to the Hill of Badon. . . . For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.” (Nennius, History of the Britons, A. D. 452.)↩
- “ Cist fust par tut la part conçus
E par tut le regne sius,
Qui de l'amur ert parjurers,
Et enuers Ysolt messagers.
Li reis l'en haiet mult forment;
Guaiter le feseit à sa gent;
E cument put-il dunc venir
Sun service à la caert offrir,” etc.
“ He [Gouvernail] was known in all those parts
And throughout the kingdom
As being privy to the love of [Tristram and Isolt],
And often sent with messages to Isolt.
The king hated him for it profoundly,
And had him watched by his people ;
How then could he come
To offer his service at the court,” etc.↩