Lord Tennyson in Camelot

Alfred Tennyson with book, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865

Alfred, Lord Tennyson spent most of his career as a poet in the realm of Arthurian legend. It was not by any means his only subject, but it was one to which he returned again and again. His definitive treatment of the rise and fall of Camelot, the book-length cycle, Idylls of the King, was written over a quarter of a century between 1859 and 1885. But much earlier, at the outset of his career, Tennyson identified the unrealized potential in this iconic British mythology, writing that, “most of the big things except ‘King Arthur’ had been done.”

Previous generations of Romantic poets had consciously rejected the subject. “As to Arthur…What have we to do with him,” asked Coleridge. Lord Byron was likewise disinterested. “By the by,” he wrote, “I fear that Sir Tristem and Sir Lancelot were no better than they should be…So much for chivalry. Burke need not have regretted that its days are over.” Yet Tennyson dared to assert the relevancy of the Arthurian tradition to the modern world, and in so doing, achieved not only a masterpiece, but a renewal of the Victorian imagination.

Tennyson first read Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century prose epic, Le Morte d’Arthur, in his youth. “The vision of Arthur as I have drawn him,” he later told his son, “came upon me when, little more than a boy, I first lighted upon Malory.” Tennyson understood the character as “a man who spent himself in the cause of honour, duty and self-sacrifice, who felt and aspired with his nobler knights, though with a stronger and clearer conscience than any of them.”

It was not immediately clear to Tennyson how to approach the subject. In the 1830s he wrote four different poems that dealt with Arthur and Camelot in various ways. He also experimented with treatments and arrangements of the material in four outlines written during the same period.

The outlines were composed in the early 1830s, probably around 1833. The first describes the landscape of Camelot in prose, focusing on the mountain where Arthur’s hall was built: “The Mount was the most beautiful in the world…but all underneath it was hollow, and the mountain trembled…and there ran a prophecy that the mountain and the city on some wild morning would topple into the abyss and be no more.” The second outline records the symbolism that the young Tennyson attributed to various characters: the two Guineveres represent primitive Christianity versus Roman Catholicism; Mordred, the skeptical understanding; Merlin, science; the Round Table, liberal institutions; Excalibar, war. Another outline arranges the cast of characters based on their relationships to one another. The last is a proposed sequence for a five-act narrative connecting the legends. While none of these early sketches exactly predicted the form that Tennyson’s mature work would take, they give a sense of the systematic approach he used to arrive at it.

The most famous of the poems from this period was The Lady of Shalott. It was based on a medieval Italian novelette from the thirteenth century collection, Cento Novelle Antiche. Tennyson was, at the time, unfamiliar with Malory’s version of the tale and later said, “I doubt whether I should ever have put it in that shape if I had been then aware of the Maid of Astolat in Mori Arthur.” The subtext in Tennyson’s rendering is the movement of the artist from isolation and imitation of the world into experience of the world—in Tennyson’s words, “out of the region of shadows into that of realities.” To develop this theme, Tennyson modified the story substantially. Several important elements, like the Lady’s mirror, are his invention, not present in the original source.

The other three poems were Sir Launcelot and Queen GuinevereSir Galahad, and the Morte d’Arthur. In all of them Tennyson pays close attention to imagery, often expanding upon depictions in Malory’s narrative for heightened emphasis. For example, he turns Malory’s fairly straightforward image of Excalibur as a sword decorated with precious stones into a sword that “twinkled with diamond studs, / Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work / Of subtlest jewellery.” But he also drew out and expanded the interior life of the characters. The dramatic last words that Tennyson gives to Arthur, while of his own invention, add to Malory rather than contradicting him. The emphasis of Arthur’s speech in the Morte d’Arthur is on prayer; Arthur says, “More things are wrought by prayer / Than this world dreams of.” The entire speech reflects Tennyson’s skill at weaving his own moral vision into a poem that remains relatively faithful to the source material.

By the 1840s Tennyson had found in King Arthur a figure who could represent idealism and faith for Victorian society. His early experimentations would bear fruit in the Idylls of the King. In that work Tennyson navigated the knife’s edge between the heroic and tragic, achieving something sublime. In the end Arthur slays the traitor Mordred in battle but is left “all but slain himself,” his kingdom fallen. As in Malory, he is last seen taken by boat toward the mythical island of Avalon, “Somewhere far off, pass[ing] on and on, and go[ing] / From less to less and vanish[ing] into light.” To cite Tennyson’s own early symbolism: faith and virtue overcome materialism and doubt, but not without a cost. And indeed, the Victorian faith—Tennyson’s own faith—was even then retreating into mystery and mysticism. But this was not a final retreat. Arthur is an inherently Christlike figure, destined to “come again / To rule once more.” The Idylls end with another beginning: “And the new sun rose bringing the new year.”

Writing about the Victorian period at the turn of the millennium, philosopher John Michell recalled,

In my childhood some sixty years ago the code of behaviour one was supposed to live by was properly called Victorian. One source of that code was the Bible, and another was the romance of King Arthur. Putting them together, the Victorians conceived an ideal type of modern human being, the fair, kind, and honourable Christian gentleman.

Tennyson is in part to thank for that wonderful ideal.

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