While bringing Irish Iseult to King Mark at the beginning of Tristram of Lyonesse, Swinburne's hero introduces Iseult (and the unfamiliar reader as well) to the whole body of Arthurian myth that surrounds Tristram and Iseult's story. The two are sailing aboard the Swallow when
the soft speech between them grew again
With questionings and records of what men
Rose mightiest, and what names of love or fight
Shone starriest overhead of queen or knight. [Poems, IV, 27]
Among these "records," Tristram recounts the experiences of the knight Balen, whose legend Swinburne took up thirteen years after the publication of Tristram in his second grand poem on Arthurian themes, The Tale of Balen (published in 1896) . Tristram's brief description of Balen's life serves as a virtual precis of the later work, revealing how little Swinburne's essential conception of the heroic character and fate of Balen changed during almost two decades. Swinburne summarizes Tristram's view of "the toil of Balen," who, for all his labor and virtue and for "all his days," reaped
but thorns for fruit and tears for praise,
Whose hap was evil as his heart was good,
And all his works and ways by wold and wood
Led through much pain to one last labouring day
When blood for tears washed grief with life away. [Poems, IV, 29] [133/134]
The emphasis here, as in the Tale itself, is upon Balen's deeds and his innocence. In this last truly important Victorian medievalist poem, the good knight's various attempts to cleanse and regenerate an irretrievably corrupt world are ineffectual.
The omission of Balen from most critical considerations of Swinburne's accomplishment is surprising since his Tale is a dense and extraordinarily energetic work.1 As is typical of Swinburne, this long narrative poem is self-consciously innovative, if not revolutionary. Indeed, because of its unique form and unusual prosody as well as its energy and poignancy, the work was much admired by its initial reviewers and early critics. As Clyde Hyder recalls, "The Times suggests that [Balen] is not 'unworthy of comparison with the efforts of the late Poet Laureate.'The Saturday Review more justly reflects that Swinburne's version is truer to the spirit of the old story" (224-25). Hyder reinforces such commentaries, insisting that "the skillful use of the nine-line stanza for narrative purposes could not fail to excite admiration." Comments by significant early ciritics support his contention. T. Earle Welby describes Balen as "the freshest, most human, most lucid, least straining long poem of Swinburne's last twenty years . . . full of its own youth and of the clean sharp air of his native Northumberland" (152, 115). The poem is, for Welby, one of Swinburne's "masterpieces on the great scale." Georges Lafourcade insists that Balen is a "subtle and powerful" poem (225). Even more forcefully, Samuel Chew asserts that it "is certainly the finest achievement of Swinburne's later life, an extraordinarily fresh evocation of the spirit of adventure, of chivalry, and of the wild northern country" (183-84). Regarding Swinburne's "metrical feat," Chew observes, "the stanza is varied in tone and color to suit the sense, now light and dancing, now swift, trenchant and severe."
However, the only recent critic to concur with these early evaluations is Jerome McGann, who argues that Balen "is graced with a [134/135] richness and artistic ease which only come when a poet's mind and crafthave reached maturity" (McGann, 258). In contrast, McSweeney's enthusiasm for Balen is minimal (192). Despite McGann's often incisive discussion of the poem and despite the visibly rapid growth of interest in Swinburne's works and their remarkable influence on his contemporaries as well as on subsequent generations of writers, however, no thorough and sympathetic analysis of Balen has yet appeared. Such an analysis not only helps to refute the gradually dissolving commonplace among Victorianists that Swinburne entered his dotage after 1879. It also demonstrates the extent to which the poet continued until the end of the century to be a major force in the extremely complex and persistent developments of Victorian medievalism.
In The Tale of Balen, Swinburne once again confronts and overturns the typically Victorian idealization of medieval times, particularly the "Golden Age" of Arthur. In his conception of history as essentially cyclical, this age, like any other, is characterized by the agonies of disappointed love, by travail and Empedoclean strife, by the futile battle against evil, by dissimulation of all kinds and, perhaps most significantly, by a hopeless tangle of moral uncertainties and ambiguities that always frustrate and eventually destroy the stalwart and ingenuous heart. As McGann carefully points out in his treatment of the Tale, the world of Camelot is thoroughly corrupt. Unlike its depiction in the early books of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, the image of Arthur's realm and the forces that control it in Swinburne's poem is a morally bleak one: "In the world ruled by Arthur nothing is innocent or even what it seems: all pleasures are delusive joys or entirely illusory, while all pain is cruelty and viciousness developed through forms of deception or cowardice or self-indulgence" (McGann, 260). Through his inversion of Victorian preconceptions about the medieval world, but also by means of other radically innovative procedures and techniques, Swinburne constructs a remarkable poem, one whose central thematic concerns are Love and Fate, as is the case with his other major works set in medieval times. But here Swinburne extends his previous uses of medieval sources and a medieval atmosphere by thoroughly Hellenizing his subject matter. Although much of the poem's [135/136] starkly compressed narrative is taken up with intense descriptions of chivalric warfare, the events described are not fundamentally romantic. Balen's martial successes (like Oedipus' apparent accomplishments) only lead Balen closer to the malignant fate that Merlin continually reminds us is inevitable for him. Similarly, the love focused on here is always fraternal or filial (appropriate to the feudal context) rather than erotic, and Balen's dedication to his fellow man always turns out badly, if not tragically, for those he seeks to aid and for himself. As a result, the poem is fraught with dramatic ironies and with highly realistic moral ambiguities. Both depend, in large part, upon Swinburne's careful depiction of his hero as an ingenuous, exuberant, and stoical knight. Swinburne's "Balen the Wild" is not, like the antihero of Tennyson's idyll, an irrepressibly savage man. He is, instead, a vital and morally pure primitive. He is quintessential Romantic man, but his energies and admirable moral inclinations serve only tragic and therefore dolorously unromantic ends.
Essential to Swinburne's endeavor in Balen are its form, its prosody, and its image patterns, all of which prove to be obstacles to readers' enjoyment of the Tale but which themselves constitute crucial archaisms reinforcing the poem's medieval atmosphere as well as its tragic view of the human condition. In the Dedicatory Epistle to his collected Poems, Swinburne explains:
The form . . . was chosen as a test of the truth of my conviction that such a work could be done better on the straitest and strictest principles of verse than on the looser and more slippery lines of mediaeval or modern improvisation. The impulsive and irregular verse which had been held sufficient for the stanza selected or accepted by Thornton and by Tennyson seemed capable of improvement and invigoration as a vehicle or a medium for poetic narrative. And I think it has not been found unfit to give something of the dignity as well as facility to a narrative which recasts in modern English verse one of the noblest and loveliest old English legends. [Hyder (ed.), Swinburne Replies, 105.]
Yet Swinburne himself at first had reservations about the poem's form and prosody, as he implies in a letter to Theodore Watts six months before Balen's publication. Visiting his ailing mother, Swinburne recounts that "I have just had a very pleasant interview with her and [136/137] read her part of the tale of Balen in Mallory [sic] and the first fytte of my poem, which she seems much pleased with-metre and all" (Letters, VI, 85).
Like Swinburne's mother, early readers of The Tale of Balen seemed to find its prosody no barrier to enjoyment, though modern critics seem daunted by the highly alliterative and densely rhymed nine-line stanzas. Philip Henderson observes that "the poem has been highly praised, but a metre resembling 'The Lady of Shalott' becomes almost unendurable when spun out to such a length" (273). The resemblance between Swinburne's iambic tetrameter stanzas and those of Tennyson's poem is immediately apparent to every reader and seems with the same immediacy to be appropriately "medieval." Although few readers pursue the reasons for this nearly subliminal perception, they are quite clear. The use of frequent repetition, of short lines, and of predominantly monosyllabic words results in the appearance of an almost balladic simplicity that, because of entrenched literary prejudices, we at once associate with the "primitive" past, i.e., with medieval times. Yet for Swinburne, as for Tennyson, these deceptively unsophisticated stanzas that evoke a medieval atmosphere can be used to achieve complex, sometimes sublime effects. In Balen they do suggest a return to natural primitivism, which is reinforced by abundant nature imagery; they allow for the extremely compressed depiction of intense action (especially in battle scenes); and they enable the poet repeatedly to underscore his tragic world view by means of simple understatement and frequent ironies.
In his attempt to generate a medieval atmosphere, Swinburne employs nature imagery copiously. Like Tennyson's Idylls, The Tale of Balen is organized seasonally. Its seven sections begin with an evocative description of springtime, and its final "fytte" starts with a philosophical depiction of winter, which for "northern men" inspires "Music that bids the spirit sing / And day give thanks for night." Between the seasonal frames, the poem is dense with similes and metaphors from nature, reinforcing our identification of Balen as primitive man. Much like Tristram, he is a virtuous extension of nature, which is throughout the poem a benevolent force, though it has no control over any heroic individual's inevitably tragic fate. [137/138]
Stanza one of the first section typifies Swinburne's use of nature imagery and simple langauge to create an exuberant mood and to achieve transcendental thematic effects.
In hawthorn-time the heart grows light,
The world is sweet in sound and sight,
Glad thoughts and birds take flower and flight,
The heather kindles toward the light,
The whin is frankincense and flame.
And be it for strife or be it for love
The falcon quickens as the dove
When earth is touched from heaven above
With joythatknowsnoname. [Poems, IV, 157]
Swinburne presents us here with the Empedoclean world of his poem governed by Mars and Venus, the falcon and the dove, strife and love. It is a world that is nonetheless innocent-indeed, intractably regenerate (perpetually quickened "When . . . touched from heaven"), at least as far as nature land Balen) are concerned. In the next stanza we find that the "northern child" Balen
glad in spirit and sad in soul
With dream and doubt of days that roll
As waves that race and find no goal
Rode on by bush and brake and bole. [Poems, IV, 157]
The simple diction and imagery in this passage underscore Balen's oneness with the seminal benevolent and destructive forces of nature. He is a medieval brother, not only to Balan, but also to Swinburne's Chastelard, Meleager, Thalassius, and Tristram.
Throughout Balen, Swinburne uses these images to suggest a return to nature that Victorians such as Ruskin and Morris continually associated with medieval times. (For instance, the pun on the word nature in Ruskin's famous chapter "The Nature of Gothic" has to my knowledge not yet been mentioned by his critics.) He also employs images from nature to enhance the medieval atmosphere. Pre-Raphaelite effects periodically suspend the poem's intense action and provide tableaux, as in a Gothic tapestry. Our eyes are drawn from the activity of man to the significant stasis of nature, which reflects the benevolent generative forces always at work in the world: [138/139]
And down a dim deep woodland way
They rode between the boughs asway
With flickering winds whose flash and play
Made sunlight sunnier where the day
Laughed, leapt, and fluttered like a bird
Caught in a light loose leafy net
That earth for amorous heaven had set
To hold and see the sundawn yet
And hear what morning heard. [Poems, IV, 201]
This is a striking example of a Pre-Raphaelite "special moment" in which, as Jeffrey Prince has observed, characters "often half mad with the acute deliquescence of their world . . . tend to dwell on isolated moments of intense sensation which lend meaning to their thwarted lives" (350).
Beyond the nature imagery that evokes a primitive atmosphere and the static qualities typical of medieval art, the versification in Balen enables Swinburne to compress action in balladic fashion. The most expert and prolific of Victorian ballad writers, Swinburne enunciates in his essay "The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti" his central ideas about the ballad as a literary form:
The highest form of ballad requires from a poet at once narrative power, lyrical, and dramatic; it must hold in fusion these three faculties at once, or fail of its mark: it must condense the large loose fluency of romantic taletelling into tight and intense brevity; it must give as in summary the result and extract of events and emotions, without the exhibition of their gradual change and growth which a romance of the older type or the newer must lay open to us in order; it must be swifter to step and sharper of stroke than any other form of poetry. The writer of a first-rate tragic ballad must be yet more select in his matter and terse in his treatment of what he selects from the heap of possible incident, than Chaucer in the compilation of his "Knight's Tale" from the epic romance of Boccaccio, or Morris in the sculpture of his noble master-poem, "The Lovers of Gudrun," from the unhewn rock of a half-formed history or a half-grown legend. Ballads have been cut out of such poems as these, even as they were carven out of shapeless chronicles. There can be no pause in a ballad, and no excess; nothing that flags, nothing that overflows; there must be no waste of a word or a minute in the course of its rapid and fiery motion. [Bonchurch, IV, 27] [139/140]
Two passages in which Swinburne exploits the potential effects of balladic compression are especially instructive. For instance, when Balen and his brother successfully confront the forces of King Ryons, Arthur's Welsh foe, they
smote their strong king down, ere yet
His hurrying horde of spears might get
Fierce vantage of them. Then the fight
Grew great and joyous as it grew,
For left and right those brethren slew,
Till all the lawn waxed red with dew
More deep than dews of night. [Poems, IV, 187]
The extreme telescoping of action here contributes to the medieval atmosphere by suggesting a historical distance that Swinburne confirms in the next stanza: "And ere the full fierce tale was read / Full forty lay before them dead." The tumultuous events just described have immediately become petrified as a tale.
Events and the hero's response to them are similarly compressed early in the fourth section of the poem when Balen confronts Launceor. He pursued Balen with Arthur's sanction after Balen had rashly beheaded his own enemy but Arthur's friend, the Lady of the Lake, and fled Camelot (fytte three).
Balen's spear through Launceor's shield
Clove as a ploughshare cleaves the field
And pierced the hauberk triple-steeled,
That horse with horseman stricken reeled,
And as a storm-breached rock falls, fell
And Balen turned his horse again
And wist not yet his foe lay slain,
And saw him dead that sought his bane
And wrought and fared not well. [Poems, IV, 177]
Here, besides achieving remarkable compression and explosive energy, we find Swinburne making careful use of his stanza's ninth, trimeter line to force upon us, through the kind of ironic understatement typical of Malory and Chaucer, an awareness of Balen's pervasively tragic world view. Immediately afterwards, musing "in manyminded mood / If life or death were evil or good," Balen watches helplessly as Launceor's distraught "maiden flower-like white" appears [140/141] suddenly from the woods and kills herself — she "struck one swift and bitter stroke / That healed her, and she died." Such unanticipated tragedies punctuate the Tale and reinforce its fatalism. Swinburne in fact throughout the poem associates his medieval subject and the work's medievalist form and atmosphere with specifically Greek conceptions of the tragic human condition, a procedure that is neither illogical nor unprecedented.
Associations of the medieval with the Hellenic and specifically with Homer, though lost to most of Swinburne's contemporaries, have their roots in the eighteenth century. Alice Chandler cites such an association in the works of both Richard Hurd (who published Letters on Chivalry and Romance in 1760) and Thomas Warton: "Hurd wrote in a passage that seems to mark the ending of an exclusively neoclassic ideal that Homer would have preferred the Middle Ages to his own times 'for the improved gallantry of the feudal limes and the superior solemnity of their superstitions.' This idea was echoed in The History of English Poetry (1774-81) by Thomas Warton who claimed that medieval manners had 'the same common merit with the pictures in Homer, that of being founded in truth and reality'" (Chandler, 17). That Arthurian and Trojan themes are two of the central sources of subject matter for medieval romanceurs reveals how natural the connection between them is, but it was one seldom made during the nineteenth century. However, Swinburne, conscious in his usual scholarly fashion of his place in literary tradition, revives the historical association between Greek and Arthurian mythology. Discussing The Tale of Balen in the Dedicatory Epistle to his collected Poems, Swinburne observes:
The age when these [Arthurian] romances actually lived side by side with the reviving legends of Thebes and Troy, not in the crude and bloodless forms of Celtic and archaic fancy but in the ampler and manlier developments of Teutonic and medieval imagination, was the age of Dante and Chaucer....
There is no episode in the cycle of Arthurian romance more genuinely Homeric in its sublime simplicity of submission to the masterdom of fate than that which I have rather reproduced than recast in "The Tale of Balen": and impossible as it is to render the text or express the spirit of the lliad in prose or rhyme — above all, in English blank verse-it is possible in such a metre as was chosen and refashioned for this poem, to give some sense of the rage and rapture of battle for which Homer himself could only find fit and full expression by similitudes drawn like mine from . . . the sea. [Hyder, 141/142]
The identification of the Hellenic and the medieval depends, of course, on the intense fatalism Swinburne perceives at the heart of both cultures' mythologies. Significantly, it is a perception that only a few of his contemporaries, including Hardy and Arnold, would have shared, but it is one with which Georges Lafourcade concurs. He explains that in Balen, Swinburne has "returned to the more sober style and monotonous metre of his early poems; with unfailing instinct he has recaptured the essential features of the medieval theme — he sense of unjust oppressive doom heroically endured." Appropriately, Lafourcade concludes his discussion of the poem with a deft observation: "Balen is to Tristram what Erechtheus is to Atalanta" (225). Swinburne would certainly have approved this juxtaposition of medieval narrative and Greek tragedy.
The tragic implications of Balen's life and the fatalistic world view that this poem propounds are monitored throughout the Tale by the narrator as well as by Merlin, who functions virtually as a symbol of Fate. The narrator, too, continually reminds us that his hero's "hap was evil as his heart was good." In the course of the poem's events Balen is motivated principally by filial and feudal ties-by his remarkable, entirely democratic loyalty to all men and women who are not clearly enemies and by his unshakable loyalty to Arthur, who in Swinburne's poem lacks both wisdom and vision. Like nearly all of Balen's characters including the hero himself, Arthur repeatedly acts in rash, uninformed ways. Surrounding every event in the tale, moreover, is an atmosphere of moral ambiguity that, as in all tragedies, lends force to the poem's fatalism.
The omnipresence of "doom" is articulated in the first stanzas of each section of the poem, and it is always described with metaphors from nature. These descriptions help to define the poem's symmetrical structure and emphasize its fundamental concern with mutability and with the inseparability of all contraries in the cycles of nature, history, and every man's life-generation and destruction, triumph and defeat, joy and grief. In the poem's third stanza we are introduced to a constitutionally ebullient Balen, whose "blood and breath / Sang out within him" and for whom "time and death / Were even as words [142/143] a dreamer saith." Balen is a monist, a pantheist, and a stoic, as are all Swinburne's unequivocal heroes. For him
light and life and spring were one.
The steed between his knees that sprang,
The moors and woods that shone and sang,
The hours where through the spring's breath rang,
Seemed ageless as the sun.
But we learn immediately that despite his exultant, Wordsworthian communion with the objects and spirit of nature,
His soul forfelt a shadow of doom,
His heart foreknew a gloomier gloom
Than closes all men's equal ways. [Poems, IV, 157-58]
At every turn in the poem we are reminded of that "shadow of doom," sometimes with a heavy-handedness that becomes oppressive. The narrator serves, in one role, as a fatalistic choral voice, as does Merlin throughout the poem. At the beginning of section seven, parallel to the opening of every other section, the entirely sympathetic narrator repeats that
Aloud and dark as hell or hate
Round salen s head the wind of fate
slew storm and cloud from death's wide gate:
sut joy as grief in him was great
To face God's doom and live or die,
sorrowing for ill wrought unaware,
Rejoicing in desire to dare
All ill that innocence might bear
With changeless heart and eye. [Poems, IV, 214]
Despite alarming prophecies and events that confirm them, Balen maintains an irrepressible spirit. His autonomy, stoicism, and tenacity are subtly but ingeniously defined in this passage by Swinburne's pun on bear. Balen simultaneously endures evil, unwittingly conveys it to others, and exposes it in the Arthurian world.
One evil that Balen quite literally bears throughout the poem is the sword Malison, which he wins from the distressed maiden captive to it in the first fytte. As the central symbol of fate, it is the vehicle for all Balen's unwitting "evil" deeds, which include his killing the Lady of the Lake, Launceor, Garlon, and his own brother Balan. Each sword stroke for Balen is increasingly dolorous. But two additional and sub [143/144] ordinate emblems of fate's malignancy also appear, each presiding over approximately half the poem. The first is Arthur; the second, Balen's foe Garlon.
Arthur is himself a victim of inscrutable forces but also the indirect cause of Balen's fate, insofar as Balen is continually trying either to placate or to please his monarch. Digressing from the legend as it appears in Malory, Swinburne periodically in the first half of his narrative allows the forbidding shadow of Arthur's incestuous relationship with Morgause and its fatal consequence (Mordred) to interrupt and dominate his hero's own experiences. Morgause appears first at Camelot, just before Balen releases the maiden from Malison's spell, and then at the funeral of her husband, King Lot, who unsuccessfully attempts to rescue King Ryons, his brother whom Balen has captured. During both of Morgause's appearances Swinburne makes ironic use of eye imagery to remind us of fate's inevitability and to suggest the ominous interaction throughout the Arthurian saga between Arthur's blind rashness and Merlin's futile vision.
At Camelot in the poem's second fytte, Morgause is described, significantly, sitting between two other ill-fated Arthurian beauties, Iseult and Guenevere, but Morgause is "darklier doomed than they whose cheer / Foreshadowed not yet the deadlier year / That bids the queenliest head bow down" (Poems, IV, 163). As Morgause views vain attempts by various knights to liberate the maiden from the power of Malison, her "eyes / That dwelt on days afar," alternating "bright and dark, . . . / Shone strange as fate" (Poems, IV, 166). Shortly, in a striking instance of foreshadowing after Lamoracke fails to draw the mysterious sword, Morgause's eyes meet Arthur's,
And one in blood and one in sin
Their hearts caught fire of pain within
And knew no goal for them to sin
But death that guerdons guilt. [Poems, IV, 164]
The inevitability of continued suffering and corruption, of ruined dreams, and of evil's ultimate dominion in the world is affirmed once more with eye imagery at the end of the poem's fifth section when Morgause mourns Lot's death:
The splendour of her sovereign eyes
Flashed darkness deeper than the skies [144/145]
Feel or fear when the sunset dies
On his that felt as midnight rise
Their doom upon them, there undone
By faith in fear ere thought could yield
A shadowy sense of days revealed,
The ravin of the final field,
The terror of their son.
For Arthur's, as they caught the light
That sought and durst not seek his sight,
Darkened, and all his spirit's might
Withered within him even as night
Withers when sunrise thrills the sea.
But Mordred's lightened as with fire
That smote his mother and his sire
With darkling doom and deep desire
That bade its darkness be. [Poems, IV, 195]
Deftly, Swinburne here reveals that Arthur and the ideals he represents are not sovereign in the world of Camelot. In league with Mordred, Morgause presides over events while her ruthlessly destructive son by Arthur is a functionary of "darkling doom." Thus, both occasions on which the larger Arthurian myth is introduced during the first half of Balen serve to reinforce the poem's tragedy and to enhance the significance of Balen's traditionally subordinate tale and our response to it.
Through much of the second half of the narrative, Garlon, King Pellam's brother who is repeatedly described as "the invisible evil," symbolizes Fate, just as Arthur is an emblem of its power in the world during the first half. Early in the sixth section (the poem's last two fyttes are half the work), Balen encounters the first of Garlon's victims that we hear of, an anonymous wayfaring knight accompanied by a maiden. At Arthur's request, Balen pursues him. In his usual fraternal manner Balen, knowing nothing at all of the knight's background, spontaneously agrees to be his protector: "I / Will be your warrant or will die" (Poems, IV, 200). Then at Arthur's very doorstep a symbolic challenge to the establishment of any dreams of order or the survival of goodness in the world unexpectedly occurs:
Suddenly fell the strange knight, slain
By one that came and went again
And none might see him; but his spear
Clove through the body, swift as fire. [Poems, IV, 200) [145/146]
This victim of Garlon is significantly like Balen in being "one that death held dear," a "man whose doom" is "forefelt as dire." But he is unlike Balen because his premonitions "Had darkened all his life's desire." Balen never fears Garlon while pursuing him after this event, nor ultimately does he fear death itself. In the Tale's last scene, unknowingly about to fight his own brother, Balen demonstrates the stoic resignation that is, throughout the narrative, the counterpart of his indefatigable zest for life. He says,
"Be it life or death, my change I take,
se it lifews to build or deathts to break:
And fall what may, me lists not make
Moan for sad life's or death's sad sake."
Then looked he on his armour, glad
And high of heart, and found it strong. [Poems, IV, 22425]
It is finally this irrepressible gusto and Balen's impulsive determination to combat all apparent evils that result in his own and Balan's destruction. But all this is predetermined, as Merlin continually reminds us and as the symbol of Garlon suggests.
Balen and the maiden encounter the third victim of "the invisible evil" in section six when they come upon the grief-stricken father of a boy seriously wounded by Garlon. The father's description of Garlon makes clear the extent to which he symbolizes all men's doom. Almost an allegorical figure, Garlon resembles Death in Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale":
"lnvisible as the spirit of night
That heaven and earth in depth and height
May see not by the mild moon's light
Nor even when the star would grant them sight,
He walks and slays as plaguets blind breath
Slays." [Poems. IV, 206]
The Chaucerian atmosphere is blatant in this passage, with its allusions to astrology and the plague. But unlike Chaucer's Death, which is the traditional wages of sin, death in Balen overshadows the lives of all heroic men. It threatens to and always does undermine good works and ideals. Moreover, premonitions of its inevitability darken "all [the] life's desire" of those singled out as special targets of Fate. By means of these emblematic victims whose tragedies are grand and [146/147] poignant, Fate's power is revealed to the world. Balen and Arthur are, of course, two such victims, and Merlin is the monitory spokesman against Fate in the case of each hero. But, as in all tragedies, Merlin's prophetic wisdom ironically brings on "all the latter woe" (Poems, IV, 197) rather than retarding it. Early in section six of the Tale we learn that, just before the first appearance of Garlon, Merlin had "shown the king / The doom that songs unborn should sing." As a result, "on the king for fear's sake fell / Sickness, and sorrow deep as hell." Like the role of the seer in many Greek tragedies, the role of Merlin as an unwilling functionary of Fate in The Tale of Balen intensifies the poem's ironies and our emotional responses to them.
Throughout the poem Merlin serves as a self-appointed liaison between Arthur and Balen. Formally, he mediates between the Tale's Arthurian materials and those concerned exclusively with Balen. He thus becomes an extension of the narrator iout, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, remains indirectly involved in events and emotionally engaged with them. Thus, after explaining to Arthur why the king was wrong to banish Balen for slaying the Lady of the Lake, and after recounting the conspiracy between Lady Lyle and the maiden who bore Malison to Camelot, he can lament,
"grief it is to think how he
That won it, being of heart so free
And perfect found in chivalry,
Shall by that sword be slain." [Poems, IV, 173]
Similarly, after Launceor's death at Balen's hands and the suicide of Launceor's beloved, Merlin addresses Balen despairingly:
"My heart is wrung for this deed's sake,
To know thee therefore doomed to take
Upon thine hand a curse, and make
Three kingdoms pine through twelve years change,
In want and woe: for thou shalt smite
The man most noble and truest knight
That looks upon the live world's light
A dolorous stroke and strange." [Poems, IV, 184]
The whole world of Balen is indeed dolorous and strange not only because of the catastrophic fate its heroes suffer but also because the morality of actions taken by them is persistently indeterminate. Although [147/148] Balen's filial values and heroic virtues never become suspect in the course of the poem, his impetuous behavior does. Like the greatest heroes in Homer and in Greek tragedy, Balen suffers from both hamarfia and hubris. The poem's first fytte recounts Balen's origins and his first rash actions that tarnished the honor his knightly deeds had brought to "the strange north strand / That sent him south so goodly a knight" (Poems, IV, 159). Insulted by one of Arthur's kinsmen, Balen "Swift from his place leapt" and "wrote / His wrath in blood upon the bloat / Brute cheek" of the "king-born knave" (Poems, IV, 160). In this encounter Balen is defending Northumberland as well as his own pride, but the morality of his actions and the justification for them remain equivocal. For his rash violence in killing the slanderous knight, Balen is imprisoned by Arthur for six months, and the present action of the poem begins in its second fytte with the arrival of the maiden captive to Malison's spell. She appears just as Balen's own captivity ends.
In almost all Balen's subsequent deeds the morality of his behavior is similarly indeterminate, because in the world of Camelot as realistically depicted by Swinburne, moral certainties are impossible, and even the most apparently virtuous actions affect Balen and his world in unanticipated, adverse ways. As Balen himself realizes at his death, "here / Light is as darkness, hope as fear / And love as hate" (Poems, IV, 230). Ultimately, the reader is led to sympathize with every character in the Tale who is not totally flat. No matter how ostensibly "evil," each is, like Balen and like Arthur, a victim of Fate in a perversely amoral world. Such is the case with King Lot and King Pellam, each of whom in his assault upon Balen (or Arthur) acts from filial motives. As a result, we do not know, for instance, how to construe Balen's sudden murder of the Lady of the Lake in fytte two, even though the narrator informs us that by "her fell craft his mother died." Our first response to Balen's impetuous deed is like Arthur's:
"Alas for shame," the high king said,
"That one found once my friend lies dead;
Alas for all our shame!" [Poems, IV, 169]
The implication of Arthur's last words here is, significantly, that any of us might have done precisely as Balen did, but our actions, like his, would have been misguided. Despite all monitions, impulse tragically [148/149] governs all men's behavior, as it has done in Arthur's relations with Morgause and as it does Balen's throughout his Tale.
Balen's character itself therefore often seems only equivocally virtuous. His usually admirable ebullience and vitality appear as mere unwarranted capriciousness when he refuses to return Malison to the maiden who bore it to Camelot. Despite her clear warning that
"with it thou shalt surely slay
Of all that look upon the day
The man best loved of thee, and lay
Thine own life down for his,"
Balen perversely responds, "God's will . . . it is, we know, / Wherewith our lives are bound" (Poems, IV, 166). What in other circumstances we would describe as tenacity, here seems to be simple stubbornness. Later in the poem, commenting on the martial valor of Balen and his brother during the battle between Arthur's forces and those of King Lot, the narrator reinforces the moral uncertaintites that pervade the Tale when he observes that
Strong wonder smote the souls of men
If heavenws own host or hellSs deep den
Had sent them forth to slay. [Poems, IV, 191]
But as in Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, facile moral tags are in this poem mere stultifying fictions. In Swinburne's pessimistic adaptation of Blake's optimistic epistemology, such terms as heaven and hell are inadequate to the tragic conception of human experience projected by this poem.
Throughout The Tale of Balen moral ambiguity alternates with transparent irony in conveying Swinburne's world view. No matter how virtuous Balen's motives initially appear, his actions inevitably generate suffering, if not calamity. His keeping Malison, of course, provides the vehicle for the poem's framing tragedy, but many subordinate tragedies intervene. His killing of Launceor in self-defense results in the suicide of that knight's beloved. His capture of King Ryons and Lot's attempt to rescue his brother end with Lot's death and the slaughter of "many a mother's son" (Poems, IV, 194). Balen's killing of Garlon, as prophesied, "Brought sorrow down for many a year / On many a man in many a land" (Poems, IV, 211 ) . Afeer Pellam's death and the de [149/150] struction of his castle, Balen travels aimlessly, seeing that "on either hand" in
Bright fields and cities built to stand
Till time should break them, dead men lay;
And loud and long from all their folk
Living, one cry that cursed him broke;
Three countries had his dolorous stroke
Slain, or should surely slay. [Poems, IV, 213]
And, in his penultimate adventure, Balen is responsible for three other deaths. Bringing the knight Garnysshe to a garden in which his adulterous beloved lies with another, Balen watches Garnysshe impetuously behead the false lovers. When Garnysshe repents, he rebukes Balen: "ere this my life was glad. / Thou hast done this deed." He explains: "I had lived my sorrow down, hadst thou / Not shown me what I saw but now" (Poems, IV, 219). Balen's well-intentioned strategy has failed, but he enunciates it nonetheless:
I did, to set a bondman free,
sut as I would thou hadst done by me,
That seeing what love must die to see
Lovets end might well be woe's." [Poems, IV, 220]
With the suicide of Garnysshe, Balen himself is ready for death. Soon hearing merrymakers in the neighborhood blowing a horn, he says, "That blast is blown for me . . . / The prize am I who am yet not dead" [Poems, IV, 221).
Balen, of course, dies, ironically, at the hands (and virtually in the arms) of his brother, an appropriate culmination to a moving legend. Swinburne surely chose this subject for his last major Arthurian work because of its tragic poignancy and because it allowed him to extend and complete his poetic discussion of Love. In previous works his focus had been primarily on the tragedy of erotic love and the comedy of pantheistic spiritual passion that serves throughout Swinburne's poems as a consolatory counterpoint to eros. Among the optimistic poems, for example, that dwell on joyous intercourse with nature, see, for example, "Thalassius," "On the Cliffs," "A Nympholept," "The Lake of Gaube," and "The Garden of Cymodoce." Also, in works such as[150/151] Atalanfa in Calydon, "Phaedra," and his novels he had dealt with perverse examples of filial love. However, in The Tale of Balen, Swinburne is able to represent in tragic fashion the whole spectrum of filial and fraternal love relationships. The medieval setting of Balen is especially appropriate because the poet can make use of nineteenth-century idealizations of medieval society as pervasively altruistic and harmonious. Such portrayals appear from Scott through Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, Marx, and Morris. Alice Chandler correctly observes that "feudalism was seen as fatherhood, and the medieval world-to adopt Carlyle's phrase-was thought to be 'godlike and my Father's" (1), The extended implication here is that all God's children are bound by unbreakable filial ties. Such is unequivocally the case in Swinburne's poem (though populated by several feudal families hostile to one another), and he fully exploits the tragic ironies that arise because of these ties. The work isf significantly, dedicated to his mother and recounts events in the lives of at least three pairs of actual brothers.
In his dedication Swinburne alerts us to the emphasis upon filial "Love that holds life and death in fee, / Deep as the clear unsounded sea" (Poems, IV, 155), and in the Tale itself we are repeatedly reminded that familial ties, like erotic ones, are sublime but inevitably tragic. Apart from continual narrative reminders that Balen and Balan are doomed, we are given the examples of King Lot's devotion to his brother, Ryons, and of Pellam's fatal dedication-"For love of this my brother slain" (Poems, IV, 210) — to avenging Garlon's death. Such blood ties between brothers exemplify but are ultimately subsumed under larger secular, religious, and aesthetic systems of reciprocal filial allegiance appropriate to the feudal context. In the poem, brothers who vainly sacrifice themselves for one another become types, respectively, of Arthur, the worldly king whose filial dedication to humanity is doomed; of Christ, the spiritual king whose symbols are preserved in Pellam's castle and whose self-sacrifice for mankind (from the evidence of the radically fallen world of this poem) was equally futile; and of the poet whose attempt in verse at least to memorialize tragedies of human allegiance is fated to enjoy at best only cyclical and therefore limited success. The poem "needs must live a springtide space, / While April suns grow strong" (Poems, IV, 155). [151/152] These larger exemplars of sublime devotion to the human community serve as a chronological frame and thematic groundwork for the more extended particular treatments of doomed brotherly love in the poem.
Among the framing filial relationships the most significant and the one treated in the greatest detail is Balen's with Arthur. In a passage from the poem's sixth fytte, immediately after Arthur defeats Lot's forces, Swinburne's proverbial hero worship appears in service to the poem's essential theme. Balen alights from his horse before the king
In reverence made for love's sake bright
With joy that set his face alight
As theirs who see, alive, above,
The sovereign of their souls, whose name
To them is even as love's own flame
To enkindle hope that heeds not fame
And knows no lord but love. [Poems, IV, 198]
Arthur's paternalism inspires in Balen transcendent emotions that generate selfless behavior.
The same is also true of all relationships in the poem that are characterized by brotherly love. Selfless generosity and devotion, even to others who have no familial claims, appear repeatedly. For instance, just after the deaths of Launceor and his beloved, King Mark appears, "whose name the sweet south-west / Held high in honour" (Poems, IV, 181). Resembling the poet dedicated to memoralizing tragic lovers in Tristram of Lyonesse and in this poem, Mark "made moan to hear their doom," and
for their sorrow's sake he sware
To seek in all the marches there
The church that man might find most fair
And build therein their tomb. [Poems, IV, 182]
Like those who survive the victims of fraternal or erotic love in this poem (at least those not immediately bent on revenge), Mark is sorrowful but resigned to events, rather than rancorous toward Balen, who is directly responsible for the lovers' deaths. Acceptance like Mark's reflects the fatalistic world view held by almost all the characters in the poem.
An episode in the sixth fytte also reveals the extent to which spontaneous love of one's fellows (along with its contrary, strife between feudal camps) governs the world of Balen. Accompanied by his maiden, [152/153] Balen discovers a castle occupied by a "lady stricken" who, to be healed, requires a bowl of blood from "a maiden clean and whole / In virgin body and virgin soul / Whose name was writ on Royal roll." Spontaneously, the maiden insists upon making whatever sacrifice is necessary: "'Good knight of mine, good will have I / To help this healing though I die.'" Predictably, Balen adds, "'Nay . . . but love may try / What help in living love may lie'" (Poems, IV, 203-205). Although this attempt fails, ehe lady is later saved by sisterly self-sacrifice. "Another maid in later Mays / Won with her life" the "woful praise" of healing her.
The numerous instances of self-sacrificial devotion to one's fellows that are recounted in The Tale of Balen serve primarily to enhance the tragic example of Balen himself, who is the model of brotherly love (except, of course, in his behavior to those who directly threaten him, his family, and his king). As in the case of the "lady stricken," Balen at every turn devotes himself spontaneously to the welfare of others. He does so with the first of Garlon's viceims and the father of the third, whose son Garlon has unexpectedly assauleed and wounded, "even ere love might fear / That hate were strong as death" (Poems, IV, 206) . Balen commiserates, explaining that Garlon has already killed "'two knights of mine, / Two cornrades, sealed by faith's bright sign'" (Poems, IV, 206). When Balen soon finds and impetuously kills Garlon, however, the repercussions are catastrophic, just as they are almost every time Balen tries to serve his king, protect the reputation of his homeland, or assist a fellow knight. As I have observed, such is the case with Garnysshe, whom Balen strives to aid immediately after he has killed Garlon along with his brother, Pellam, and realized the dreadful truth of Merlin's prophecies concerning the dolorous stroke. Balen is renewed at first by his encounter with Garnysshe-his "face as dawn's grew bright, / For hope to help a happier man" (Poems, IV, 218). But Garnysshe falls on his own sword after killing his faithless beloved and the knight beside her.
The culmination of all Balen's frustrated, misguided, and doomed exercises in fraternal devotion is, of course, his fatal encounter with his real brother, an encounter steeped in dramatic irony. Balen does battle with the "good knight" guarding the island simply because of external circumstances and pressures, not because of any significant internal motivation. The extent to which the Tale's final calamity is [153/154] inevitable and compulsory becomes clear when the merrymakers instruct Balen that "all for whom these halls make cheer" must fight the knight on the island who "guards . . . I Against all swords that chance brings near." Tragically disheartened by the dolorous reslilts of all his previous experiences, Balen proceeds to the island, even though he decries the "evil custom" that allows "none whom chance hath led / Hither, if knighthood crown his head, / To pass unstirred to strife" (Poems, IV, 222). Apparently Balen, like the reader, by now sees the "evil custom" as a symbol of the whole tragic and fatal enterprise of life itself. He is therefore resigned to the inevitability of his participation.
The tragedy of the heroic brothers' combat at the end of the Tale is fully prepared for early on. In fact, all Balen's fraternal overtures, his doomed attempts to assist fellow knights, reflect Balen's determination to extend to the rest of the world his sublime relationship with Balan, which is detailed early in the narrative. The extraordinary sense of identity between the brothers encompasses more than their names. Balan is first described as the
Twin flower of bright Northumberland,
Twin sea-bird of their loud sea-strand,
Twinsong-birdoftheirmorn. [Poems, IV, 179}
The narrator celebrates "The likeness graven of face and face" when the two "kissed and wept upon each other / For joy and pity . . . / And love engraffed by sire and mother" (Poems, IV, 180). The striking term engraffed suggests the extent to which Balen and Balen are virtually twin parts of a single organism. Alone each is, by implication, deficient and the world disharmonious. Balen's exuberance and nostalgia at their reunion is, thus, in every sense natural:
the might of joy in love
Brake forth within him as a fire,
And deep delight in deep desire
Of far-flown days whose full-souled quire
Rang round from the air above. [Poems, IV, 179]
After the two knights part, it is understandable that Balen tries repeatedly but without success to complete and fulfill himself in relationships based upon the fraternal pattern that must be the basis of all wholesome social intercourse and of any potentially ideal human community in the world of this poem. Unique to Swinburne's version [154/155] of the legend, this fact geometrically amplifies the ironic significance of Balen's final battle.
As in all great tragedies, fate in Balen operates as a force that is both internal and external, impelling and compelling. No external threats alone-including the Lady of the Lake, King Ryons' soldiers, Garlon, Pellam, or even the atmosphere of Christian sanctification that protects Pellam-can destroy Balen. This monarch among knights, heroic in his strength, his filial virtues, his tenacity, endurance, and stoicism, can succumb only to his own best powers symbolized by his brother, Balan. At the same time, however, in his last fight Balen finally liberates himself from an irretrievably corrupt and grievous world, one for which his heart is too high, his spirit too pure. Swinburne describes the last moments of the brothers' battle in appropriately ironic terms. By the end of it, "With blood that either spilt and bled / Was all the ground they fought on red." Each knight "umnailed and marked" from the fight "poured and drank the draught of death, / Till fate was full at last" (Poems, IV, 227) in a parody communion, a metaphorical celebration of the supreme tragedy of fraternal love. At the end they make "a mutual moan" that defines their tragedy:
"Both we came out of one tomb, One star-crossed motherts woful womb, And so within one grave pitws gloom Untimely shall we lie." [Poems, IV, 230]
Thus, "the last blind battle broke / The consummated spell" that has surrounded the lives of these brothers. But using the mode of correspondences, in the way Swinburne has by now taught us to read his narrative, we realize that more is revealed here than the tragedy of two heroic medieval knights. Balen's career, based on thwarted filial and fraternal ideals, is by extension the tragedy of mankind whose pitiable fate it is to strive for fulfillment through filial, erotic, and fraternal love, but, in doing so, to generate only strife and be freed from frustration and suffering only in death.
Last modified June 2000