The last section — “Pelleas and Ettarre,” “The Last Tournament,” “Guinevere,” and “The Passing of Arthur.“ allows no more comedy, no more positive judgments, not even of the limited and subversive kind that prevailed in “The Holy Grail.” These final poems represent the nightmare stage of irony; images of absolute bondage, cynicism, and utter waste dominate. The last [198/199] glimpse of hope, in Pelleas, is crushed brutally and unmercifully. After that, only Arthur and the fool hold out.
“Pelleas and Ettarre” is a bleak parody of the initiation stories that open the Idylls. Pelleas himself is the last figure of comic exuberance we hear of in the poem: it is almost as if the news had not reached him out there in the wilds. This time the story opens with the wasteland already conquered; Pelleas enters as a fully realized person, with nothing to prove, no need to be tested. Much like Gareth, he is there to affirm his developed being and the authenticity of Camelot. He comes in as part of a new wave of knights, recruited “to fill the gap / Left by the Holy Quest” (ll. 1-2) and to give new life to Camelot. Arthur even holds a “Tournament of Youth” to inaugurate the kingdom's new beginning, but, as Pelleas shows, there are to be no new beginnings, only a reiteration and confirmation of waste. Pelleas develops a unified being whose very completeness and harmony unfit him for this world.
Tennyson projects this ironic absurdity as a burlesque of comedy, making Pelleas seem not only alien to his environment but ludicrously so. By a very subtle management of tone, Pelleas's comic expectations are made to appear absurd and simple-minded. It is only gradually that we perceive the full bitterness of this parody. The tone and theme are exactly those reflected in an epigram Tennyson wrote at about the same time:
I ran upon life unknowing, without or science or art,
I found the first pretty maiden but she was a harlot at heart;
I wandered about the woodland after the melting of snow,
“Here is the first pretty snowdrop” — and it was the dung of a crow!
Pelleas seems silly only to those who, like Tristram or Vivien, no longer can feel what it was to live in harmony with the king and with themselves. His expectations have the effect of a certain kind of off-key singing that seems hilarious until we realize that it is, in fact, a beautiful melody rendered discordant by the theater and our own ears. It is true, a great deal of critical ingenuity has been used to demonstrate that Pelleas is merely a “deluded lover” who “loves love,” “a dupe,” an idolator guilty of “willful blindness,” a secular “courtly lover,” a “coward, traitor, and beast.“47 This tendency to [199/200] cast blame about is the natural tendency to try to locate the jailer. It seems to me, however, that Pelleas is defeated because he is guiltless. It may be, perhaps, that the incomplete Balin should have further resisted the ironic implications of his environment, but Pelleas really has no choice. The world he faces is not the tantalizing and deceptive world of Balin but a merciless and animalistic one. The beasts are back in charge. Instead of virtuous Lynette or even ambiguously blushing Guinevere, he finds only the vicious Ettarre.
Pelleas moves into this world, incongruously accompanied by “the sweet smell of the fields / . . . and the sunshine” (ll. 5-6). He brings with him all of natural comedy, not realizing or having any way of realizing that nature and human hopes are mutually inimical. His single speech to Arthur, “Make me thy knight, because I know, Sir King, / All that belongs to knighthood, and I love” (ll. 7-8), fixes his purity and expansive confidence. He can afford to love so openly, without qualification or even object, because he believes this is a world of love. He bestows his love on Ettarre, a harlot who is, appropriately, also a “great lady;” this is not an exceptionally unfortunate choice but rather a typical one for this time. Pelleas is not tragically doomed because he chooses to love Ettarre but because he loves at all. She is one with the world in which she lives. He meets Ettarre and her lovely attendants, confused “because the way was lost” (l. 57). Pelleas walks out into the light, Ettarre sardonically comments, to be their “pilot-star” (l. 60). But instead they drag him down into their own confusion and darkness.
He immediately mistakes Ettarre's physical beauty for spiritual beauty: “the beauty of her flesh abashed the boy, / As though it were the beauty of her soul” (ll. 74-75). This is a mistake, but it should not be. Pelleas is simply making the wrong assumptions about the nature of the world. Geraint made no mistake in trusting his imaginative picture of Enid, we recall. Now, however, the body and soul are split, and Pelleas's innocent action has the same consequences as the similar action of the equally innocent Elaine. [200/201] He is also an artist, responding to a unity that should be but is not there.
By the very exuberance of his spiritual energy, Tennyson makes clear, Pelleas seals his own doom: “For as the base man, judging of the good, / Puts his own baseness in him by default / Of will and nature, so did Pelleas lend / All the young beauty of his own soul to hers” (ll. 76 -79). Ettarre, practiced in the breaking of words and skilled in the deceptions now prevalent in the discordant land, chides him for not knowing “the fashion of our speech” (l. 96). He knows as yet only an integrated and coherent speech, imported, significantly, from the wasteland, which is now closer to God than Arthur's society. Ettarre later keeps him away from her “so that he could not come to speech with her” (l. 198). She must avoid him because he speaks a different language: that of the comic and spiritualized word. When she at last breaks out in her own angry and chaotic words, slandering the vows and the king, Pelleas “was stricken mute” (l. 243). He faces, finally, an emptiness.
His humiliation at the hands of Ettarre, he thinks, is a test. But now there are no educations in Camelot; no change of any kind, just static disloyalty. He refuses to leave Ettarre and love, properly resisting all the combined evidence of his senses-properly, that is, from a comic point of view. Only Gawain, emissary of Arthur himself and of the most basic union that binds the order together, convinces him of his error. Pelleas can, as the song he recalls says, easily accept the thorns with the rose, but not the cancerous worm. He is not defeated by a mixed, imperfect world but by a hellish one. Like Arthur and Dagonet, he becomes a divine “fool” (ll. 465, 466), made so by his own love. Turning from that company, he has no choice but complete cynicism: “Love?-we be all alike: only the King / Hath made us fools and liars. O noble vows! / O great and sane and simple race of brutes / That own no lust because they have no law!” (ll. 469 -; 72). He learns, ironically from the pure Percivale, that the heart of Camelot is split. If Guinevere is false, nothing is left: “'Is the King true?' 'The King!' said Percivale. /'Why then let men couple at once with wolves' ” (ll. 525-26). To Pelleas it seems as if all the world, led by Arthur, were in a conspiracy against him. He is right about the conspiracy, but wrong about Arthur, who is victimized as much as he.
Finally, in an inversion of Gareth's creation of his own personality, Pelleas specifically renounces his own being: “No name, no [201/202] name” (l. 553), he shouts to Lancelot. He loses personality and manhood, answering Guinevere's attempt to calm him with a “fierce” eye and a hissing, “I have no sword” (l. 589). He then springs “from the door into the dark” (l. 591). There is now nothing but this dark-and the silence: “And all talk died, as in a grove all song / Beneath the shadow of some bird of prey; / Then a long silence came upon the hall” (ll. 594-96).
“The Last Tournament” ends with an explicit comment on the death of comedy: “I am thy fool, / And I shall never make thee smile again” (ll. 755-56). Arthur is at last overcome by the trivial and the unmeaning. The truth of irony, first available to the stupid Vivien, is about to touch Arthur's genuine wisdom. Arthur is the last to know, not because he is naïve but because ironic “truth” is an inversion of real truth. When cynicism becomes actuality, the idiots are the best informed. Surrounded by a world that failed to understand, Arthur refuses to give in to the absurd facts that eventually defeat him. Arthur establishes his kingdom on the assumption that human beings are truly human: he is defeated by this self-evident yet false proposition. Evidence is reduced entirely now to the empirical, and humans prove themselves, in the end, to be nonhuman. The lonely figure of Arthur, whose heroism now seems perverse or even ludicrous, is at the center of nineteenth-century irony. His fight seems almost pointless; human beings are not worth saving: “my brother fool, the king of fools” (l. 354), Dagonet calls him, “Conceits himself as God that he can make / Figs out of thistles, silk from bristles, milk / From burning spurge, honey from hornet-combs, / And men from beasts-Long live the king of fools” (ll. 355-58).
There is no longer even a Pelleas or a Tournament of Youth; there are not even comic assurances to be burlesqued. Pelleas comes, bringing springtime with him, but now there is only the dry thunder of autumn: “then one long roll / Of Autumn thunder and the jousts began: / And ever the wind blew, and yellowing leaf / And gloom and gleam, and shower and shorn plume / Went it” (ll. 152-56). The double meaning of “The Tournament Dead Innocence” is acknowledged by everyone in Camelot. “The Last Tournament” is self-conscious and overt in its sarcasms. Everyone in Arthur's kingdom except the king has become an ironist: a representative, anonymous maid, for instance, cries, [202/203] ,,praise the patient saints, / Our one white day of Innocence hath past, / Though somewhat draggled at the skirt. So be it. / The snowdrop only, flowering through the year, / Would make the world as blank as Winter-tide” (ll. 217-21). Only ironic materials are available. “All courtesy is dead” (l. 211) now; even the outward forms of it are disappearing. The world has been sick for some time; people are naturally tired of complaining.
The chief spokesman and apologist for this new world is Tristram, that self-acknowledged and proud “worldling of the world” (l. 691). Tennyson awakens the great romantic echoes of the Tristram-Isolt tale in order to parody, not romantic love but tragedy. Tristram's love is the type of the new loyalty; it is subject to the new law, “Mark's way.” Mark, the voiceless, sneaking, immaterial specter, is the central force in a world without a word. His murder of Tristram is not even an act of revenge, nor does he either love or hate his wife. It is simply Mark's way, the way of the world, to slaughter.
Mark's way is now even the way of Arthur's men. Their victory over Pelleas, as the Red Knight, is the clearest sign of their defeat. Pelleas has been most viciously attacked by the dissimulations of the decaying Camelot and has sought, in his continuing innocence, to dissolve the tensions of irony. He does so in the only way available to him, through a parody of Arthur's promise. Since Camelot is no longer open and real, he establishes a black Camelot: “My tower is full of harlots, like his court, / But mine are worthier, seeing they profess / To be none other than themselves -and say / My knights are all adulterers like his own, / But mine are truer, seeing they profess / To be none other” (ll. 81-86).
Pelleas is another murdered innocent, and his reactionary inversion of Camelot is the last cry of the pure in a perverted world. He is so much the antithesis of Arthur's knights and so incapable of disguise that he cannot even stay on a horse long enough to maintain the combat. He falls off in a drunken stupor, whereupon Arthur's men complete the slaughter of innocence: they “roared/ And shouted and leapt down upon the fallen; / There trampled out his face from being known, / And sank his head in mire, and slimed themselves” (ll. 467-70). The massacre that follows is a parody of knightly conquest, and the fire Arthur's followers raise is “like the live North” (l. 478)-the North of the heathen, the beast, and Satan. The narrator's sardonic comment, “So all the ways were safe [203/204] from shore to shore” (l. 484), reminds us sadly of the earlier glorious defeat of the heathen. Only now the heathen are within.
The last holdout against the beast is Dagonet, Tennyson's version of the holy fool. He suggests, in a stunted and pathetic form, the image of Geraint and Edyrn, the last of the redeemed: “The dirty nurse, Experience, in her kind / Hath fouled me-an I wallowed, then I washed” (ll. 317-18). There is to be no more cleansing. “I have had my day and my philosophies” (l. 319), he says sarcastically, putting the fall of man into Tristram's blithe, relativistic terms. His “philosophies” were not systems at all, but, in the end, a generous faith that gave him the ability to see.
In an ironic world, those who can see seem blind, however, so that Dagonet's wisdom becomes idiocy. He still speaks the word, but the coherence of language and universe is gone and Dagonet's words emerge as riddles that no one understands. He asks Tristram if he is able to see the star called the harp of Arthur; Tristram naturally (it is natural to Tristram) says he cannot see it in open day. Dagonet's response is the final statement of the truth that Arthur has promoted and the perception he has mistakenly insisted on: “Nay, nor will: I see it and hear. / It makes a silent music up in heaven, / And I, and Arthur and the angels hear” (ll. 348-50). Dagonet is “the wisest knight of all” (1. 248), but lie is the last knight, absurdly impotent, illustrating the futility of all wisdom.
Tristram can never see the star. He has, Dagonet says, reopened the old doubts about Arthur's legitimacy. One of the darkest ironies in this tale is that the new man of experience is unable to learn from, even to make contact with, genuine experience. Tristram is a pragmatist with no feeling for evidence, even direct evidence. The simple answer of Gareth, “Who should be King save him who makes us free” (l. 136), is lost on Tristram, who goes rummaging about in the dusty rationality of formal legitimacy. It is the presumably liberated Tristram -“free love-free field” (l. 281) who is bound to trust only an experience he cannot understand. He is caught absolutely in the very chaos he promotes, in “Mark's way.”
He wins the lawless tournament; rightly so, since he is indeed at the center of this world. Only the fool and Arthur differ from him very much. Lancelot's attempt to draw a distinction between himself and the brutal Tristram is met with a completely just rebuke: “Great brother, thou nor I have made the world; / Be [204/205] happy in thy fair Queen as I in mine” (ll. 203- 04). The gentle and courteous Lancelot has made himself one with this man who parodies courtesy. Tristram is, as he claims himself, a figure of untransformed nature, willing to accept the world, he supposes, just as it is. He completes the collapse of the balance Arthur had once maintained so well. His dream, which, like all dreams in the Idylls, is a vision of the dreamer's true self, reveals clearly that destructive imbalance.
Tristram dreams of a quarrel between his two Isolts, struggling for the ruby-chain he has won in the Tournament of the Dead Innocence. Isolt of Breton points to her rival and says, “Look, her hand is red! / These be no rubies, this is frozen blood, / And melts within her hand-her hand is hot / With ill desires” (ll. 411-14). The point of the dream is not, however, related to the evils of lust. The two, between them, manage to ruin the chain: “Followed a rush of eagle's wings, and then / A whimpering of the spirit of the child,/ Because the twain had spoiled her carcanet” (ll. 416-18). The essential problem is the radical split of body and soul, sense and spirituality: the two Isolts. Innocence is torn to shreds by a false competition. Tristram cannot balance the two forces, so he chooses carelessly, and he chooses Isolt of Ireland-the body, irony, and Mark.
The climactic scene between Tristram and Isolt demonstrates the impossibility now of permanent values or contracts. Isolt recalls the old word-” My God, the power/ Was once in vows when men believed the King!” (ll. 643-44)-but she is herself pathetically forsworn, as Tristram is able to point out: “Vows! did you keep the vow you made to Mark / More than I mine?” (ll. 650-51). There is no solidarity, nor, according to Tristram, should there be. His reasons are those of Vivien; they are, like hers, compelling in their free and articulate very common sense. “The vow that binds too strictly snaps itself” (l. 652), he declares; Arthur has violated nature. He points to his own arm, vigorous and pounding with blood, as, in itself, sufficient refutation of Arthur's inhuman and naïve rigors: “can Arthur make me pure / As any maiden child? lock up my tongue / From uttering freely what I freely hear? / Bind me to one? The wide world laughs at it” (ll. 687-90). There are no boundaries to their love, he says, because there are no bonds, a sophistication that directly echoes the earlier conversations between Lancelot and Guinevere. [205/206] Tristram sprinkles other arguments and other appeals in with the main one as they occur to him. He is willing to admit that the vows had a certain temporary pragmatic value-“They served their use, their time” (l. 671)-and he remembers to add the old rationalistic doubts about the king's origins: “They failed to trace him through the flesh and blood / Of our old kings: whence then? a doubtful lord / To bind them by inviolable vows” (ll. 681-83). Tristram is not even concerned with logical consistency. He accepts a world of no consistency at all and is, therefore, not even a materialist or a rationalist. He is only, as he says, a “worldling,” giving himself up to an ironic world. Against the liberating will of Arthur, we have the new passive and defeated will of the ironic nonhero. By loving this man, Isolt is already giving herself to Mark; for Tristram is every bit as violent and unprincipled: he “had let one finger lightly touch / The warm white apple of her throat, [and] replied, /'Press this a little closer, sweet, until-' ” (ll. 710-12).
Mark's act of murder is the appropriate climax to the love of Tristram and Isolt. They have no bonds and acknowledge no loyalties. Isolt leaves Mark and cleaves to Tristram for no human reason: “What rights are his that dare not strike for them?” (l. 525), she asks, invoking standards of mere power and ownership. Only force and brutality are recognized by these two. Since Mark does “dare strike” for his rights, according to Isolt's own standards he now deserves her. Mark and Isolt, bound by violence, suspicion, and hatred, stand as the ironic counterparts to the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere. They turn the comic world inside out. All that remains is the alien word, the “voice” (l. 753) that clings sobbing to Arthur's feet and utters its last pronouncement: Camelot is dead.
“Guinivere” apparently had quite a spectacular effect on many Victorians. It seems astonishing, for instance, that the idyll “made George Eliot weep” (Memoir, 2: 109) when Tennyson read it. These days the idyll is more likely to seem an unaccountable lapse on Tennyson's part. Less open about our emotions and also less struck by the novelty of domestic realism, we are prone to blame the whole episode on [206/207] sexual prudery. In any case, it seems thematically narrow, generically and tonally inappropriate. Idyll after idyll appeared to be promoting the point that there was no cause for Arthur's fall, no blame to be assigned since the forces against him were both so large and so insignificant as to be beyond blame altogether. But now Arthur himself comes pronouncing “judgment” (l. 418). In this idyll, irony nearly relaxes into melodrama: we have a cause, a reason, plenty of blame and forgiveness, even gestures toward the emotions of tragedy. “Guinevere” is all too close to being like a pratfall in the middle of Antigone; it releases some of the tension, which perhaps helps to explain the tears-even George Eliot's.
Arthur, as many have noted, now seems less the mythic king than the outraged husband, speaking with a too personal bitterness and desire to hurt: “Thou hast not made my life so sweet to me, / That I the King should greatly care to live” (ll. 448-49). He is even capable of tremulous self-pity: “but rather think / How sad it were for Arthur, should he live, /To sit once more within his lonely hall” (ll. 492-94). Here, the balance between the concrete and the allusive tips dangerously toward the concrete, as Arthur almost loses dignity and-more important-symbolic stature. When he is reduced to the level of saying, “I was ever virgin save for thee” (l. 554), it is difficult to bear in mind his mystical birth or indeed any of his symbolic attributes.
Nor is it only Arthur who is often merely angry; the dominant tone of the idyll is one of simple anger. Cool and complex detachment is dropped for the uncomplicated, childish pleasure of indignation-Arthur's and, very clearly, Tennyson's. Arthur's astonishing definition of “the worst of public foes” (l. 509) as a man who shields an erring wife has a symbolic aptness, I suppose, but it is put so bluntly that it recalls Tennyson in his worst reactionary moods, railing at Zolaism and the moral decline. The entire poem moves far too close to the diffuse articulation of clichés that had been used in “The Miller's Daughter.” The prattling novice has a function parallel to that of Ambrosius, but instead of the subtle interconnections between speakers established in “The Holy Grail,” “Guinevere” does all it can to make its ironies entirely superficial, overt, and elaborate. The narrator arranges the novice's questions and exclamations so as to give us plenty of rhetorical winks. Like too many domestic idylls, this is designed to make very few demands. [207/208]
All this is true, but it is not the whole truth. The idyll seems weak principally because of its context. What is important is its failure to support the full weight of the entire poem's complex themes, and that failure is only relative. Neither Tennyson's sense nor his artistic powers desert him entirely in “Guinevere.” Its own kind of artistry and its own fitness must be acknowledged.
There are, for instance, important and subtle echoes of past motifs: Guinevere reverses the action of the early poems, moving into, rather than out of, the wasteland. Instead of finding a name and proper speech, she learns to curse her name and to accept a life of silence. She is no mere empiricist, but the novice's questions force her, again and again, to take refuge in the shallow arguments of Tristram. Guinevere talks to her companion about Lancelot and the king, ending with an important comic truism: 'For manners are not idle, but the fruit / Of loyal nature, and of noble mind” (ll. 333-34). The novice is not slow to see the conflict between this code and Lancelot's behavior: the prince of courtesy is also “the most disloyal friend in all the world” (l. 338). Guinevere is caught by the fundamental divisions she has helped to create and can only appeal, like Tristram, to “the world“: “What knowest thou of the world, and all its lights / And shadows, all the wealth and all the woe?” (ll. 341-42). In the absence of genuine standards, “the world,” the chaos of undifferentiated and unordered experience, has to do.
In the end, though, the queen is treated with compassion, as a victim rather than a villainess. She is trapped by her own nature, her lack of understanding, most importantly by Arthur's impossible scheme for making human beings human. In the very midst of her repentence, her sincere pledge “not even in inmost thought to think again / The sins that made the past so pleasant to us” (ll. 372-73), her mind slips back to those lovely “golden days” (l. 377). She cannot help herself; those days seemed so much like Eden: she and Lancelot “Rode under groves that looked a paradise / Of blossom, over sheets of hyacinth / That seemed the heavens upbreaking through the earth” (ll. 386-88). They looked a paradise, seemed the heavens. She was trapped by forces much larger than herself, forces that obviously do not connect with simple notions of sexual prudery.
Adultery, in fact, is hardly the issue. On the narrative level the great sin is disloyalty; more generally, Guinevere's defection suggests the failure of physical actuality to support and give life to spiritual truth. Despite his few lapses into self-indulgent and [208/209] self-pitying ire, Arthur's real charges against her are social, not personal. She has ruined not him but law and civilization: “The children born of thee are sword and fire,/ Red ruin, and the breaking up of laws, /The craft of kindred and the Godless hosts/ Of heathen swarming o'er the Northern Sea” (ll. 422-25). Guinevere is finally blamed for being the agency of irony; Arthur says so explicitly: through Guinevere, he says, “the loathsome opposite /Of all my heart had destined did obtain” (ll. 488-89).
Guinevere finally does see the basis of her error and the nature of the promises she has broken. The full force of what has been thrown away so stupidly breaks upon her only when it is already gone: “No light: so late! and dark and chill the night! / O let us in, that we may find the light! /Too late, too late: ye cannot enter now” (ll. 172-74). But there is no special reason why it is too late, why she should not have seen earlier. Irony does not depend on clear reasons, but rather on the absence of reasons. Guinevere comes to perceive the central point about Camelot and about the Idyllsas a whole: “now I see thee what thou art, / Thou art the highest and most human too” (ll. 643-44). This simple truth, a refutation of all rationalistic objections, has escaped her entirely until now. Her dedication to the senses was so complete she did not understand even them; she could only see and therefore was blinded. She has, thus, lost everything. Her only hope now for renewal and new chances lies in heaven. And even that hope is uncertain: she lives the rest of her life “still hoping, fearing 'is it yet too late?' ” (l. 685).
The hope for heaven is made both uncertain and generally unreal. What matters is that Arthur has been unable to create heaven on earth. All spiritual values are now so alien and so little a part of man that heaven is more distant than ever. God has retreated altogether from the world, leaving only the mists and confusion that control the final poem in the Idylls, “The Passing of Arthur.“ Arthur's last battle acts not to dispel but to ensure this bewilderment: “and even on Arthur fell / Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought. / For friend and foe were shadows in the mist, / And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew” (ll. 98 -; 101). All order and meaning are gone; friends and foes are alike since there is now no stable personality. The word has been replaced by “shrieks / After the Christ, of those who falling down / Looked up for heaven, and only saw the mist” (ll. 110-12). [209/210]
The idyll is dominated by bewilderment. All hope vanishes without leaving behind a trace of having been there. No one even understands. Exactly as Arthur says, “all my realm / Reels back into the beast, and is no more” (ll. 25-26). The striking central image of the poem is not of the dying Arthur but of the last initiate staring blankly, without comprehension, at his disappearing king. The cycle is complete and nothing remains of the best hope offered to man. It is a bitter and entirely pessimistic close. The ideal itself is not dead, perhaps, but it is lost to mankind. It may be that other promises will be made in the future-the poem does leave open that possibility-but there is no chance at all that human beings will ever be able to accept that promise. Arthur may come again, though that is far from certain, but he is sure to find the same absurd fate and the same mixture of sloth, hysteria, common sense, and plain stupidity that so ingloriously defeated him before. There may be future cycles but, at very best, they will be cycles of futility-like the one just completed. At its very greatest moments, the Idyllssuggest, mankind rises to trivial absurdity.
The poem opens on the arresting and very important vision of the future: the aged Bedivere, now “no more than a voice” (l. 3), speaking to “new faces, other minds” (l. 5). The pure voice, the wordthat had built a comic society, now is alien and alone, about to disappear. The poem's opening, then, helps to deny any small hope that may be contained in its slightly ambiguous conclusion. Arthur leaves only Bedivere behind, and Bedivere makes no converts. The promise of Camelot has had no lasting effect whatsoever.
Arthur at least partly recognizes this, and his complaints have about them a new bitterness. He is almost an ironist himself, nearly captured by the new world, at least insofar as he can distort the purity of the word to a form of sarcasm: “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” (ll. 9-11). The suggestion that God is in nature, not in man, exactly reverses the point of In Memoriamand of the Idyllsthemselves. The great [210/211] humanitarian transcendentalist bitterly reverts to the exploded argument from design. Something worse than the beasts, he sees, is taking over. He suggests that a spiritual kingdom of weeds might be a possibility, but not one of men. Only man is vile. The highest and most human, therefore, is forced to kill that which is human; Arthur must slaughter his own knights and destroy his own kingdom: “Ill doom is mine / To war against my people and my knights. / The king who fight, his people fights himself” (ll. 70-72). Things have become so distorted that the ideal and the real have become deadly enemies.
The central ironic narrative, the story of the casting away of Excalibur, is a parable of ignorance and disloyalty and also a deliberate absurdist reduction of tragic grandeur. Instead of a dignified passing, a sustained mood of heroic elegy, we have something like a parody of the Beowulf tone. Arthur is reduced to the near ludicrous position of a man unable to get himself buried, haggling with an underling while an audience (i.e. the reader), expecting tragedy, looks on with embarrassment.
Bedivere's inability to perform the simplest task neatly summarizes the Idyllsand ironically deflates their grand themes. Bedivere is first distracted from duty by the effect of the sword's material beauty on his senses: “For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks, / Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work / Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long / That both his eyes were dazzled as he stood” (ll. 224-27). He denies his king for these twinklings. So he lies. The next time, he succumbs to the argument that the sword would be handy to have around as evidence to convince those who doubt Arthur's existence and his might. Arthur is diminished to empirical proofs or to superstitious magic; the continuity and permanence that had once been assured by the word are now pathetically sought for in fame and materials.
Recognizing just what is left of his kingdom-” I see thee what thou art” (l. 291)-Arthur finally is forced to use absurd threats of physical violence: “if thou spare to fling Excalibur, / I will arise and slay thee with my hands” (ll. 299-300). Bedivere understands only this language. Arthur himself is forced to enter the animalistic world briefly in order to wring some kind of obedience from his follower. The power, even the dignity, of Camelot shrinks finally to the image of a sputtering old man. Bedivere goes through a [211/212] ritualistic and meaningless performance, like a parrot who has been taught to say mass.
It is a frightening conclusion, where, as in a dream, human faces slowly dissolve into the features of pigs and all humanity seems a bizarre joke. Arthur is exactly “Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed / When all the house is mute” (ll. 345-46). He is now in utter silence, surrounded by the bleak and mocking signs of irony: the “icy waves,” “barren chasms,” and a “bare black cliff” (ll. 345-46). Even the three queens cry out, “like a wind that shrills / All night in a waste land, where no one comes, / Or hath come, since the making of the world” (ll. 369- 371).
Bedivere, who is tagging along behind Arthur into this world, finally perceives that his king is about to leave him. His reaction is the lost and hopeless cry of the deserted child, aware only that “the true old times are dead” (l. 397). His plea to the king for new counsel is cast in the simplest and most poignant terms: “Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go ? ” (l. 395). The fall of all the world is contained in Bedivere's great sense of simple loneliness: “And I, the last, go forth companionless, / And the days darken round me, and the years, / Among new men, strange faces, other minds” (ll. 404-06).
Arthur does what he can to give comfort: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new” (l. 408). But this cyclic argument is a platitude so inappropriate that Arthur cannot allow it to stand: “Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?” (l. 411). This line is, in its implications, the most horrible and in some ways the most important in the Idylls. Arthur cannot make a world or promise hope; he cannot even, in the end, offer consolation. He asks for Bedivere's prayers, almostsure he is going to Avalon: “But now farewell. I am going a long way / With these thou seëst-if indeed I go / (For all my mind is clouded with a doubt) -” (ll. 424-26).
If Arthur is unsure, Bedivere is absolutely confounded. He has intimations both of doubt and hope; what is certain, though, is that he is left with “the stillness of the dead world's winter dawn” (l. 442). He saw, “Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King, / Down that long water opening on the deep / Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go / From less to less and vanish into light” (ll. 465-68).
The King may, though it is not certain, have his victory, but it is a triumph distant from men. The angels may welcome Arthur, but [212/213] that does Bedivere little good. With Arthur's passing, heaven removes itself entirely from the world, and lonely Bedivere is left without comfort. He can only tell his tale to the uncomprehending. This knight who never understood is the only one left to try to re-create Arthur's world out of the silence. The Idyllstrails off dismally, leaving behind the absurd image of Bedivere, telling of magical deeds, disappearing swords, and waving hands to those “new men, strange faces, other minds,” who yawn and nudge each other. There are no new beginnings, only the mockery of renewal by a cruel and deceptive nature: “And the new sun rose bringing the new year.“
Web version created March 2001
Last modified 8 August 2016