"Sir Galahad" and "St. Agnes' Eve" are two poems of Tennyson illustrated in the 1857 Moxon edition, the former by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the latter by John Everett Millais. Both poems were originally published in Tennyson's 1842 volume, English Idylls and Other Poems, and the similarities between the two make for an interesting comparison when it comes to the strikingly different images chosen to illustrate them. Specifically, both are dramatic monologues (exactly contemporary with Tennyson's "Ulysses" and Browning's Dramatic Lyrics) presenting protagonists who have devoted themselves to religious chastity, and yet long for the specifically sensual rewards due to them for having done so.
"St. Agnes' Eve" cannot but recall Keats's "Eve of St. Agnes," and although there is no doubt of Keats's influence here, the two poems are really quite different. Tennyson's is, for one thing, far shorter, and takes as its speaker not the dreaming, sensual Madeline of the Keats, but a nun (recalling Keats' minor character of the Beadsman) who has forsworn the pleasures of earthly love and, ironically, anticipates on the feast day of the virgin martyr of Rome not her earthly husband (as was customary) but the joys she'll receive in heaven from her spiritual bridegroom, Christ. Millais chose to emphasize the purity of the speaker, and perhaps also her sterility, in his attention to her long, flattened white gown, the dominant object of the image, corresponding with the immaculate yet frigid stretches of snow outside. Indeed, Millais has made use of very little shading at all, and the contrast between his dark convent walls, and the white of the gown and outside landscape, is both striking and remarkably well-balanced. Here, the exact situation represented is the invention of the artist rather than the poet; although the poem does discuss the "convent towers," the wintry landscape, and the stars, Millais has taken a step in interpreting the poem by portraying the speaker as a woman on a winding-stair, presumably on her way up to bed. (Traditionally, unmarried girls may have a vision of their future husbands on the Eve of St. Agnes if they complete a certain ritual before going to sleep).
If "St. Agnes' Eve" looks back to Keats, "Sir Galahad" seems, rather, to anticipate Tennyson's Idylls of the King, one of his later and most ambitious works. In both poems, Sir Galahad is portrayed as a knight specifically identified by his chastity ("a maiden knight") which (in accordance with some if not all of Tennyson's sources) becomes for him a source of unmatched strength, and allows for Galahad, as the most spiritually pure of knights, to be the one who finally achieves the Grail. Rossetti's illustration corresponds most closely with one stanza of the poem in particular:
When down the stormy crescent goes,
A light before me swims,
Between dark stems the forest glows,
I hear a noise of hymns:
Then by some secret shrine I ride;
I hear a voice but none are there;
The stalls are void, the doors are wide,
The tapers burning fair.
Fair gleams the snowy altar-cloth,
The silver vessels sparkle clean,
The shrill bell rings, the censer swings,
And solemn chaunts resound between. [25-36]
Interestingly, while the Rossetti illustration is grounded in a more precise textual referent than the Millais, it is nonetheless by far the more perplexing and mysterious of the two, with dark figures lurking in corners and a visual space crowded with mysterious objects and details.
The art of Millais and Rossetti is often aligned as both artists were founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and yet here their products are remarkably different; while the Millais is stark and visually straight-forward, the Rossetti is quite dark and complex. Can you, however, discern some similarities to be found between the two illustrations, either in regard to technique or theme?
To what extent does each artist invent the specific, visual setting of his image, and to what extent does each derive his materials from the written text?
How do these illustrations function differently in relation to the poems? Which is the "purer" example of book-illustration, and which is more interesting as a work of art?
What is it about the mixture of sensual longing and religious feeling which was so intriguing both to Tennyson and to the members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood? Does the representation of this kind of passion differ according to the subject's sex?
Poems by Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet Laureate. London: E. Moxon, 1857.
Created 16 September 2003
Last modified 1 January 2020