Friday, 6 November 2015

The Epic and Le Morte d'Arthur by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne Jones (1881 - 1898).
This is my final poem for the Deal Me In Challenge - Le Morte d'Arthur by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in his Poems of 1842 though it may have been written as early as 1835, and, in 1859 it was titled 'The Passing of Arthur' as part of Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Le Morte D'Arthur is preceded by The Epic, which serves as an introduction. It begins,
At Francis Allen's on the Christmas-eve,—
The game of forfeits done—the girls all kiss'd
Beneath the sacred bush and past away—
The parson Holmes, the poet Everard Hall,
The host, and I sat round the wassail-bowl,
Then half-way ebb'd; and there we held a talk,
How all the old honor had from Christmas gone,
Or gone or dwindled down to some odd games
In some odd nooks like this...
One of the guests, "the poet Everard Hall", had once written an epic - twelve books on King Arthur - however he burned them, saying his work did not add anything to what already existed. One volume, however, did survive -
... "But I,"
Said Francis, "pick'd the eleventh from this hearth,
And have it; keep a thing, its use will come.
I hoard it as a sugar-plum for Holmes."
He laugh'd, and I, tho' sleepy, like a horse
That hears the corn-bin open, prick'd my ears;
For I remember'd Everard's college fame
When we were Freshmen. Then at my request
He brought it; and the poet, little urged,
But with some prelude of disparagement,
Read, mouthing out his hollow oes and aes
Deep-chested music, and to this result.
King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies,
from the Christian Heroes Tapestry (1385).
Then begins Le Morte D'Arthur:
So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's Table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their lord,
King Arthur. Then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land:
On one side lay the Ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.
The narrator tells of how King Arthur, as he dies, tells Sir Bedivere of how this battle will change everything -
... I think that we
Shall never more, at any future time,
Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds,
Walking about the gardens and the halls
Of Camelot, as in the days that were.
Arthur asks Bedivere to take his Excalibur and throw it back into the lake, then return and tell him what happens. Bedivere reluctantly agrees, but he does not throw the sword:
There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,
And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon,
Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth
And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt:
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,
This way and that dividing the swift mind,
In act to throw: but at the last it seemed
Better to leave Excalibur concealed
There in the many-knotted waterflags,
That whistled stiff and dry about the marge.
So strode he back slow to the wounded King.
Nevertheless he tells King Arthur he has -
"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,
And the wild water lapping on the crag."
Arthur knows that Bedivere is lying and tells him once more to throw the sword, but again he doesn't, again he lies, and again Arthur sees through his lie:
"Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
Authority forgets a dying king,
Laid widowed of the power in his eye
That bowed the will. I see thee what thou art,
For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,
In whom should meet the offices of all,
Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt;
Either from lust of gold, or like a girl
Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes.
Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice,
And the third time may prosper, get thee hence:
But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur,
I will arise and slay thee with my hands."
Bedivere flees with the sword and finally obeys, throwing it into the lake -
... The great brand
Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
By night, with noises of the Northern Sea.
So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur:
But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
And lightly went the other to the King.
Arthur, knowing that he tells the truth, then asks to be helped towards the sea ("bear me to the margin") but he struggles, and knows death is imminent. They finally arrive where they see three queens:
Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose
A cry that shivered to the tingling stars,
And, as it were one voice, an agony
Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills
All night in a waste land, where no one comes,
Or hath come, since the making of the world.
He is placed in the barge and cared for by the queens -
Then murmured Arthur, "Place me in the barge."
So to the barge they came. There those three Queens
Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.
But she, that rose the tallest of them all
And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,
And loosed the shattered casque, and chafed his hands,
And called him by his name, complaining loud,
And dropping bitter tears against a brow
Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white
And colourless, and like the withered moon
Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;
And all his greaves and cuisses dashed with drops
Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls--
That made his forehead like a rising sun
High from the daïs-throne--were parched with dust;
Or, clotted into points and hanging loose,
Mixed with the knightly growth that fringed his lips.
So like a shattered column lay the King;
Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest,
From spur to plume a star of tournament,
Shot through the lists at Camelot, and charged
Before the eyes of ladies and of kings. 
Bedivere, knowing their way of life is over and the Knights of the Round Table have been dissolved, cries "whither shall I go?"
And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of...
The barge drifts off into the sea and Sir Bedivere is left alone.

With that we find ourselves back at Francis Allen's home, and the listeners sit enchanted by what they have heard. In the narrator's dreams he hears people shout that King Arthur has returned, and then he wakens, on Christmas morning, to the sound of church bells:
At this a hundred bells began to peal,
That with the sound I woke, and heard indeed
The clear church-bells ring in the Christmas morn.
This is a remarkably moving poem. It depicts a feeling of hanging between the past and the future (as, I suppose, one may feel at Christmas the new year). King Arthur represents the glory and heroism, but now he has fallen and Bedivere stands on the shore, knowing that "the true old times are dead": the days "darken around him". Le Morte D'Arthur has, for that reason, an element of fear to it too. Glory and death, old and new, beauty and decay, the events of The Epic and its cosy Christmas Eve setting with Le Morte D'Arthur's post-battle death scene, and even Christmas Eve and Christmas morning are all contrasted in this poem. It is, I think, probably one of Tennyson's finest.

The Epic and Le Morte D'Arthur can be read online here.

The Death of King Arthur by James Archer (1860).


  1. Oh, it sounds wonderful! I'll have to read it.

    Have you read Le Morte d'Arthur yet (the whole thing)? It was such a tedious yet wonderful read in so many ways. I didn't think I'd revisit it for a long time, but I'm almost thinking of reading it again. Funny how some books sneak into your very soul, isn't it?

    1. I haven't read it, no. I must get round to it - thinking of putting it in the TBR '16 challenge! I'm ashamed I haven't read it yet, actually! :)

  2. "like a wind that shrills all night in a waste land, where no one comes...": my flesh creeped a bit at that. wonderful excerpt!

    1. It is, the whole thing is wonderful! :)


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