Alfred Tennyson was born at Somersby, Lincolnshire, August 6, 1809. He was the fourth of twelve children to George and Elizabeth (Fytche) Tennyson. Alfred Tennyson had a lifelong fear of mental illness. Several men in his family had a mild form of epilepsy, which in Tennyson’s time was thought to be a shameful disease. His father George and brother Arthur made their cases worse by excessive drinking. Tennyson’s brother Edward had to be confined in a mental institution after 1833 and Tennyson himself spent a few weeks under doctors’ care in 1843.
In the late twenties his father’s physical and mental condition worsened, and he became paranoid, abusive, and violent. In 1827 Tennyson escaped the troubled atmosphere of his home when he followed his two older brothers to Trinity College, Cambridge, where his tutor was William Whewell. Because they had published Poems by Two Brothers in 1827 and each won university prizes for poetry (Alfred winning the Chancellor’s Gold Medal in 1828 for “Timbuctoo”) the Tennyson brothers became well known at Cambridge.
In 1829 The Apostles, and undergraduate club, whose members remained Tennyson’s friends all his life, invited him to join. The group, which met to discuss major philosophical and other issues, included Arthur Henry Hallam, James Spedding, Edward Lushington, and Richard Monckton Milnes. Arthur Hallam was the most important and influential friend that Tennyson had. Hallam and Tennyson knew each other only four years, but their intense friendship had a major influence on the poet. On a visit to Somersby, Hallam met and later became engaged to Emily Tennyson, and the two friends looked forward to a life-long companionship.
Hallam’s death from illness in 1833 (he was only 22) shocked Tennyson profoundly, and his grief lead to most of his best poetry, including In Memoriam, “The Passing of Arthur”, and “Ulysses”. After Hallam’s death Tennyson published a series of 12 connected poems called “Idylls of the King”. “Idylls of the King” was a project that preoccupied Tennyson over many years, during which he studied Malory, The Mabinogion, Layamon, and other sources of Arthurian legend. In 1855-6 he began writing the first Idyll, which was to become “Merlin and Vivien”, which he followed with “Enid” later divided into “The Marriage of Geraint” and “Geraint and Enid”.
The first four were published in 1859 as “Enid”, “Vivien”, “Elaine”, and “Guinevere” and constituted, roughly half of the final version. They were extremely successful, selling 10,000 copies in six weeks. In 1869 followed “The Coming of Arthur”, “The Holy Grail”, “Pelleas and Ettarre”, and “The Passing of Arthur”. “The Last Tournament” was published in the Contemporary Review in 1871, then, with “Gareth and Lynette”, in 1872. “Balin and Balan”, written in 1872-4, did not appear until 1885. The sequence as now printed first appeared in 1891.
The poems present the story of Arthur, from his first meeting with Guinevere to the ruin of his kingdom and his death. “The moral allegory is pronounced: this is what happens to the ideals of chivalry and Christian heroism-brotherhood degenerates into enmity, love into lust, honor into pride, courage into brutality, vision into delusion. This is the cost of man’s all-too-human humanity” (Whitman 336). “The bulk of the passion is adulterous or cruel, the chaos of disorder destroys the Round Table, and the final battles merely affirm Arthur’s mystical perfection in his death” (Rood 410).
The protagonists are Arthur and Guinevere, Launcelot and Elaine. These characters are also their own or each other’s protagonist. Tennyson also uses the fates of various minor characters to further enhance his tale. Arthur is the son of Uther Pendragon, a Welsh chieftain. As a child, Arthur fulfills a prophecy and demonstrates his right to the throne of England by easily withdrawing a sword from a stone. The sword is sometimes called “Excaliber”, but in most versions of the legend this is the name of a sword he received later, from the Lady of the Lake.
At the age of 15, Arthur becomes king. He establishes his court in Camelot and marries the beautiful princess Guinevere. Arthur and his knights defeat Saxon invaders, gain control of all of England, and undertake wars of foreign conquest. Merlin the magician often aids Arthur. Modred, Arthur’s nephew, attempts to seize the kingdom and in the ensuing battle, Arthur kills him. Arthur is mortally wounded and dies on the island of Avalon. The adultery of Guinevere and Launcelot is seen as one of the forces that destroys the idealism and bright hopes of the Round Tale.
The scene in which the guilty Guinevere “grovelled with her face against the floor before Arthur to listen to his long denunciatory speech was received with great enthusiasm” (Alexander NP). Arthur’s forgiveness of Guinevere is said to have moved the poet himself to tears. I did not come to curse thee, Guinevere, / I, whose vast pity almost makes me die/ To see thee, laying there thy golden head, / My pride in happier summers, at my feet. / The wrath which forced my thoughts on that fierce law, / The doom of treason and the flaming death, / When first I learnt thee hidden here, -is past.
The pang-which, while I weighed thy heart with/ one/ Too wholly true to dream untruth in thee, / Made my tears burn-is also past-in part. / And all is past, the sin is sinned, and I, / Lo, I forgive thee, as Eternal God/ Forgives (Tennyson 299). The proper significance of the Idylls can only be truly understood if read in its final complete form. Tennyson’s intention of a piecemeal composition creates a deficiency in the understanding of the Idylls, which some critics to this day do not understand.
The Idylls are allegorical, or (as Tennyson preferred to put it) parabolic. It is important to remember that the allegory is not simple” (Killham 240-1). “The Coming of Arthur” describes the newly crowned Arthur’s first meeting with Guinevere, and their marriage. Arthur claims his throne, establishes his court and defeats his enemies in twelve great battles. The great magician Merlin and the mighty Sir Lancelot are both introduced. The Round Table is established, a symbol of equality where knights and their ladies can meet and feast to discuss the future of the land.
No one knight is greater than another and no one, even King Arthur, has a position of dominance. “Gareth and Lynette” is set in the springtime. The feeling in the air is of joy and happiness for the prosperity ahead. King Arthur is presented as a great constructive statesman rather than a warrior as in “The Coming of Arthur”. Arthur is establishing his statehood and setting the foundations of justice in his kingdom. No evil has fallen upon the court yet and the court has established the watchwords-help for the helpless and rescue for the oppressed.
Gareth is the son of Lot and Bellicent. Malory says that Gareth “was the goodliest young man and the fairest that ever they all saw, and he was large and long and broad in the shoulders and well-visaged, and the fairest and largest handed that ever man saw” (Keller NP). Lynette is the sister of Lyones who brings Gareth to fight Ironsyde to free Lyones from prison. Lyones then marries Gareth. “The Marriage of Geraint” and “Geraint and Enid” were originally written and published as one Idyll called “Enid”.
By breaking the poem down into two, one can better comprehend and study the meaning of Tennyson’s work. The Geraint Idylls are based on the romance of Geraint, the son of Erbin as told in the “Mabinogion”. The “Mabinogion” is a general title given by Lady Charlotte Guest to twelve tales which she translated from the Welsh, and which were found in a fourteenth century manuscript, called The Red Book of Hergust. The fall of Camelot begins to be seen by the reader in “Lancelot and Elaine”. No longer are evil’s whispered, they are in plain view.
Sir Launcelot of the Lake is known as the greatest and most romantic of the knights of the Round Table, son of King Ban and the lover of Guinevere. Here the story is told of Sir Launcelot’s love for Guinevere and the betrayal of the King. Launcelot’s love for the queen is strained by his relations with Elaine the Fair Maid of Astolot whose death ends Guinevere’s jealousy. Their love is betrayed by Agravain. Launcelot kills Agravain for disclosing the secret which in turn contributes to King Arthur’s death. The quest for the Holy Grail was to be the greatest achievement of the Round Table, a symbol of perfection.
The Holy Grail is said to be the cup of the Last Supper in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of the crucified Christ and which he brought to north Wales at the end of his lengthy wanderings” (Chandler NP). Arthur dedicated all of his resources and thoughts into the quest to attain the Grail. “The Holy Grail” is one of the most imaginative poems that Tennyson wrote in his Idylls. The thought of acquiring the unseen, a legend. Arthur knew that all his knights needed to pass to a higher state of physical and mental being through self-denial and perseverance.
Not as one but together the state of his court would grow pure and attain the right to achieve the quest. This Idyll is told through the eyes of Sir Percivale, “searcher for the basin” (French 379). Sir Percivale describes the quest of the Holy Grail and the differing degrees of failure of himself, Bors, Gawain, and Launcelot. “The Last Tournament” is “The bare outline of the story taken from Malory. The half-humorous, half-pathetic, and wholly faithful fool, Dagonet, is Tennyson’s creation” (French 385).
The end of Camelot is near, the setting is fall and King Arthur still has the sustained power over his court. The power and prestige of the Round Table are quickly disappearing. Rival courts are being established, not only in rebellion against the authority of the king, but to exploit those very evils which Arthur’s life had been given to suppress. Sir Tristram shows Lancelot his horrible sin by winning the title of the Champion of Innocence. “Guinevere” describes Guinevere’s growing repentance, her parting with Lancelot, her last meeting with Arthur, and her death as abbess of the nunnery of Almesbury.
King Arthur visits Guinevere one last time before his death and forgives her for the shameful act that she had done. King Arthur tells how he “is robbed even of his memory of the golden days before thy sin'” (Rood 411). “Morte d’Arthur” was Tennyson’s first major Arthurian work. “Morte d’Arthur” is incorporated into “The Passing of Arthur”. It describes the last moments of Arthur after the battle with Mordred’s forces, and includes his elegy on the Round Table, delivered to Sir Bedivere.
Sir Bedivere questions King Arthur “Ah! My Lord Arthur, whither shall I go? / Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes? / For now I see the true old times are dead, / When every morning brought a noble chance. / And every chance brought out a noble knight” (Tennyson 327). Then Arthur replies “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world” (Tennyson 327). Through Tennyson and many other writers, the legend of King Arthur will live on. Through King Arthur and many other readers, the legend of Tennyson will live on.