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TENNYSON'S GREAT ALLEGORY.
HAT the "Idylls of the King" has an inward significance is expressly declared by the poet in the line
New.old, and shadowing Sense at war with Soul. Milton was so impressed by the aptness of the “Morte d'Arthur” for the figurative presentment of religious ideas, that he long hesitated between it and the drama of “Paradise Lost.”
The most cursory reader cannot fail to notice the allegorical drist. It constitutes the secret charm of the tale, being hidden with most cunning art, never obtruded, never thrust upon us, never offending us by the discovery that we are being preached at, embodying the loftiest spiritual truth in most luxuriant beauty of form, so that, for the sake of the poet's art, we forgive the tremendous earnestness of the moralist.
Moral purpose is woven into the very warp and woof of the legend. The dictum of modern culture, “ Art for Art's sake," was unknown to the earliest, as i: is discredited by the latest, of that long line of romancists whom the story fascinated. Successive generations of minstrels—Welsh, Norman, English-infused their social and religious ideas into it so unmistakably that he who follows the course of the Arthurian legend actually traces the growth of social sentiment from pagan times, through mediæval chivalry, up to the flower of modern culture as represented by the dead Laureate. The animating purpose of the romancists is well revealed in the luminous words of Caxton's Prologue:
For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good, and leave the evil, and it will bring you unto good fame and
But all is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice nor sin, but to erercise and follow virtue, with the which we may come and attain to good fame and renown in this life, and after this short and transitory lise to come unto everlasting bliss in heaven.
In its last analysis the Arthurian legend launches us into the far shadowy realm of mythological ideas, from which have sprung the
parallel heroic legends of every people, and which in due time attached themselves to the exploits and defeats of the historic Arthur. Ultimately, therefore, the Idylls throw us back upon the world of ideas by which alone we can interpret their inner significance.
A word of caution may not be amiss. The word “allegory” must not send us back to the introspective pages of the "Pilgrim's Progress for our illustration. Bunyan gives us a parabolic history of inner personal experience ; Tennyson gives an ideal interpretation of the facts of history. The one shows us a pilgrim fleeing to save his own soul; the other, a warrior militant to redeem society. The “Morte d'Arthur,” without excluding the other, presents a picture of the ideal hero in relation to the lower movements of earth and time-how he bears himself ; what forces oppose him; what defeats, successes, attend him ; how he, having his being in the realms of "Soul,” comports himself in presence of the “Sense” conditions which prevail in human affairs. (It rescues the allegory from the introspective selfishness of religious experimentalism, and consecrates it to the idea of national regenerations. Hence Tennyson can see resemblances to the great prototype in all who devote their lives to the cause of social redemption, e.g. the Prince Consort, who
Seems to me
Voice in the rich dawn of an ampler day,
Clearly the story of the “blameless king” is written, not alone for the sake of Letters, but even more for the sake of Life. It exhibits a noble attempt to destroy the old dilemma between ideal and practical, or, if reconciliation be impossible, to show how the choice of the faithful amongst men, whether an Arthur or a Hercules, must fall upon the ideal. The practical problems of society cannot, indeed, be solved, but they may be illumined by the light that streams from far-off, shadowy Camelot. The asperities of modern debate may at least be softened before these whispered voices from the far ideal past. Men who battle for the right in the ever-prosy present may from this romantic type of heroism derive the assurance that their strength shall be more than their weakness, their honour greater than their shame, and their defeats in life swallowed up in their conquest of immortal influence.
When Burke made his famous declaration that the age of chivalry was past he was thinking only of that phase of media
valism which made the defence of oppressed womanhood its chief
oncern. To that extent he was, perhaps, superficially correct. The chivalry of the Middle Ages was gently smiled away by Cervantes, and drowned in the unfathomable beastliness of Rabelais, only to be renewed and regenerated in the Christianised sociology of Malory and Tennyson. The new ethic has been enshrined in the old romance. The tale which in the pages of Chrestien is a mirror of mediæval morality becomes in Tennyson a record of the development of a new chivalry. Social forms pass, but goodness, truth, beauty, are eternal, and for ever assume new and more lustrous guises. Hence it is the knight of the nineteenth century who is seen to move before us from the Coming to the Passing of Arthur, through the luminous mysteries of the Holy Grail. Tennyson's “ideal knight” fights not alone for oppressed Beauty, but for oppressed Humanity also. His duty is
To ride abroad redressing human wrong. Chivalry is not dead. In Tennyson's chaste wedded love it exhibits a deeper reverence for women than in the tainted loverewarded sensualism of the Welsh bards. Of that purest wedded love Arthur has become the most illustrious type. His marriage with Guinevere is the modern poet's protest against the false worship of the early ages, which bent the knee at every maidenly shrine, and did battle for the unhallowed love of other men's wives ! Modern chivalry finds in married love its encouragements and incentives to knightly conduct on the field of life. Nor is the modern poet without a protest against the ascetic idea of life on the other hand. The “Quest of the Holy Grail," with its scorn of all love, however pure, and its neglect of human duty, is clearly a lower enterprise than the service of man in the common ways of life. Sir Galahad, no doubt, is fanatically "maiden pure.” Sir Percivale is wondrously unbeholden to ordinary foods and drinks, and even Sir Lancelot breaks away temporarily from shameful bonds, but the king will not take upon him these non-worldly vows. He has higher, albeit more prosaic, tasks. abides with his queen and thinks better to perform his daily chores than “follow wandering fires, lost in the quagmire.”
The king must guard
Tennyson make us feel that Arthur has chosen the better part.
We cannot display our reverence for woman by forsaking her, nor do our duty to the world by turning our backs upon it. The new chivalry has less glamour but more goodness than the old ; it gains in humanity what it loses in barbaric pomp. The knight of the better era is not less noble or brave than those of ancient story, since his tasks are not less arduous and self-denying. The prosaic fields of peaceful industry and invention, of political expansion, of social elevation, of labour reform, of philanthropic endeavour, inay still display the old romance spirit. The genius of chivalry has risen to new elevations. Not the least conspicuous of Tennyson's achievements is that he has stripped the ideal of chivalry from its ferocity and sensuality, and taught his age how we also, amid the new conditions of the old war between Soul and Sense, may excel in reverence, valour, chastity.
No doubt it is possible to enter, in the name of pedantry, a protest against the process of sublimation to which Tennyson has subjected his “ideal knight.” And in our moments of weakness we could almost, as nearer to our common clay, long for the Arthur of the early romancists, the Arthur who errs and sins and is shamed, and by no means escapes the pollution of the swine-trough. But that would be to fall with the fallen Guinevere, who
Would not look up, or half.despised the height
To which (she) would not, or (she) could not climb. The ideal Arthur inevitably grew in this direction, through the imaginations of the romancists. Tennyson has achieved immortality by this, if by nothing else, that he has taken the ever-waxing ideal of an immortal legend, and wrought it to the flower of ideality. As long as the romance lives it will be told of him that he perfected the ever-crescent figure of the
Selfless man and stainless gentleman. This is time's recompense for the theft of whatsoever men find most precious. Future generations receive it back in a purer and higher form. It is more than an empty mythology which sets the souls of departed heroes to shine as stars in the firmament. Their idealised memory becomes an exhaustless and perennial inspiration.
Various types of men meet our plea for modern chivalry with the crushing reminder of Don Quixote. They owe Cervantes nothing but a convenient nick-name wherewith to nip in the bud all higher enthusiasms. Though the gentle Spaniard laboured to exhibit the faith, the reverence, the gentleness, the courtesy of his misguided hero, they can see nothing but the windmills! Tennyson would
teach the brave enthusiast to pursue his visions though it be amid the inextinguishable laughter of fools shrilling out with Dagonet :
Conceits himself as God, that he can make
And men from beasts-Long live the king of fools! As little is he to be turned aside by the cynic criticisms of the “worldling of the world,” Sir Tristram, who reminds him, “thou nor I have made the world,” and that “too much wit makes the world rotten ”; who surrenders the far star that shines in the heavens for the star reflected in the mere ; and who regards his aspiring vows as but “the wholesome madness of an hour.” Least of all will he be moved by the slander of the wicked who, like Vivien, leave
Not even Lancelot brave, nor Galahad clean !
Is thy white blamelessness accounted blame ! The world can do excellently well without Gradgrind, but clings to Quixote. Instinct is against the surrender. Byron ridicules the hapless Don, but presently mounts the cap and bells himself, and, fired with the story of Marathon and Thermopylæ, sets out to liberate a nation, and dies in sheer disgust of a tribe of slaves and bandits. Mankind are led by those who were the scoffed and beaten Quixotes of their age. John Brown first dangles at the end of a rope, then “his soul goes marching on ” to the wars of freedom at the head of a million men. Your English “Quixote" fanatically cleaves to fatal Khartoum, and his death does more for Egyptian freedom than his life. Your Norse “Quixote ”—mad—will navigate the North Pole on an iceberg! Of all such fanatical and impracticable heroisms Arthur is the type. He is the flower of that chivalry of every age whose enterprises are foredoomed to defeat.
Predestined failure is the cross the ideal knight has to carry evermore. He aspires, but cannot accomplish. The impracticable stubbornness of things is against him. He is born before his time, and shoots upwards like a star, while his contemporaries peacefully follow the normal laws of development. He is hemmed in by the limitations of his fellows, and entangled in the fateful coil of circumstance. Arthur cannot reform Cymria, for Cymria is unreformable ; not Arthur, but Cymria is weak. He cannot retain the fidelity of his queen, because she