English Literature for Boys and Girls - H. E. Marshall
Four hundred years after Malory wrote his book, another English writer told the tales of Arthur anew. This was the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He told them in poetry.
Tennyson calls his poems the Idylls of the King. Idyll means a short poem about some simple and beautiful subject. The king that Tennyson sings of is the great King Arthur.
Tennyson wrote many other poems besides the Idylls of the King. Of these we will speak later, just now it is only the Arthur story that we are following.
Tennyson takes his stories, some from The Mabinogion, some from Malory, some from other books. He has told them in very beautiful English, and it is the English such as we speak to-day. He has smoothed away much that strikes us as rough and coarse in the old stories, and his poems are as different from the old stories as a polished diamond is different from the stone newly brought out of the mine. Yet we miss something of strength and vigor. The Arthur of the Idylls is not the Arthur of The Mabinogion nor of Malory. Indeed, Tennyson makes him "almost too good to be true": he is "Ideal manhood closed in real man, rather than that gray king" of old.
And now I will give you part of the last of the Arthur poems, The Passing of Arthur, so that you may read it along with Layamon's account of the hero's death, and see for yourselves the difference between the two. The Passing of Arthur is written in blank verse, that is verse which does not rhyme, and which depends like the old English verse on the accent. Yet they are not alike.
"So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's Table, man by man,
Had fall'n 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 by a broken cross,
That stood in a dark strait of barren land:
On one side lay the Ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full."
Then the King bids Sir Bedivere take his sword Excalibur,
"And fling him far into the middle mere:
Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word."
Sir Bedivere takes the sword, and,
"From the ruin'd shrine he stept
And in the moon athwart the place of tombs,
Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men,
Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang
Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down
By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock,
Came on the shining levels of the lake."
But when Sir Bedivere drew Excalibur and saw the jewels of the hilt shine in the wintry moonlight, he could not find it in his heart to cast anything so beautiful and precious from him. So, hiding it among the reeds by the water's edge, he returned to his master.
"Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
'Hast thou perform'd my mission which I gave?
What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?'
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
'I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,
And the wild water lapping on the crag.' "
But King Arthur well knew that Sir Bedivere had not obeyed him. "This is a shameful thing for men to lie," he said, and once more sent the knight to do his bidding.
Again Sir Bedivere went, but again he could not make up his mind to cast away the sword. "The King is sick, and knows not what he does," he said to himself. So a second time he hid the sword and returned.
"Then spake King Arthur, breathing heavily:
'What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?'
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
'I heard the water lapping on the crag,
And the long ripple washing in the reeds.'
To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:
'Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
Authority forgets a dying king.' "
Then, sorrowful and abashed before the anger of the dying King, Sir Bedivere turned, and running quickly lest his courage should fail him, he reached the water's edge and flung the sword far into the lake.
"But ere he dip the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere."
Then Sir Bedivere, in wonder, returned to the King, who, when he saw him come, cried:—
" 'Now see I by thine eyes that this is done.
Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?' "
So Sir Bedivere told the King how truly this time he had cast away the sword, and how an arm "clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful," had caught it and drawn it under the mere. Then at the King's bidding Sir Bedivere raised Arthur and bore him to the water's edge.
"Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge,
Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
Beneath them; and descending they were ware
That all the decks were dense with stately forms,
Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream—by these
Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose
A cry that shiver'd to the tingling start,
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.
Then, murmur'd 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."
Then slowly from the shore the barge moved. And Sir Bedivere, as he saw his master go, was filled with grief and loneliness, for he only of all the brave King's knights was left. And so he cried in mourning:—
" 'Ah! my Lord Arthur, wither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead.
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."
Mournfully from the barge Arthur answered and bade him pray, for "More things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of," and so he said farewell,
"and the barge with oar and sail
Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan."
Long stood Sir Bedivere thinking of all that had come and gone, watching the barge as it glided silently away, and listening to the wailing voices,
"till the hull
Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away."
Sir Bedivere turned then and climbed,
"Ev'n to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bore 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.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year."
The poem moves along with mournful stately measures, yet it closes, like Layamon's farewell to Arthur, on a note of hope. Layamon recalls Merlin's words, "the which were sooth, that an Arthur should yet come the English to help." The hope of Tennyson is different, not that the old will return, but that the new will take its place, for "the old order changeth yielding place to new, and God fulfils himself in many ways." The old sorrows vanish "into light," and the new sun ever rises bringing in the new year.
Idylls of the King, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, (Macmillan).