Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892

Introduction | Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4 | Island 5

Island 4:
Tennyson's Arthurian Epic


The fourth island focuses on Tennyson's role as an Arthurian poet and his lifelong interest in reworking the medieval legends of King Arthur and thr Round Table for nineteenth-century readers. Exhibit items include early nineteenth-chentury editions of the Arthurian sources he read as a boy, the various publication stages of Tennyson's Idylls of the King(published in sections over a forty-three-year period), and one of several contemporary fine illustrated editions. The major theme is the Victorian use of historical and literary tradition.

Alfred Tennyson
"Morte D'Arthur"
from Poems, fourth edition
London: Edward Moxon, 1845.

Originally written in 1833, this, the first of Tennyson's Arthurian idylls, was published as a separate poem in his two-volume Poems (1842). The poem was colored by the death of another Arthur, Arthur Hallam, and expresses Tennyson's personal sense of loss as well as his more general understanding of historical changes as "The old order changeth, yielding place to new." For the 1842 edition, Tennyson framed off the poem with a modern story, which disparagingly talks about epic and medieval romance as outmoded, like the newly discovered dinosaurs. Shown here is Daniel Maclise's illustration for the 1866 "New Edition" of Tennyson's poems.

Sir Thomas Malory
The Byrth, Lyf, and Actes of Kyng Arthu; of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table, Theyr Merveyllous Enquestes and Aduentures, Thachyeung of the Sanc Greal; and in the End le Morte Darthur, with the Dolorous Deth and Departying Out of Thys World of Them Al
introduction by Robert Southey
London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1817.

Among the books available to the young Tennyson in his father's library at Somersby Rectory were the then-recent editions of Malory's Arthurian stories. His fascination with Arthur and his knights began long before any of the Idylls were written.

James T. Knowles
The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, fourth edition
London: Strahan, 1868.
From the collection of Patrick Scott.

This brief prose guide to the Aurthurian legends, published with Tennyson's knowledge and cooperation, is here open to Knowles's prefatory account of how the sequence should be interpreted, where he called on Tennyson to complete a full epic-length Arthuriad. Knowles subsequently became founder of the influential Metaphysical Society, editor of the magazineThe Nineteenth Century, and architect of Tennyson's Gothic Revivial house, Aldworth, in Surrey.

Sharon Turner
The History of the Anglo-Saxons, fourth edition
London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1823.

This early scholarly discussion of the Arthurian sources was available to young Tennyson in the Rectory library. Turner'sHistory discusses, as Tennyson does, how an Arthurian reality had been transmitted and disfigured by later accounts, and Turner's footnotes illustrate the rapidly-growing range of early historical source-materials on Arthurian topics that hedged Tennyson around as he wrote. The image shows Turner's prefatory "Map of the Territory Inhabited by the Ancient Saxons North of the Elbe."

Alfred Tennyson
Idylls of the King
London: Edward Moxon, 1859.

In the early 1850's, Tennyson renewed his interest in the Arthurian tales and read more widely in Arthurian sources. This first groups of four "marriage" idylls — "Enid," "Vivien," "Elaine," and "Guinevere" — explores various ideas of chivalric love and marital infidelity, paralleling the focus of contemporary novelists.

Alfred Tennyson
illustrated by Gustave Dore
New York: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1867.

Gustave Dore, who also illustrated Dante and Coleridge as well as producing a notable series of illustrations of life among the London poor, was one of the most famous Victorian illustrators.

Alfred Tennyson
"Dedication" [to Prince Albert]
in Idylls of the King, fourth edition
London: Moxon, 1862.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German husband, died in November 1861. Victoria was greatly comforted in her bereavement by Tennyson's In Memoriam, and this dedicatory poem portraying Albert as the modern embodiment of the Arthurian ideal further strengthened the friendship between the Laureate and the monarch.

Alfred Tennyson
The Holy Grail and Other Poems
London: Strahan, 1870 [December 1869].

The volume saw the first book publication of "The Coming of Arthur," "The Holy Grail," and "Pelleas and Ettarre," along with revisions to "Morte d'Arthur," "The Passing of Arthur," and other poems. Opposite the title-page is a note arranging the four 1859 poems and the four new ones to form an eight-poem sequence. The 1870 expansion of the Arthurian sequence added a new religious significance to the sexual-marital focus of the 1859 group, and the new frame-poem, "The Coming of Arthur," introduces Tennyson's meditations on the religious significance of figures like Arthur who are half-historical, half-mythic.

Alfred Tennyson
Idylls of the King
London: Strahan, 1869 [January 1870].
From the collection of Patrick Scott.

This relatively uncommon one-volume edition displays how Tennyson wanted the poems to be arranged at this point in the development of the Idylls.

Alfred Tennyson
Gareth and Lynette, etc.
London: Strahan, 1872.

Completing the ten-book version of Tennyson's Idylls, this volume included the first book publication of "Gareth and Lynette" and "The Last Tournament." In rounding out his sequence to fit the epic demand for ten or twelve books, Tennyson emphasized the traditional, chivalric aspect of the Arthurian stories; "Gareth and Lynette" in particular, about a young boy who leaves home to get a knightly education at Camelot, seems to be addressed in part to Tennyson's son Hallam, then going away to school for the first time to Marlborough College.


"To the Queen"

Alfred Tennyson
"To the Queen"
from The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate
London: Kegan Pual, 1878.

The pessimistic epilogue to the Idylls, first published in the Imperial Library Edition of 1872, balances the more idealistic opening dedication to Prince Albert. In it, Tennyson expresses his fear that Arthur's Britain was "a sinking land, / Some third-rate isle half-lost among her seas" and acknowledges how he has rewritten Malory's "adulterous" tale to make a spiritual allegory for Victorian readers. This important collected edition, with a text revised by the author, initiated a relationship between Tennyson and his final publisher, Macmillan.

Alfred Tennyson
"Balin and Balan"
in Tiresias and Other Poems
London: Macmillan, 1885.

The addition of this last idyll, and the division of "Geraint and Enid" into two separate poems, transformed the ten-book version into the final twelve-book epic. In "Balin and Balan," the story of two brothers locked in fratricidal strife, Tennyson was expanding on very brief source material from Malory, and many critics see this dark central addition to the sequence as psychologically the most personal of Tennyson's Idylls.


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