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Dionysian music, patriotic sentiment, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King.

In The Coming of Arthur, the first idyll in the narrative sequence of Idylls of the King, (1) the youthful Gawain, who is not yet a knight, wanders a terrain that is not yet Arthur's:
 And Gawain went, and breaking into song
 Sprang out, and followed by his flying hair
 Ran like a colt, and leapt at all he saw. (2)


The gush of a spring and its animalistic counterpart, the gallop of a colt, evoke untamed and irrepressible ebullience. The act of breaking into a song, which suggests a sudden outburst, complements the overwhelming energy that Gawain's actions embody. Unbroken like a colt, Gawain sings and travels impulsively. This glimpse at the pre-Arthurian world suggests a link between music and spontaneity that the Idylls in its entirety develops and elaborates. I will suggest in this essay that, through this link, the poem provides a sophisticated commentary on the affective and political functions of music--and, in fact, of the aesthetic as a general category--that is in dialogue with contemporary debates about the topic.

As recent scholarship has revealed, music in early- and mid-Victorian culture was "a charged site of struggle insofar as it was promoted as both a transcendent corrective to social ills and a subversive cause for these ills." (3) From educational reformists to public moralists, many believed that instrumental and vocal music could strengthen the sense of national belonging, foster religious devotion, and promote domestic happiness. As music theorist Herbert Spencer noted, music developed an "emotional language" that cultivated sympathy, the "essentialelement" of "friendship, love, and all domestic pleasures." W. E. Hickson, known as the "father of English school music," ascribed a positive moral valence to music's appeal to emotion: "[Music] has a tendency to wean the mind from vicious and sensual indulgences; and, if properly directed, it has a tendency to incline the heart to kindly feelings, and just and generous emotions." Another music educator, Joseph Mainzer, justified musical education by reference to its religious benefits, arguing that school songs "remind[ed] [children] of their duty towards God." (4) Anglican and nonconformist churches contributed immensely to the popularity of music among all classes of society because of the prominent role singing played in worship. The interest in hymnody peaked by the mid-Victorian period, with more hymn books being published than ever before. Oratorios reinforced the affinity of music with spirituality. Wagner observed upon hearing Handel's Messiah at the Exeter Hall in London that "an evening spent in listening to an oratorio may be regarded as a sort of service, and is almost as good as going to church." (5) But, as Linda Colley reminds us, The Messiah also owed its appeal to its glorification of Britain as a second Israel. Nationalism played a central role alongside religion in exalting musical experiences, with the coronation hymn, the national anthem, and military bands playing crucial roles in rituals of nation-building. (6)

The theory that musical sounds mobilized emotions affiliated music with unruly passion in addition to linking it to domesticity, spirituality, and patriotism. Music appeared to produce rapture and sensuality. Frequently, "musical entertainments of a low and immoral character" available in "public houses of an inferior stamp" shouldered the stigma of music's appeal to passion, but the broad category of music, too, could receive criticism for it. (7) In 1838, the young John Ruskin wrote, "music ... raises the passions, or excites the feelings; but it cannot direct intellect, convey ideas, or furnish materials for thought." He asserted that music offered a type of pleasure that is more instinctive than cultivated: "Brutes can enjoy music: mice, in particular, are thrown into raptures by it; horses are strongly excited by the sound of trumpets, and may be taught to dance in excellent time, or even beat a tambourine with their fore-feet; the iguana, a kind of lizard, is so passionately fond of music that if you will do him the favour to whistle a tune to him,... he will allow you to kill him rather than stir." (8) This diatribe against music suggests that by allowing oneself to enjoy music, one invites rapturous joy that knows no limits. Ruskin is issuing numerous warnings here: listen to music and you will become trapped in the present moment, ignore the consequences of your actions; and lose your ability to reason. Music is thus pushed outside the domain of reason and perceived as a threat. How could individuals be trusted to observe social codes if they were reduced to rapturous mice, dancing horses, and suicidal iguanas through the act of listening to music? Because music supposedly induces impulsiveness and loss of reason, it becomes capable of undoing order and discipline. Later in the century-by which time Ruskin had revised his theory of music (9)--the notion that music's most emphatic motto was carpe diem continued to stigmatize the fondness for music. Musician and historian Francis Hueffer, who praised the overall development of the nation's musical appreciation during Victoria's reign, regretted that music simultaneously received "contemptuous treatment," which, according to him, never became "altogether extinct." (10)

The Idylls of the King attends closely to music's putative affinity with passionate spontaneity. Although the poem espouses a thoroughly disciplinary project (King Arthur's power must penetrate into the farthest corner of the kingdom, those living on his land must become his subjects, and dissenters must be defeated), it also endorses the impulsiveness that music effects. But what role can music play in an order that "lives to crush / All wrongers of the Realm" (GL, ll. 610-611)? Under Arthur's reign, what is to become of the exuberant energy that Gawain exhibits as he sings? The Idylls reconciles musical spontaneity with civic duty by locating the former at the heart of patriotic sentiment. The outburst of energy that follows Gawain's breaking into a song is not annihilated under Arthur's rule but channeled into the seemingly spontaneous harmony of Camelot. From Arthur's coronation hymn to Enid's lyrical song, music in the Idylls facilitates the development of subjects' passionate love for the realm, thus bridging what Terry Eagleton calls "the fissure between abstract duty and pleasurable inclination." (11) But the poem also insists on the impossibility of ascribing a monolithic ideological function to music and its reputed call to exuberance. From Vivien's subversive singing and Tristram's sensuous tunes to the nunnery's dialogic song and the Holy Grail's ethereal music, alternatives to Arthurian music hint at the impossibility of reducing music to a state apparatus. With unruly melodies clashing with and blending into one another, tunes and songs are continually appropriated, transformed, and reinterpreted within the poem. If we take music to represent metonymically the category of the aesthetic, through these transformations the Idylls suggests the impossibility of delimiting the significance or the political function of a work of art.

Spontaneity, which characterizes not only the effects of music on individual listeners but also the processes through which songs and melodies are created and performed, is key to the operation of both Arthurian and alternative musics. The paths traced by melodies in the poem are as unforeseeable as the subjective responses to music are impulsive. Vivien's voice reproduces Lancelot's song to seduce Merlin; the Holy Grail's tune possesses the knights; Tristram's harp resounds at the center of Camelot; the music of the nunnery haunts the adulterous queen. Circulating freely as a source of pleasure and passion, melodies move across socially and politically constructed boundaries. As songs and tunes propagate restlessly, "the foe without," "the foe within," and loyal subjects become irreversibly interconnected (GL, ll. 579, 580). In an epic that persistently asserts the impossibility of isolating Arthur's realm from its outside, ubiquitous melodies with their uncontrollable trajectories signal the futility of self-enclosure and represent a perpetual state of dispersal and fusion. This thematic congruence, I suggest, underlies the prominence of melodies and songs in the Idylls.

A discussion of music in the Idylls ultimately involves questions about the status and treatment of poetry itself. If the musicality of poetry appeared conspicuous in the mid-Victorian period, this was perhaps due to the Romantics' hailing of poetry as "the music of language," which turned music into "the art frequently pointed to as having a profound affinity with poetry." (12) Fervently, contemporary reviewers of the Idylls wrote about the poet's "perfection of ear" and praised his singularly "musical verse" and called him a "musician." (13) Tennyson himself observed what his critics underlined: "I know there's music in my verse." (14) But the poet laureate may have felt uneasy about his participation in the world of music. Before acknowledging the presence of "music in [his] verse," he felt the need to preface the remark by asserting, "I am unmusical and I don't understand music" (Parry, diary entry, 3:437). From this vantage point, we can read the treatment of music in the Idylls as an exoneration of the poem's (and the poet's) own musicality in an era in which music received criticism for its affinity with passion. Further, the Idylls' linkage of patriotic loyalty to exuberant spontaneity validates the nation's need for a poet laureate who could appeal to passions.

Since the early 1990s, literary criticism has explored the poem's treatment of nationhood by focusing on the Arthurian polity's tropological representation of the nation and the empire. (15) Colin Graham articulates succinctly why Arthur's realm, which is neither a nation nor an empire, can be read as both: "Many aspects of national and imperial self-comprehension and self-fashioning are embedded in the text: the use of myths, the need for a publicly acknowledged ethical, moral or social code, the necessity of heroes and figureheads as symbols of nation or empire, and the existence of an 'other' against which to define, and through which to homogenise, the nation-entity--all are encased within the poem's structures, textuality and narratives." Numbering the "mechanisms which are designated to preserve and maintain [Tennyson's Arthurian state] politically and socially," Graham omits music (p. 48). Although this poetic rendering of the Arthurian myth, which Tennyson initially considered casting in the form of a musical masque, is full of songs and melodies, (16) such an omission is rather typical: those analyses addressing the issue of nation-building and imperial expansion have paid surprisingly little or no attention to music. Although many critics have provided in-depth analyses of the role of music in the Idylls, they have focused primarily on the ways in which melodies and songs reflect the realm's political strength or characters' emotional states. John Reed points out that the music of the Arthurian polity lasts as long as its ideals survive ("Arthur's music falters, and men yield to selfish superstition"); John Rosenberg finds that music in Camelot reflects the political climate ("Arthur's music, first heard at the founding of Camelot, [is] muted by Vivien's pagan hymn, further fractured into discord by Tristram's song, and [then] heard only in the muffled music of the Fool"); J. M. Gray posits that songs in the Idylls "are always an apt projection of the characters who sing or create them." (17) By focusing on the ways in which music moves in space and mobilizes emotions, this essays moves beyond the reading of music as symptom to address how music in the Idylls undertakes what Eagleton proposes is the quintessential function of the aesthetic in bourgeois society: the linkage of the mental and the corporeal (Eagleton, pp. 1-69).

Dionysian Patriotism

In the immediate aftermath of the twelve "great" battles where "the heathen hordes" were defeated, Arthur's knights celebrate their moment of joyous victory by singing in unison a patriotic song that provides Camelot with lively and stirring music (CA, ll. 517,518). The lyrics subtly undo the seeming opposition between music and war set up by the song's appearance in a festive banquet:
 'Blow trumpet, for the world is white with May;
 Blow trumpet, the long night hath rolled away!
 Blow through the living world--"Let the King reign."' (CA, ll.
 481-483)


Like the battles, the song promotes the king's authority and seeks to legitimate his right to rule, but the spontaneity with which the singing starts moves music beyond the realm of premeditated action. The song's sudden appearance, making loyalty to the king seem instinctive and joyful, suggests that patriotism needs no rehearsal. As the knights' song hints through the imagery of weapons and the lyrics' brisk tone, spontaneous musical pleasures complement the preceding martial episode:
 Blow trumpet! he will lift us from the dust.
 Blow trumpet! live the strength and die the lust!
 Clang battleaxe, and clash brand! Let the King reign. (CA, ll.
 490-492)


The relentless accumulation of sharp sounds, evoking aggressive vigor, establishes a sense of continuity between the battles and the banquet. The knights' song enacts the sense of togetherness that is to thrive under the king's martially established authority. Like the very structure of music itself, the act of singing in unison transforms discordant singularity into temporary unity, which then becomes a source of power: "Out of [Camelot] a blast of music pealed" (GL, l. 234).

A different mood marks the performance of the same patriotic song in Merlin and Vivien, where the singing, in contrast to that of the knights in The Coming of Arthur, is undisciplined. Merlin, having just listened to a song by Vivien, reminisces, "Far other was the song that I once heard / By this huge oak, sung nearly where we sit" (MV, ll. 403-404). Here, Tennyson provides a note to announce that Merlin is talking about "the song about the clang of battleaxes, etc., in the Coming of Arthur" (Poems, 3: 407n). Merlin continues:
 It was the time when first the question rose
 About the founding of a Table Round,
 That was to be, for the love of God and men
 And noble deeds, the flower of all the world.
 And each incited each to noble deeds.
 And while we waited, one, the youngest of us,
 We could not keep him silent, out he flashed,
 And into such a song, such fire for fame,
 And such trumpet-blowings in it, coming down
 To such a stern and iron-clashing close
 That when he stopt we longed to hurl together. (MV, ll. 408-418)


Descriptors such as "trumpet-blowings," "stern," and "iron-clashing" highlight that the song the youth sings is identical to the one that the knights sing in unison. But why is this song, whose lyrics profess Arthurian principles and whose singer conforms to Arthurian ideals, performed in a way that not only embodies but also induces uncontrollability? The youthful hunter, who breaks forth swiftly with a liveliness that matches his impulsiveness, cannot be silenced even by the mighty magician. His singing embodies an aggressive vigor that cannot be contained within the body of the singer. The youth's companions, who initially try to silence him, become deeply inspired by the singing. But the uncontrollable desires induced by music do not threaten Arthur's regime. The cultivation of impulsive desire is as essential to the maintenance of the Arthurian polity as are military battles, because if Camelot is to transform the king's subjects into patriots, it must supplement rational loyalty with spontaneous affective attachment.

The ambiguity of Merlin's "we longed to hurl together" evokes various possibilities: Do the hunters want to join the singer by hurling into a song? Do they want to hurl themselves forward altogether? Or do they wish to hurl themselves into a conglomerate? The common denominator of these distinct options is the formation of a spontaneous community that evokes the Dionysian. In Nietzsche's words, the Dionysian is a state of intoxication where one feels "united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor." (18) Both Nietzsche and Tennyson, imagining unorganized communities that emerge on the spur of the moment, ascribe to music the ability to establish spontaneous interpersonal bonding. In Merlin and Vivien, it is the youthful hunter's song that initiates an uncontrollable desire to "hurl together." In Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, music, unlike painting or sculpture, awakens "Dionysian emotions," where "energies ... burst forth" and "the union between man and man [is] reaffirmed" (pp. 36, 38). Selves can no longer be interpellated into individualized subject positions in the music-induced Dionysian state. Undermining the ideology of individualism and enabling a deeply homoerotic experience, music undertakes a doubly transgressive role in The Birth of Tragedy. The Dionysian community that the hunting knights form in Merlin and Vivien is similarly gendered masculine and charged with homoerotic energy. The overflowing energy that music generates seems to constitute an excess in an order built on duty and discipline.

The Birth of Tragedy and the Idylls associate music with irrepressible energy that seems to flow freely, but they indeed contain and limit that "free" flow. In The Birth of Tragedy, the Dionysian state, even as it dissolves the borders between each individual subject, leaves intact the imagined boundary separating one race from another. Nietzsche claims that there is an "immense gap which separates the Dionysian Greek from the Dionysian barbarian":
 From all quarters of the ancient world ... from Rome to Babylon, we
 can point to the existence of Dionysian festivals, types which
 bear, at best, the same relation to the Greek festivals which the
 bearded satyr, who borrowed his name and attributes from the goat,
 bears to Dionysus himself. In nearly every case these festivals
 centered in extravagant sexual licentiousness, whose waves
 overwhelmed all family life and its venerable traditions; the most
 savage natural instincts were unleashed, including even that
 horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed
 to me to be the real 'witches' brew. (p. 39)


According to this construal, Dionysian Greek festivals bypass sexualized passion by channeling energy into a state of oneness between the outside world and the body (p. 40). In Greek versions of the Dionysian festival, music calls the body into play to express the "essence of nature," which, we are to infer, has nothing to do with the "sexual licentiousness" of non-Greek Dionysian festivals. Dionysian energy is thus wild enough to dissolve the boundaries of the self, but tame enough to thrive in a civilization that defines itself through its putative difference from the "savage." Like the Greek Dionysians' outburst, Arthur's devotees' desire finds an acceptable outlet. The Arthurian order tolerates and even cultivates irrepressible spontaneity because loyalty to the ruler, if it is to be genuinely patriotic, must appear authentic and unforced. A subject who cannot help but burst into a patriotic song thus makes a good citizen of the Round Table, albeit a bad hunter.

If the gendering of the singing knights and their martial song hints at the Idylls' inscription of the Dionysian as masculine, women's songs that appear in other idylls reinforce this gendering. Like the knights' song, Lynette's, Enid's, and Elaine's songs appeal to and mobilize emotions; however, the three women do not experience the semi-aggressive exuberance that their audiences do. Lynette's "Smile sweetly, thou! My love hath smiled on me," articulating and evoking romantic sentiment, differs from the knights' "clang battleaxe, clash brand" song in tone, but like that hymn, it comes as a response to martial victory (GL, l. 976). Insofar as the delightful tune celebrates and rewards aggression, it remains deeply rooted in physicality. The contextualization of Enid's song similarly affiliates music with the body. With a voice depicted as "sweet," her rendition of the song about the wheel of fortune instantly inspires passionate love (MG, 1. 329). Smitten with Enid's singing, Geraint becomes deeply motivated to defeat the sparrow-hawk to gain his loved one's hand and Arthur's respect. Although the impulsiveness associated with music is conspicuously present in the episode that features Enid's seductive singing, the experience of overwhelming emotions is reserved for the male listener. Lynette's and Enid's singing, ascribing emotional extravagance and vigorous physicality to men's musical experiences, reaffirms music's appeal to bodily functions without having to sacrifice the proper femininity of the female performers. Similarly linking music to the body, the Idylls' treatment of Elaine's song imagines a nonactualized form of female sensuality. The lyrics, addressing unrequited love, link the mortality of the human body to mental pain on one hand and to feminine ideals on the other: "Sweet is true love though given in vain, in vain; / And sweet is death who puts an end to pain" (LE, ll. 1000-01). Unlike that of the knights, the emotional excess that Elaine experiences is self-consuming rather than communal. However, as Guinevere's "supersensual sensual bond" to Lancelot indicates, the Idylls' gendering of sensual extravagance is not monolithic (MV, l. 107).

Gendered musicality is not always so readily available or readable in the Idylls. Balin and Balan, in which political devotion culminates in the subjective experience of the Dionysian state, is a case in point. When Arthur first encounters Balin and Balan and proposes, "Walk with me, and move, / To music with thine Order and the King," all seems reducible to familiar patterns of command and obedience (BB, ll. 73-74). (19) Burdened with imperatives, this linguistic reference to music fails to generate the Dionysian. The sense of pleasurable willing participation so crucial to the experience of patriotism appears only after Balin enters Arthur's hall. He is "greeted ... With joy" as he joins Arthur's subjects:
 And cup clashed cup; they drank and some one sang
 Sweet-voiced, a song of welcome, whereupon
 Their common shout in chorus, mounting, made
 Those banners of twelve battles overhead
 Stir, as they stirred of old, when Arthur's host
 Proclaimed him Victor, and the day was won. (BB, ll. 78-79, 82-87)


Once again, the act of singing is associated with the passionate expression of emotion. This time around, the intoxication is literal as well as figurative. Cup clashing cup substitutes for sword clashing sword; sweetness complements patriotic vigor; drunkenness induces exuberance but not chaos. The hall of festivity, where sweet voices and accompanying shouts become indistinct from one another, seems markedly devoid of gender distinctions. If the commotion and public drinking perhaps point toward the potential absence of women, the sweet-voiced singing suggests women's presence, because the Idylls frequently characterizes women's singing as sweet. The ambiguity here offsets any discomfort women's presence in this Dionysian setting might raise, without characterizing the Dionysian display of patriotic sentiment as exclusively masculine. If the sense of togetherness evoked by communal singing is to exemplify and embody the seamless unity of Arthur's subjects, it cannot exclude women.

In Balin and Balan, what enables the experiences of music and drunkenness to overlap harmoniously is that music, like alcohol, seems to induce a state of mind in which emotions are unleashed and the imagination is easily excited. The association of musical pleasure with intoxication parallels the arguments of contemporary musical treatises, whose descriptions of music's effects on the body frequently evoke the state of drunkenness. Stressing music's ability to induce excitement, William Gardiner writes in The Music of Nature that there is "nothing in nature that ... impresses our feelings more quickly than a sound," and he claims that sounds awaken people to "that sense of terror, pleasure, or pain." (20) Similarly perceiving music's potential to excite, the Reverend H. R. Haweis in Music and Morals describes in physiological detail "what happens when a person is ... excited": "a certain quickening of the blood as it rushes through the heart, or what we call a hurried pulse, and a corresponding disarrangement of molecules in the brain." (21) Haweis' theory biologically accounts for the sense of irrepressible, uncontrollable exuberance that the Idylls ascribes to those who are under the influence of music. From Haweis' disarranged molecules in the brain to Arthur's temporarily disciplined realm, the missing link in the transition is the patriotic song, in which tolerable disarrangement and enjoyable order coexist. The synthesis of intoxication and duty--of commotion and order--that we see in the patriotic song begins to reveal why a city built to music is a city not built at all. Paradoxically, music bolsters Arthur's order through its occasional dissolution of order.

The exuberant singing in the hall captures the link between music and memory. By calling to memory the stirring of the banners after twelve battles, the patriotic song not only derives from but also contributes to the making of a collective memory for the Arthurian realm. Collective memory defines the parameters of an imagined community: those who hear and replicate heroic narratives about the twelve battles constitute the Arthurian "nation," and the narratives themselves provide a history of the polity. The use of music to generate collective memory would have struck a chord for Tennyson's contemporary audience, who perhaps would have been familiar with musical treatises that aimed to confront the fear that the English were not a musical people, asserting to the contrary that England had a rich musical history. Responding to the popular opinion that the Germans and the Italians had monopolized the world of music, (22) these treatises sought to define a national music. Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein's observations on "the different degrees of musical appreciation in different nations," which singles out the English as "the least musical of all peoples," exemplifies the position that musical historians sought to refute: "Of the German people at least fifty per cent understand music; of the French not more than sixteen per cent; while among the English ... not more than two percent can be found with any knowledge of music. ... While I am deeply sensible of [the English people's] kindness to me, I cannot refrain from saying that their ignorance of music is only exceeded by their lack of appreciation." (23) Protesting the identification of England as "das Land ohne Music," Haweis in Music and Morals emphatically stated that ballads constituted the national music of English people (pp. 409-420). Similarly, the editor of National English Airs vehemently denied the assertion that the English had no national music and offered its audience a collection of ballads and dance tunes. (24) Addressing the same problem in The Music of Nature, Gardiner imagined an internationalist model in order to argue that the English "had a music of their own": "It is a generally received opinion, that most countries have a music of their own, the character of which may be called national.... The strains of the Irish and Welch may be referred to the harp; the dance tunes of Spain to the guitar; the mountain airs of the Swiss to the haunting horn; the music of the Turks to the rhythmical clangor of the ancient Greeks" (p. 351). Paralleling contemporary linguistics' formulation of a correspondence between languages and imagined national characters, (25) the idea that each nation has its own music presents the nation as a community with clear-cut borders. This conception is useful for the ideology of the nation-state, which represents the historically contingent presence of distinct nations as natural and necessary. However, although the Idylls replicates the treatises' emphasis on the musicality of the English people in imagining a Camelot with its own music, it will not let political borders seem natural.

Contagious Melodies, Alternative Spontaneities

In the hunting knights' and Balin's Dionysian singing, the Arthurian ideology grows stronger with each reiteration of the patriotic song and music disseminates nationalist feeling. This function of music evokes Tennyson's remarks on poetry. As Margaret Linley notes, for Tennyson "the endurance of political empire depends on the sovereign power of poetry": "Tennyson draws a direct comparison between political empire and the imaginative empire of poets.... Poetry gives specific spatial definition to the imperial map; for poets' 'words fly over land and main / Their warblings make the distance glad' (ll.13-14), thereby locating dispersed individuals and connecting them emotionally and imaginatively to a cultural community across the vast geographical spaces of empire." (26) Like poetry in Tennyson's imagination, music in the Idylls "fl[ies] over land and main," assuming the political function that Tennyson elsewhere ascribes to poetry. But the Idylls in its entirety does not limit the political function of the aesthetic to the reproduction of the dominant ideology. To the contrary, the mutation of Arthurian melodies into subversive airs asserts the impossibility of stabilizing the meaning and political function of music. Through these mutations, the poem provocatively points at radical possibilities embedded in even the most conformist works of art. Tennyson's approach to the topic thus resonates with our contemporary practices of literary criticism in which we emphasize the production of contrapuntal readings.

In Vivien's mouth, Camelot's own music assumes the ability to threaten Arthur's order. It is a Round Table knight's song that Vivien sings to seduce Merlin into betraying his secret:
 I think ye hardly know the tender rhyme
 Of "trust me not at all or all in all."
 I heard the great Sir Lancelot sing it once,
 And it shall answer for me. Listen to it. (MV, ll. 381-384)


Ventriloquizing Lancelot's song, Vivien is free to make it her own: "O Master, do ye love my tender rhyme?" (MV, l. 397). "So tender was her voice, so fair her face" that Merlin becomes half inclined to believe her innocence (MV, l. 399). Ironically, although the linguistic content of the song warns the magician against acting upon partial trust, the musical performance prompts him to do so: first, "he let his wisdom go / For ease of heart, and half believed her true"; then he "yielded, told her all the charm, and slept" (MV, ll. 890-891, 964). Representing music as an art form that passes beyond linguistic consciousness and exerts its power from an unnarratable domain, this episode reproduces the culturally constructed antagonism between music and self-restraint. The cobbler Thomas Cooper's diary succinctly expresses the antagonism: fearing his passion for music, Cooper confesses, "Oh, how easily I could ... yield to it." (27) Defiant musical pleasures in Merlin and Vivien are epitomized in Vivien's singing. But ironically, she sings:
 It is the little rift within the lute,
 That by and by will make the music mute,
 And ever widening slowly silence all. (MV, ll. 388-390)


Reflecting the ultimately self-destroying idealism of Arthur's realm, these lyrics presuppose a monolithic world where a flawed instrument is no instrument. If the fissure in the lute represents political dissent, then Arthurian harmony is a social order with zero tolerance for ideological heterogeneity. However, coming from Vivien, the implicit belief in the possibility of absolute unanimity can only be ironic. Living in Arthur's realm but unfaithful to the king, she is the rift within the lute, but her presence effects no silence. To the contrary, appropriating Lancelot's song with charm, she induces an uncanny trust from Merlin, which leads to the magician's imprisonment.

Does the rift within the lute produce its own music? If so, what does that tune sound like? Addressing these questions, the Idylls construes and explores multiple models of circulation. If the model at work in the knights' Dionysian hunting and Balin's initiation into the Arthurian order supposes that music retains its original meaning and function as it spreads, Vivien's song suggests that music acquires various meanings and functions as it circulates. Merlin and Vivien explores the question of whether music can retain its potency as it propagates, insisting all the while on the unpredictability of that propagation:
 this rhyme
 Is like the fair pearl-necklace of the Queen,
 That burst in dancing, and the pearls were spilt;
 Some lost, some stolen, some as relics kept.
 But nevermore the same two sister pearls
 Ran down the silken thread to kiss each other
 On her white neck--so is it with this rhyme:
 It lives dispersedly in many hands. (MV, ll. 448-455)


According to the pearl-necklace model, music is at its fullest and most meaningful at its origin. When individuals reproduce the original, that full meaning disappears; reproductions communicate only partially what the original expresses perfectly. Vivien's extended metaphor associates circulation with loss. Her musical performance, however, again challenges her own verbal utterance. Her reproduction of Lancelot's song is no less potent than the original--as Merlin's response indicates, it is charming, moving, inspiring. But of course the song has become potent in a new way, one that would most likely be unforeseen by former singers. When she sings, the tune works to undermine the strength of the realm, signaling how new meanings and functions supplement older ones as music is reproduced.

Because music, like pearls from a broken necklace, disperses in all directions, moving freely between knights, subjects, foreigners, and traitors, it expresses the impossibility of maintaining boundaries between the inside and the outside of the polity. The uncontrollable fluidity ascribed to it asserts the futility of isolation. The king persistently aims, yet repeatedly fails, to define and assert borders. "The wastest moorland of our realm shall be / Safe .... as the centre of [the royal] hall," he declares, but Mark's and Vivien's activities in the realm, along with the knights' and Guinevere's disobedience, undermine his goal (GL, ll. 589-590). Aptly, melodies and songs play significant roles in the episodes in which foes infiltrate Camelot and Camelotians betray their own king.

The haunting knowledge that music cannot be confined surfaces most powerfully in The Last Tournament, where Tristram plays a harp in the midst of Camelot and makes his own music. Dagonet, the fool, blames Tristram: "when thou playest that air with Queen Isolt, / Thou makest broken music with thy bride" (LT, ll. 263-264). The metaphorical equation of making music with sexual intercourse reinforces the identification of music as an irrational, nonlinguistic mode of expression. The double valence ascribed to musical ecstasy, expressed in Nietzsche's binary between the Greeks' artistic and others' "licentious" Dionysian festivals, shapes the metaphor. When Arthur's subjects make music, the resulting Dionysian state of mind is legitimate because it generates that sense of spontaneous bonding so crucial to patriotic sentiment. Arthur's enemies, however, are not so privileged. Their passion assumes the form of extramarital sexuality.

John Rosenberg has underlined Tristram's carpe diem principles: "His entire consciousness is immersed in the flux of the present, as epitomized by his song in praise of new love to suit the newer day" (p. 117). Following Rosenberg's lead, critics have posited that Tristram represents a fleshly poet and that his attributes and poetic imagery are especially reminiscent of Swinburne's. Through the characterization of Tristram, Tennyson may have been "reacting to the blatant and perilous sensuality of Swinburne's 'poems and plays'" and critiquing the "pagan, naturalistic view of man." (28) Tristram's enthusiasm for music reinforces his identification as a fleshly poet by underlining his fondness for the sensual and the spontaneous. But based on the grounds of Tristram's sensuality and spontaneity, it is also possible to read him as a foreign musician figure. During the nineteenth century, the predominance of musicians from abroad reminded the English of their presumed deficiency in music and raised bitter sentiments: "Because so many musicians in England were foreign, they became targets of English xenophobia and racial prejudice. Englishmen's pride had been hurt by Europe's scorn of their country's artistic culture, and they retaliated by mocking the greed and immorality of foreign performers" (Auerbach, p. 33). Passionate, sensual, irrational--those characteristics attributed to music and musicians were projected onto the allegedly scandalous and deceptive lives of musicians from the continent. Depicted as a shameless adulterer and invasive hedonist, Tristram fits to the culturally constructed foreign musician profile. Whether a fleshly poet practicing what Tennyson called "art with poisonous honey stolen from France" or a continental musician, Tristram enables the Idylls to qualify its embrace of passion.

In The Last Tournament, the ethereality of Arthurian music contrasts with the fleshliness of Tristram's. Dagonet addresses Tristram: "Dost thou know the star/We call the harp of Arthur up in heaven?" (LT, ll. 331-332). The ability to hear and move to the music of the harp is the exclusive privilege of angels, Arthur, and his devoted fool:
 It makes a silent music up in heaven
 And I, and Arthur and the angels hear,
 And then we skip. (LT, ll. 349-351)


The need to elevate the Arthurian harp to heavenly spheres results from Tristram's harp's actual, solid presence in the realm. The idealization of Arthur's music as otherworldly contrasts with its former identification as a pleasurable force that stimulates the body and its senses. If music derives its power from its ability to excite spontaneous actions, the silent harp should retain little of music's actual power-and such is the case here. The Last Tournament, depicting the downfall of Arthur's civilization and its decay into nonexistence, suggests the inadequacy of idealism. Despite the harp in heaven, and precisely because the harp is in heaven, Camelot is "in a death-dumb autumn-dripping gloom" (LT, l. 750; emphasis mine). Unlike the loud, drunken, festive singing of earlier days, heavenly music cannot provide the emotional exuberance that the polity so desperately needs. Without that affective excess inspired by the stern timbre of the coronation hymn, the polity will not survive. If the faint music from the heavens represents Arthurian ideals, Guinevere's narrative crystallizes the shortcoming of those ideals. Confronting "the pure severity of perfect light," she "yearned for warmth and colour" and thus began the affair that the Idylls places at the root of Camelot's disintegration (G, ll. 641, 642).

The Holy Grail, like The Last Tournament, associates music with the loss of self-restraint, even though the ethereality of the Holy Grail's music contrasts with the sensuality of Tristram's. The knights' disobedience to Arthur begins with their exposure to a nun's vision, in which she hears music resembling neither the sound of a harp or horn nor "aught we blow with breath, or touch with hand." With this music, the Holy Grail appears, and then "the music faded, and the Grail / Past" (HG, ll. 114, 121-122). The abstractness of the Grail, embodied in an unnarratable music that defies description, threatens Camelot. Exposed only to the sound and the aura of the Grail, the knights run amuck in desperate and delusional quests for it, leaving the realm vulnerable and Arthur powerless. It is too tempting to evoke Ruskin's suicidal iguanas here, as music contributes to the Grail's irresistible charm, which in turn induces the knights' undisciplined movement.

Not all alternatives to Arthurian music undermine the realm's prowess. In Guinevere, the little maid's song, confined within a reclusive nunnery, evokes no fear of conquest. Despite its seclusion, however, the song structurally embodies interconnection and fusion. While the "clang battleaxe clash brand" song is sung in unison by multiple singers, the little maid's song, although sung by a single person, represents disagreeing voices. The first two lines of the refrain feature a speaker who desires permission to enter the nunnery, and the final line features a second speaker who rejects the demand. The lyrics mark no transition between the two voices: "Late, late, so late! and dark the night and chill! / Late, late, so late! But we can enter still. / Too late, too late! Ye cannot enter now" (G, ll. 166-168). Even the second speaker does not have the last word: Guinevere's ultimate admission to the nunnery adds yet another level of dialogism to the song. The singing maid's song represents multiple voices and harmonizes their contrasting views, thus embodying within itself the ideological diversity of singers that marks the epic.

Just as Idylls of the King explores the ways in which music fosters both patriotic loyalty and rebellious dissent, its reception foregrounds the ideological import of poetry. The mythologizing of Arthur and Camelot appears as nationalist in contemporary reviews as collections of old English ballads do in music treatises. The British Quarterly, for example, declares that Tennyson's verse "beat[s] in harmony with the nation's life" and notes that "no modern poet is more national than [the] Laureate." It stresses the Idylls' moral function: "Tennyson is... the dramatist who sets the immortal champion of British virtues before us." The source of the Idylls' patriotic appeal resembles what Haweis and the young Ruskin find in music: "The frequent repeating of words and phrases gives peculiar life to these idylls. No one who has listened to chords of music regularly struck, is ignorant of the effect on the feelings. The orderly recurrence of simple sounds will set our nerves tingling. We are roused to action, and all impressions become vivid. Dramatic illusions are stronger in proportion as our sensations are intensified and our intellects lulled." (29) According to this review, the ability to stimulate emotions, "intensify" sensations, and diminish intellectual capacity characterizes Tennyson's poetry. Like the Idylls itself--and unlike Ruskin's diatribe against music--the review does not attach a negative valence to the stimulation of emotions and the lulling of the intellect. What might be called a Dionysian reading experience appears to be easily reconcilable with the reviewer's sense of the poem's contribution to a nationalistic project. Other reviews published in various journals contain similar comments: reviewers note the Idylls' appeal to the sensuous and the emotional without any anxiety that this appeal might undermine disciplined obedience to social structures of power. (30) In the Westminster Review of October 1859 are the following words of praise: "the lightning seems to kindle the verse itself, and the tempest roars and rattles in our ears as we close [Idylls of the King]." Complimenting Tennyson, the same reviewer asserts, "Writing like this ... carries us beyond the region of criticism and praise." (31) Here, the perceived transition into realms that lie beyond the linguistic and the rational threatens neither civilization nor the intellect.

The tolerance of music and poetry's ability to lull the intellect is not limited to Tennyson's reviewers. In "The Hero as Poet," Thomas Carlyle, developing a general poetic theory that recognizes the poet as the hero of the age, first identifies poetry as music ("I find considerable meaning in the old vulgar distinction of Poetry being metrical, having music in it, being a Song"), and he then proceeds to espouse music's status as "a kind of inarticulate unfathomable speech." His rhetorical question, "who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us?" compliments music's Dionysian aspect to highlight the prowess of poetry. (32) Combined with this emphasis on the unfathomable nature of poetry, the Idylls' own portrayal of the diverse political uses of the aesthetic challenges those readings of the epic poem that treat it as nationalist or imperialist state apparatus. The presence of disorderly spontaneity haunts monolithic readings of the poem as nationalist propaganda. Focusing on the concept of national history, one reviewer unselfconsciously singles out the adulterous triad of the Idylls as means of carrying imperial conquest to a cultural level: "[These idylls] will spread the renovated renown of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, as far as the English language extends." (33) The imperialist urge sanitizes extramarital desire, glossing over Guinevere and Lancelot's affair. Passionate sentiment, constituting the common denominator for political activity and adulterous betrayal, provides thematic unity in a tale that intertwines civic service with uncontainable passion.

Notes

I would like to thank Robert L. Patten, Edward Snow, Helena Michie, Priscilla Ybarra, and Molly Robey for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.

(1) Composed and published in 1869, "The Coming of Arthur" is the eighth poem in order of composition. For a critical history of Idylls of the King's serial evolution, see J. M. Gray, Thro' the Vision of the Night: A Study of Source, Evolution and Structure in Tennyson's Idylls of the King (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 3-9.

(2) Alfred Tennyson, The Coming of Arthur (ll. 319-321) in The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987). All subsequent references to Idylls of the King will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by idyll title and line number. As per convention, Balin and Balan, The Coming of Arthur, Guinevere, Geraint and Enid, Gareth and Lynette, The Holy Grail, Lancelot and Elaine, The Last Tournament, The Marriage of Geraint, Merlin and Vivien, The Passing of Arthur, and Pelleas and Ettarre are identified by the abbreviations BB, CA, G, GE, GL, HG, LE, LT, MG, MV, PA, PE, respectively.

(3) Alisa Clapp-Itnyre, Angelic Airs, Subversive Songs: Music as Social Discourse in the Victorian Novel (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2002), p. xvii. Emily Auerbach's Maestros, Dilettantes, and Philistines: The Musician in the Victorian Novel (New York: Peter Lang, 1989) also explores the double valence of music in detail.

(4) Herbert Spencer, "The Origin and Function of Music," Fraser's Magazine (July 1857): 407; W. E. Hickson quoted in Wyse Thomas, Central Society of Education Papers (London, 1837), p. 154; Joseph Mainzer, Singing for the Million: A Practical Course of Musical Instruction (London, 1841), p. iii.

(5) Christopher Hogwood, Handel (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985), p. 251. For the prominence of hymnody in Victorian print culture, see J. R. Watson, The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), pp. 35, 340-341.

(6) The coronation hymn by Handel had been played for each monarch since George II, and by the early 1800s "God Save the King," first sung publicly in 1745, was called the national anthem (Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1992], p. 32); English military bands were well established by the eighteenth century (Social History of English Music, ed. E. D. Mackerness [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964], p. 166).

(7) T. W. M. Marshall, "General Report on Roman Catholic Schools of Great Britain" (1852), quoted in Mackerness, p. 146. Clapp-Imyre posits that the perception of music as a source of inappropriate emotions was not limited to bar tunes and bawdy love songs (p. 2); Auerbach argues that the stigmatization of music ran so deep it rendered it fashionable to boast of a tin ear (p. 29).

(8) John Ruskin, "Essay on the Relative Dignity of the Studies of Painting and Music" (1838) in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (New York: Longmans, Green, 1903), 1:269, 268.

(9) In 1867 Ruskin insisted on the passionate nature of music but revised his former views on the ethical potential of the art: "[Music], which of all the arts is most directly ethical in origin, is also the most direct in power of discipline; the first, the simplest, the most effective of all instruments of moral instruction." Here, it is only through "the failure and betrayal of its functions" that music "becomes the subtlest aid of moral degradation" (Works of John Ruskin, 19:176).

(10) Francis Hueffer, Half a Century of Music in England, 1837-1887 (London, 1889), pp. 2-3.

(11) Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2001), p. 20.

(12) M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 50-51.

(13) Walter Hamilton, "Alfred Tennyson," in The Poets Laureate of England (London, 1878), p. 300; unsigned review of Idylls of the King, Fraser's Magazine 60 (September 1859): 301-314. For more reviews, see An Annotated Bibliography and Study of the Contemporary Criticism of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King": 1859-1886, ed. Aletha Andrew (New York: Peter Lang, 1993).

(14) Hubert Parry, diary entry for January 2, 1982, in The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, ed. Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., 3 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), 3:437. Recounting a memory, musical historian Parry also notes that when Tennyson read his poetry he had a "sing-song method of enforcing the accents which rather jarred with [Parry's] sense of the rhythmic variety of the written verse" (3:437).

(15) Margaret Linley, "Sexuality and Nationality in Idylls of the King," VP 30 (1992): 365-386; Ian McGuire, "Epistemology and Empire in Idylls of the King," VP 30 (1992): 387-400; Colin Graham, Ideologies of Epic: Nation, Empire, and Victorian Epic Poetry (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

(16) Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son, 2 vols. (New York, 1897), 2:124.

(17) John Reed, Perception and Design in Tennyson's Idylls of the King (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1970), p. 191; John Rosenberg, The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), p. 88; Gray, p. 108.

(18) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 37. Subsequent references to this work will be to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by page number.

(19) Rosenberg notes that line 74 "occurred to Tennyson after he had completed the first draft of the poem" and that "the interpolation serves to stress the motif of music versus discord that is especially prominent in 'Balin and Balan'" (p. 78).

(20) William Gardiner, The Music of Nature; or, An Attempt to Prove That What Is Passionate and Pleasing in the Art of Singing, Speaking, and Performing upon Musical Instruments, is Derived From Sounds of the Animated World (Boston, 1837), p. 13.

(21) The Rev. Hugh Reginald Haweis, Music and Morals (New York, 1875), p. 21.

(22) See Hueffer, pp. 1-28; Auerbach, pp. 29-52.

(23) Anton Rubinstein, The Autobiography of Anton Rubinstein, 1829-1889, trans. Aline Delano (Boston, 1890), pp. 12, 118.

(24) W. Chappell and G. A. Macfarren, eds., A Collection of National English Airs: Consisting of Ancient Song, Ballad & Dance Tunes Interspersed with Remarks and Anecdotes and Preceded by an Essay on English Minstrelsy (London, 1840). See also the enlarged edition: The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time: A History of the Ancient Songs, Ballads, and of the Dance Tunes of England, with Numerous Anecdotes and Entire Ballads (London, 1859), pp. v-xii.

(25) Gordon Bigelow, Fiction, Famine and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 33-36, 112-145; Hans Aarsleff, The Study of Language in England, 1780-1860 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 240-246.

(26) Margaret Linley, "Nationhood and Empire," in A Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2002), p. 421.

(27) The Life of Thomas Cooper, Written by Himself(London, 1879), p. 189, quoted in Auerbach, p. 48.

(28) Catherine Barnes Stevenson, "Swinburne and Tennyson's Tristram," VP 19 (Summer 1981): 189, 185.

(29) Review of Idylls of the King, by Alfred Tennyson, British Quarterly Review 30 (October 1859): 481, 488, 508 (emphasis mine).

(30) Review of Idylls of the King, Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country (September 1859); review of Idylls of the King, Continental Review 13 (January-March 1870); review of Idylls of the King, Quarterly Review 106 (July-October 1859); review of Idylls of the King, North British Review 31 (1859).

(31) Review of Idylls of the King, Westminster Review 72 (October 1859): 512, 519.

(32) Thomas Carlyle, "The Hero as Poet," in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (London, 1841), p. 316 (italics mine).

(33) Review of Idylls of the King, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (November 1859): 627.
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Title Annotation:Alfred Lord Tennyson
Author:Celikkol, Ayse
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Words:8446
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