Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Anglican Authority.
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1833
The Arthurian Romance has every recommendation that should win its way to the homage of a great poet. It is national: it is Christian.
--William E. Gladstone, 1859
From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, we may be tempted to nod along with Gladstone and puzzle over Coleridge's rejection of Arthur as a national icon, for King Arthur is, at least in popular consciousness, a symbol of early medieval England. (1) Coleridge, however, was not so far amiss in his assessment as we might at first imagine. Welsh legends translated into French, co-opted by the Germans, rendered from the French into English and passed down over centuries is an odd road for a "national" myth of England to travel. The path is further complicated when we consider ethnicity and religion and their place in Arthurian legend. There is certainly a curious paradox in Victorian medievalism wherein a presumably Celtic Arthur serves as a quintessentially "English" hero battling Saxon invaders--the same sort of Saxons, it must be noted, who sat upon nineteenth-century England's throne as the Saxe-von-Coburgs and with whose preconquest racial heritage the Victorian English citizenry were encouraged to identify. (2) Arthur and his court are, moreover, if not pagan then at least Roman Catholic--the sole Christian faith in early England. We cannot fault Coleridge if the nationalist connection between a Celtic Catholic Arthur and a Protestant Anglo-Saxon nineteenth-century populace were not readily apparent. Yet something happened between the years of Coleridge's assessment and Gladstone's pronouncement that transformed culturally problematic Welsh legends into icons for Anglican nationalism, and that something was Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King.
Of course, Tennyson was not solely responsible for nineteenth-century Britain's love of the medieval or even the Arthurian. Three editions of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (3) as well as the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) and the emerging popularity of Gothic revival architecture helped fuel Victorian England's fascination with myth and medieval British history. (4) Yet the essentially Catholic nature of the mythic Arthur's faith remained a problem. For instance, artist William Dyce faced trouble in 1848 when, in designing frescoes for the Queen's Robing Room in the New Palace at Westminster, he chose Arthurian themes but needed to find a way to negotiate between "heresy or any endorsement of Catholicism" (Mancoff 451) in the representation of the Grail quest images. Raymond Chapman notes that "[m]edievalism was a strong weapon for the renascent Roman Catholics but it could be two-edged for Anglicans who claimed apostolic continuity without Roman obedience" (5) (Sense of the Past 40-41). Tennyson handles this blade carefully and, throughout the composition and expansion of the Idylls of the King, maneuvers the myth in such a way as to construct a past in which England, not Rome, reigned as the beacon of divine guidance and moral superiority.
Tennyson's negotiation of the religious conflict implicit between medieval images and settings and contemporary Protestantism relies upon British literary precedence. In this literary history, we find that the legends of King Arthur support English independence from the influences of Rome in two interesting ways. First, the legends assert through mytho-history a freedom from continental religious influence that predates even Henry VII's break with the Church of Rome. Secondly, Arthurian legends lend the English monarchy spiritual authority equivalent or (depending on the representation) even superior to that of the pope.
The argument of British ecclesiastic autonomy upon which the Idylls builds has a history at least as ancient as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). The revisions within Tennyson's Idylls, in many ways, represent the accumulation of changes that began with England's earliest sources. For example, in examining the nationalistic implications of European myths, we find that, while the French tales of Charlemagne's victory over Rome in 800 A.D. depicted a once conquered people's victory over their oppressors, Geoffrey's Historia portrays Arthur's army "decisively destroying the entire force of the Roman Lucius in France in the sixth century, long before Charlemagne" (Hieatt 174). Arthur's mythical battle scores three points simultaneously: his actions free England from the tyranny of Rome, conquer the conqueror, and also "pre-date" the accomplishments of Charlemagne in a kind of one-upmanship of historical legitimacy and national pride. More than 300 years later, in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (1485), the same concern for English dominance prevails. According to Malory, Arthur not only refuses to pay tribute to Rome but rides forth into battle against the emperor Lucius, slays him, and sacks Rome. Arthur becomes head of the English church (as did Henry VIII), divinely appointed and answerable to no one but God and, occasionally, the Archbishop of Canterbury whom he has appointed.
Yet in both these previous texts specific religions play only a minor role; Geoffrey's Historia, for example, combines the druidic sorcery of Merlin, Arthur's wizardly advisors, and the Christian virtues of Arthur's knights without indicating that such a combination might create conflict between characters or their philosophies. Ecclesiastic characters in Geoffrey's work and later in Malory's primarily act either to advise or to give religious sanction to an investiture or declaration of war. Although Arthur makes war on Rome in these early narratives, he does not war specifically on the pope; however, the advent of Protestantism and England's break with the Church of Rome led to interesting transformations in Arthurian legends upon which Tennyson's Idylls build.
Protestant English authors who chose Arthur as a subject were faced with a character that, in previous textual incarnations, was a Catholic even if specific religious practices remained textually vague. In order to legitimize Arthur's divine right to rule and simultaneously deny papal authority over the English monarchy, Arthur was often granted qualities of spiritual leadership at least equivalent to those of the pope. Sir Richard Blackmore's Prince Arthur (1695), for instance, represents Arthur as defender of Christian Protestantism and connects Catholicism with Satan and Rome. In this work, the author makes no effort to conceal his political agenda; Blackmore's work celebrates the restoration of Protestantism by William III, after James II's attempt to re-establish Catholic supremacy (Jenkins 183). In Prince Arthur, Arthur becomes a kind of pope himself, for Blackmore endows him with a direct understanding of God's will:
[...] wise instruction, and discourse Divine, from God-like Arthur's Mouth, by Heaven inspired; That all their Breasts with sacred Passions fired. Great were his Thoughts, strong and sublime his Sense Of Heaven's Decrees, Foreknowledge, Providence. (6) (1.13)
The Arthur of this passage has no need of religious guidance from any source outside himself. Blackmore's hero serves as his nation's conduit to the divine because, through him and his understanding of "heaven's decrees, foreknowledge, providence" England's struggles are blessed by God.
One hundred and seventy-four years later, Tennyson's Idylls reworked the same theme as Blackmore but in a subtler manner. As poet laureate (1850), "Tennyson himself held a court appointment that aligned him with the State to which the Anglican Church was wedded" (Hughes 417). Though his personal beliefs may have varied from that of the orthodox Broad Church Anglicanism of Queen Victoria, (7) the sympathies expressed in the Idylls remain firmly with the Anglican Church and the authority of the Protestant monarchy. In Tennyson's Idylls, Arthur is closely identified with Christ, and it is a connection that grows stronger as the poet revised and expanded his project. To best examine the development of the epic's religious implications and their relation to nineteenth-century Anglican concerns, it is necessary to consider the Idylls in the chronological order of their composition and publication.
The first of the published poems that later became a part of the Idylls (8) was Mort d'Arthur (1842), which was revised and expanded in the 1869 collection as The Passing of Arthur. (9) Tennyson had the poem in manuscript form in 1835, (10) and in The Epic (1838), wherein the poem exists as a framed narrative, we see clear evidence of Tennyson's early interest in linking the redemptive qualities of Arthur and Christ's stories. The Epic opens on a Christmas Eve gathering of friends who regret that "all the old honor had from Christmas gone" (7). Among them is a parson "harping on the church-commissioners, / Now hawking at geology (11) and schism" (15-16). The parson's comments regarding the church commissioners refers to the Ecclesiastical Commission formed in 1835 to deal with the often gross discrepancies of income among those men serving the Anglican community (Bowen 19) and reveals Tennyson's awareness of the conflicts besetting the church.
In 1833, only a few years before the manuscript composition of the poem, the political upheaval surrounding the sale of preferments (12) and salary inequalities threatened to split the church from within, hence the reference to "schism" while Dissenters' complaints regarding their political exclusion (13) threatened the stability of the church from without. So serious were the problems that Tennyson's grandfather "had given up urging him to take Orders, having become fearful of the threat of disestablishment" (Charles Tennyson 136). It is during this turmoil that Tennyson composes a poem that presents its readers with the redemptive possibility of myth and, at least within the poets' construction, Arthur's link to Christ as well as to contemporary authority.
The self-effacing and insecure poet figure within The Epic, Everard Hall, has burned his Arthurian epic because he feels it bears little relevance to modern times. One of his comrades has, however, rescued one of the books from the fire's flame and reads Mort d'Arthur to the gathering. The parson, ironically, sleeps through the reading of the poem, awaking only upon its conclusion, thereby missing the tale's potential for restoring "all the old honor" (7) of Christmas whose loss he previously mourned. It is our narrator who goes to bed and dreams of
King Arthur, like a modern gentleman Of stateliest port; and all the people cried, "Arthur is come again: he cannot die." Then those that stood upon the hills behind Repeated--"Come again, and thrice as fair;" And, further inland, voices echoed--"Come With all good things, and war shall be no more" At this a hundred bells began to peal, That with the sound I woke, and heard indeed The clear church-bells ring in the Christmas morn. (73-82)
In the speaker's dream, Arthur becomes the prince of peace, a modern gentleman, and Christ's second coming. The poem strongly implies that the past can redeem the present and provides a positive answer to The Epic poet's disparagement of his work when he asks "why should any man / Remodel models?" (37-38). Within the framed poem of Mort d'Arthur, Bedivere asserts that Arthur's reign had brought such hopes as "have not been since the light that led / The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh" (400-01). (14) Prior to his removal from the shores of England, Arthur's parting advice to Bedivere is to pray, and he tells his knight that "the whole round earth is every way / Bound by gold chains about the feet of God" (422-23). While readers may experience greater pathos if they connect Arthur's death with Christ's sacrifice, the parallel between the two figures contains ecclesiastic and political ramifications of specific relevance to Victorian Anglicanism.
The ecclesiastic power structure of Tennyson's Camelot surely resonated with mid-nineteenth-century Anglicans: a church linked to a monarch and the monarch linked to Christ creates a powerful symbolic association between myth, hereditary monarchy, and the state religion. Lest we suppose that the Arthur / Christ parallel and its implications were lost on the readers who first saw the Idylls publication, we have only to look to William E. Gladstone's reaction in the Quarterly Review, October 1859:
The life of our Savior, in its external aspect, was that of a teacher. It was in principle a model for all, but it left space and scope for adaptations to the lay life of Christians in general, such as those by whom the everyday business of the world is to be carried on. It remained for man to make his best endeavour to exhibit the great model on its terrestrial side, in its contact with the world. Here is the true source of that new and noble cycle which the middle ages have handed down to us in duality of form, but with a nearly identical substance, under the royal scepters of Arthur in England and of Charlemagne in France. (qtd. in Jump 250)
Yet, unlike Christ, Arthur is a savior for the British only, and Gladstone does not miss the national significance of the Idylls, remarking that "the Arthurian Romance has every recommendation that should win its way to the homage of a great poet. It is national; it is Christian" (qtd. in Jump 250). Although Gladstone qualifies his remark, stating "though highly national, [the legend] is universal" (250) in its appeal to human nature, there remains in the minds of its English admirers an ethnic exclusivity about the very essence of the myth, which neither time nor language penetrate; the legends of Charlemagne and Arthur, though similar, remain separate. In 1860, following the success of the first Idylls, Carolyn Fox (15) records Tennyson's "firm belief in [Arthur] as an historical personage" (Tennyson, The Letters 2: 267), though she also notes that Tennyson "found great difficulty in reconstructing the character, in connecting modern with ancient feeling in representing the ideal king." Her observations lend weight to the assertion that Tennyson consciously desired to create in his Arthur an ideal conflation of past and present. Fox's additional comment that "the Welsh claim Arthur as their own, but Tennyson gives all his votes to us" (16) clearly welcomes Arthur as a national English hero. Yet Tennyson's Arthur is no simple allegory for English nationalism; indeed, Gladstone's praise of the work as "national" and "Christian" marks the very spiritual and temporal conflicts with which the Idylls engage. The Anglican desire for an identification between ruler, nation, and faith becomes apparent in examining the strains under which the mid-Victorian Church of England existed.
Erosion of Anglican power began, as Walter L. Arnstein notes, long before Queen Victoria took the throne, but there were three central issues in mid-century that occupied a great deal of public and political attention. The first was the growing schism between the evangelical leanings of Low Church Anglicans and the increasingly Catholic practices of those who followed the High Church ritualists. Cardinal John Henry Newman's conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845 spawned fears that ritualist practices would lead a large number of Anglicans to Roman Catholicism. In the spring of 1850, Benjamin Disraeli, then a member of Parliament, seemed to foresee some of the conflict that was to beleaguer parliamentary action on religious practice for the better part of the century. In an April 22 letter to Lady Londonderry, he wrote:
The Church question (17) has scarcely commenced and may, before a very short time, effect some startling consequences. It pervades all classes--literally from the palace to the cottage. Gracious Majesty much excited, and clapped her hands with joy, when the critical decision of the Privy Council, against the Bishop of Exeter, (18) was announced to her. (Letters 5: 319)
The "church question" became further heated with the introduction Of a second and incendiary issue: expansion of Roman Catholicism in England.
In September of 1850, Pope Pius IX appointed Nicholas Wiseman as Archbishop of Westminster and issued a papal bull to re-establish Catholic sees in England. The Pope's action became known as the "papal aggression" and it infuriated Queen Victoria who saw it as a usurpation of her temporal and spiritual authority. Regarding Cardinal Wiseman's appointment, Disraeli wrote on November 8, 1850, that "[t]he people are very much alarmed in this country. Even the peasants think they are going to be burned alive--taken up to Smithfield instead of their pigs" (Letters 5: 369). Tennyson's Britons, Guard Your Own (1852) invokes anti-Catholicism to rouse public support for an active militia in case the Catholic Louis Napoleon should invade England, and the poem expresses fears similar to those noted by Disraeli. Tennyson tells his readers that
Rome's dearest daughter now is captive France, The Jesuit laughs, and reckoning on his chance, Would, unrelenting, Kill all dissenting. (31-34)
The image of sinister Jesuits plotting the destruction of dissenting Protestants clearly represents the sort of anti-Catholic hysteria that dominated the public consciousness. The poem details "lying priests" (8) controlling the public vote through their influence at the pulpit, and Tennyson demonizes Louis Napoleon through purely religious terms: "The Pope has bless'd him; / The Church caress'd him" (3-4). The poem does, as Hill notes, reveal the poet's "super-patriotism" and "his strong anti-Catholic prejudice" (n. 5 198). In addition to the real or perceived threat presented by Catholicism, the Church of England continued to face opposition from Nonconformists whose ire concerning church-rates had only strengthened over the years.
This conflict formed the third major source of contention for the Anglican Church and reaffirmed the battle line between those who supported state religion and those who sought its abolition. The Anti-State Church Association, founded in 1844 by Edward Miall, editor of The Nonconformist, whose members were primarily Baptists and Congregationalists (Watts 546), changed its name to the Society for the Liberation of Religion of State Patronage and Control (aka Liberation Society) in 1853 to garner more members and funds for the express purposes of lobbying sympathetic MPs, increasing the number of Dissenters on the election roles, and electing Nonconformist MPs (568). By the decade's end the conflict was framed as a matter of survival by those loyal to the Anglican Church. As Watts informs US,
In July 1859 Samuel Morley and Dr C. J. Foster, chairmen of the Liberation Society's parliamentary committee, found difficulty in denying before a select committee of the House of Lords that the campaign for the abolition of church rates was but a step on the road to the disestablishment of the Church of England, and their evasive replies provided welcome ammunition for the defenders of church rates. Church Defence Associations sprang up throughout the country; in February 1860 the majority for Trelawny's abolition bill fell to 29; in December Disraeli in a speech in his Buckinghamshire constituency urged Churchmen to redouble their efforts to save church rates. (578)
Although Tennyson's first collection of Idylls was published nine years after the initial religious turmoil that marked the beginning of the decade, the internecine conflict of the Anglican Church combined with the incursion of Roman Catholicism and Nonconformist agitation for the abolition of state sanctioned religion certainly informed Tennyson's representation of Anglican faith and authority in his epic poem.
Though Arthur's realm and power are fading when he speaks to his queen in Guinevere (1859), Tennyson's king sets forth the conditions under which his kingdom flourished:
I made them lay their hands in mine and swear To reverence the King, as if he were Their conscience, and their conscience as their King, To break the heathen and uphold the Christ. (464-467)
The "King" here, as in other Idylls, is indeterminate, perhaps Arthur, perhaps Christ. Yet whichever interpretation we favor, the underlying theme is one of vassal obedience to one's lord. The emphasis upon conscience addresses evangelical Christianity, whether Low Church or Nonconformist, and its reliance upon the conscience, in conjunction with scripture, for determining moral behavior. Here, Tennyson substitutes individual conscience for vassal reliance upon a king, who then substitutes for Christ. To uphold the Christ, individuals ought to properly consign their conscience to a king who can successfully realize the assembly's collective vision. In his discussion of this quote, Anthony Harrison remarks, "Quite obviously, it valorizes Christianity as, implicitly, the exclusive domain of truth and honor. In the political arena it promulgates an alliance between monarchy and religion (conscience) that sanctions imperialism ('to break the heathen')" (223). Arthur's vow builds on an earlier conception of loyalty expressed by Bedivere in Mort d'Arthur when he says, "Deep harm to disobey, / Seeing obedience is the bond of rule" (261-62); Arthur's words in Guinevere do, as Harrison states, support the alliance between church and state, and this connection strengthens as Tennyson developed his epic.
The composition of the Idylls was not without difficulties, however, and Tennyson paused in continuing his epic for nearly ten years. (19) Hallam Tennyson's Memoir tells us that "[i]n spite of the public applause he did not rush headlong into the other 'Idylls of the King" although he had carried a more or less perfected scheme of them in his head over thirty years. For one thing, he did not consider that the time was ripe" (2: 125). According to Hallam, his father worried about three things particularly: one, marring the effect of the current edition in which readers encounter a "ghost-like passing away of the King" (126) at the end of Guinevere; two, fearing to mar the present quality with works that might be less artistic; and "[t]he third was, to give it in Tennyson's own words, 'I doubt whether such a subject as the San Graal could be handled in these days without incurring a charge of irreverence. It would be too much like playing with sacred things" (126). Though Tennyson may have been working through a creative block, there were also powerful religious controversies building that certainly may have given the poet pause in his epic design.
The Idylls with its "medieval setting and descriptions of medieval ritual, then, would in the late 1860s have implicitly invoked Roman Catholicism, Newman's conversion, and the controversial practice of ritualism in selected congregations of the Anglican Church" (Hughes 425). This possibility is also noted by Catherine Phillips who suggests that "the fear might have been as much a charge of Catholicism as of irreverence." Yet there were also events immediately following the Idylls publication in 1859 that further complicated the perception of faith in Victorian society as well as Tennyson's artistic vision. A brief examination of the circumstances strongly indicates that he did not simply put the Idylls aside while awaiting inspiration.
In late January of 1861, Benjamin Jowett (20) writes that Tennyson
sometimes talks of going on with "King Arthur" For my own part I hope he won't; he has made as much of it as the subject admits. Twenty years ago he formed a scheme for an epic poem on "King Arthur" in ten books; it is perhaps fortunate for himself that circumstances have prevented the completion of it. (Letters 2: 271)
Jowett's lack of enthusiasm for a continuation of revised mythology is hardly surprising considering that he faced public and private censure for his essay "On Interpretation of Scripture" which appeared in Essays and Reviews (1860). Jowett's contribution "urged the free critical study of the Bible 'like any other book'" (Altholz 50) and suggested that, rather than being the divine word of God, the text is open to influences of history and that it contains no one forever fixed truth. In this letter, Jowett sounds much like the earlier voice of Everard Hall who wonders at the wisdom of bringing the past into the present, especially in light of historical and scientific realities. However, Tennyson did clearly understand his work on Arthurian legend as a product of his time and place. In a letter to his publisher, he objects to a critic's assessment, writing:
I can't conceive of how the Grail M.M. (21) mentions can be treated by a poet of the 13th century from a similar point of view to mine, who write in the 19th, but if so, I am rather sorry for it, as I rather piqued myself on my originality of treatment. (Hallam Tennyson 61-62)
The Grail and its legend had, by the time Tennyson began to compose his second set of Idylls, long been the subject of poetry, literature, and art, so his hesitation regarding his composition of the Grail might seem like a poor excuse were we not to consider the contemporary religious controversies that then beset the Anglican Church. His "doubt whether such a subject as the San Graal could be handled in these days without incurring a charge of irreverence" reveals his awareness of and sensitivity to the religious and political conflicts that were tearing at the power structure of the Church of England. As product of its time, the 1869 Idylls in general and The Holy Grail in particular balance theological skepticism and spiritual vision, forging a path between unreflective faith and atheistic dissolution.
The Holy Grail separates England from the continent, and hence Catholicism, and supports Anglican authority through its representation of the knights' quest for the sacred object. The Grail is a powerful relic, the search for which is possible only in England and the acquisition of which triggers corporeal transportation directly to heaven, a feat previously possible only for prophets, saints, and Christ. In Tennyson's version, Percivale's destiny is to watch Galahad's rapture: "thrice above [Galahad] all the heavens / Open'd and blazed with thunder such as seem'd / Shoutings of all the sons of God" (507-509). During Galahad's ascension, Percivale has a vision of the city of heaven and a star shining above it which is "the Holy Grail / Which never eyes on earth again shall see" (531-532). Thus Tennyson grants divine vision and corporeal rapture to England's mythic founders while simultaneously withholding the possibility of such vision and transport from anyone else. If those on earth shall never again see the Grail, subsequent quests for the object are pointless, no matter where or by whom they are conducted.
The representation of the Grail as a symbol attainable only on English soil and by English knights makes the Grail an inherently English symbol, providing additional authority to the Anglican Church. The existence of, and quest for, the Holy Grail undermine the spiritual authority of Rome, for to seek outside the experience of the Catholic Church for spiritual guidance or salvation is sacrilegious at best, heretical at worst. Through the legend of the Holy Grail, England, and by extension its church and monarch, gains a divine approval that denies the need for any external religious authority.
While Arthurian legend provides the English a unified cultural and religious front in relation to other nations and faiths, in terms of England's internal religious politics, it would be a mistake to interpret The Holy Grail as uniformly supportive of religious ecstasy and personal quests for divine inspiration; in fact, Tennyson is cautious in advocating the merits of spiritual pilgrimages and holy visions. Learning that his knights have all sworn themselves to the quest, Arthur tells Galahad, "for such / As thou art is the vision, not for these" (293-94), indicating his other knights. Through Arthur's qualification of appropriate callings, Tennyson indicates that not all quests are for all people, especially not those for divine objects or insight.
Within The Holy Grail, Tennyson is careful about the religious and historical aspects of the legend. When Ambrosius refers to Joseph of Arimathea, he tells us that he knows of Joseph's coming into England and founding a church in a swamp near Glastonbury but of the Grail "these books of ours, but seem / Mute of this miracle, far as I have read" (65-66). And later, when Percivale has told the edited version of his adventures, Ambrosius remarks that "These ancient books--and they would win thee--teem, / Only I find not there this Holy Grail, / With miracles and marvels like to these" (541-43). Tennyson thus maintains the apocryphal nature of the grail legend. In this way, The Holy Grail treads a narrow path between denial of Roman Catholic authority and denial of the validity of individual interpretation favored by the evangelical Dissenters and Low Church Anglicans. To allow too much freedom in the search for expression of religious feeling would undermine Anglican power and the bishops' authority to interpret the scriptures to their congregations and might further be seen as a concession to evangelical Dissenters. Although Tennyson himself voiced no direct opinion on controversial religious matters (evangelical or otherwise) and counted among his friends Dissenters, Anglicans, and Catholics, (22) his religious conservatism is apparent in Arthur's condemnation of the Grail quest as one which will leave his knights following "wandering fires / Lost in the quagmire!" (318-19). Religious vision in this poem is valuable for only the very few; for the rest, it indicates an irresponsible abdication of duty. As Arthur hears the adventures of his knights returned from their quest, he remarks that they have "left human wrongs to right themselves" (893) in their quest for personal encounters with the divine. Ambrosius echoes Arthur's thoughts (23) about one's appropriate role in society and tells Percivale of the joy he takes in knowing and serving his small community and advises him to "rejoice, small man, in this small world of mine" (559). The common lives of common men, the hermit suggests, is where most of us find what joy life offers.
The poem's other visionary, Percivale's sister, also stands as a caution against following one's visions--or perhaps another's--too far. On first examination, a holy woman so dedicated to prayer and fasting that she is blessed with divine visions seems a harmless enough figure. Indeed, if such devotion can reveal the Grail, we might be led to see convents as a positive force. Yet a closer look reveals that hers is a faith of displacement. Blocked from marriage by a love gone wrong, she takes up the veil and sublimates her sexual desires and "pray'd and fasted, till the sun / Shone, and the wind blew, thro' her" (98-99) in order to induce her visions. William E. Buckler sees her as an occult figure who enchants Galahad into her vision (55). In such a role, she becomes another of the Idylls' rejected women who work the undoing of the Round Table. But there is another possibility for Tennyson's depiction of her, and it has historical implications within the Anglican Church.
High Church ritualist parishes and priests sanctioned and sponsored the formation of monastic orders, and Anglican sisterhoods were the earliest of these communities. The year 1846 saw the establishment of the Sisterhood of the Holy Cross, and Anglican sisterhoods continued to grow throughout the remainder of the century. W. S. F. Pickering informs us that in "the early days of Anglo-Catholicism the emergence of religious orders heaped on followers of the Catholic revival as much hostility from ardent Protestants as did the ritualization of Anglican services" (131). Such a reaction is hardly surprising because Broad and Low Church Anglicans as well as Nonconformists would have seen such behavior as further evidence that ritualists were, as one Oxford clergyman noted, trying to "bring the Church of England to Rome by the furtive introduction ... of Romish practices and observances" (qtd. in Bentley 28). Concern--indeed, one might say paranoia--about these sisterhoods, their nature and influence upon women prompted Parliamentary action. In 1851, The Religious Houses Bill, had it passed, "would have allowed Justices of the Peace to make inquiries after any woman suspected of being held against her will in a convent. H. E. Lacy, MP for Bodmin, sponsored this private bill on the grounds that he failed to understand how several hundred women in England could possibly lead contented lives in convents" (Wallis 10). Anxiety regarding Anglican sisterhoods did not die down as the groups proved their social usefulness; (24) in fact, Charles Newdigate Newdegate, Esquire, MP for Warwickshire, proposed a bill in 1871 that called "for the suppression of monasteries and nunneries" (Bentley 73). Though Newdegate's proposal as well as the furor surrounding the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874 lie outside the composition timeline of the poems examined here, these issues were hotly debated in the decades during which Tennyson composed the Idylls.
If we consider the public agitation over women's religious houses as part of our reading of The Holy Grail, the young nun's obsessive and unhealthy search for holy visions takes on specific political significance. Percivale's sister, the poem heavily implies, does not enter the convent because she feels specially called to do so but rather because religious aestheticism permits her to bury rejection in visions that allow her to bind a man, Galahad, to her spiritually if not physically. Representing the nun as a "victim of unrequited love who enters a nunnery on the rebound" (Hughes 415), Tennyson creates such qualifiers regarding her motivation that readers are discouraged from condoning her choice of vocation.
Indeed, as Hughes's argument suggests, her visions may be hallucinations designed to complement her confessor's interest in the legend (428). Through Percivale's narrative, we are told that the priest hoped the "Holy Grail would come again" (92) to "heal the world of all their wickedness" (94). Although his hope is compassionate in nature, his relationship to and influence upon Percivale's sister falls in line with anti-Catholic and antiritualist thinking wherein "[n]ovelists and pamphleteers told horrific stories of how unscrupulous priests abused the confessional to gain power over their penitents, even to win the allegiance of women away from their husbands" (Chapman, Faith 173). Though the confessor has no such nefarious designs as are popular in contemporary fiction, he gives her little guidance when she asks if the Grail might come to her "by prayer and fasting" (96). He tells her that he does not know, and his statement that her "heart is pure as snow" (97) prompts her to engage in behavior that is clearly self-destructive. The implicit critique is that his role as her confessor, while presumably benevolent, in fact, does her great harm.
The nature and degree of personal spiritual interpretation was a politically volatile subject in mid-nineteenth-century England because evangelical Nonconformists, who favored the idea that the scriptures ought to be one's sole moral authority, were gaining considerable influence over religious and political issues. Margaret Ann Crowther informs us that "the religious census of 1851, although highly inaccurate in detail, revealed that ... of population of nearly eighteen million in England and Wales, over five and a quarter million did not attend any form of religious worship, ... and in the remaining worshippers the number of Dissenters almost equaled the number of Anglicans" (219). With the decline in membership, the rising popularity of dissenting congregations, and the political agitation of the Liberation Society, the Church of England was justifiably fearful of losing its control over the colleges and ecclesiastic education, its representation in Parliament, and its acknowledgment as the national, state religion.
Although Tennyson makes devotion to visionary causes highly suspect, the epic encourages unquestioning devotion to the crown and, by implication, the Church of England. When, for example, Arthur's knights swear fealty to him in The Coming of Arthur (1869), his speech creates in them a mirror image of himself:
From eye to eye thro' all their Order flash A momentary likeness of the King; And ere it left their faces, thro' the cross And those around it and the Crucified, Down from the casement over Arthur smote Flame color, vert, and azure, in three rays. (269-274)
The knights are momentarily king-like, and the juxtaposition of Arthur with the cross and "the Crucified" blends the figure of Arthur with that of Christ. Thus, exactly which king the knights resemble--the King of Heaven or of England--becomes difficult to discern, deliberately so. The "King" in this passage functions both as Arthur and as Christ. In Tennyson's poem, the radiance of Christ's figure in the glass mingles with Arthur's own light, suggesting that Tennyson's Arthur does not rule merely in the name of Christ but as an embodiment of Christ. Such symbolism furthers the Anglican contention that the person who heads the kingdom and hence the Anglican Church does so with God's special blessing.
Moreover, the poem rejects Roman authority that, in Tennyson's version, is Catholic rather than pagan. When Arthur's knights cant against the Roman lords who appear to demand tribute, they ask if "Rome or Heathen rule in Arthur's realm" (484). The distinction is significant because the question indicates that Rome is other than "heathen," and, if not heathen, Rome must necessarily be Catholic; therefore, Arthur's response defies both the temporal authority of the lords and the spiritual authority of the Pope. His knights will follow him rather than anyone else because, as they tell us, "God hath told the King a secret word" (488). Tennyson's Arthur holds direct authority from God, and the knights resolve that: "The King will follow Christ, and we the King, / In whom high God hath breathed a secret thing" (499-500). Central to the revisionist mythology the Idylls represents is the assertion that, since Arthur's time, England had never really been a vassal of Catholic Rome, either theologically or militarily.
Tennyson emphasizes the parallel between Arthur and Christ yet again in the revision of Mort d'Arthur into The Passing of Arthur. (25) Here, we first hear Arthur speak as he meditates upon the fall of his kingdom, and his cry--"My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death! / Nay--God my Christ--I pass but shall not die" (28-29)--evokes Christ's despair on the cross (Matt. 27:46), and, like Christ, whose second coming the Christian faith anticipates, Arthur, too, is predicted to return from the dead; Sir Bedivere tells the reader that "He passes to be king among the dead, / And after healing of his grievous wound / He comes again" (The Passing of Arthur 449-51). Like Christ, too, Arthur is betrayed, first by the people whom he has ruled, and secondly, though temporarily, by Bedivere.
In The Passing of Arthur, Bedivere directs the brunt of his disgust at those who have been led astray from Arthur's vision and leadership. The poems heavy use of Arthur / Christ symbolism suggests that the betrayal may be spiritual as well as temporal. Bedivere tells Arthur that with Modred are
[...] many of thy people, and knights Once thine, whom thou hast loved, but grosser grown Than heathen, spitting at their vows and thee. Right well in heart they know thee for the King. (60-63)
From the perspective of the throne regarding the ritualist controversies, defections of Anglican leaders to Catholicism, and anti-establishment efforts of Nonconformists, the betrayal comes from within. Before his fight with Modred, Arthur defines the members of his house as "they who sware my vows, / Yea, even while they brake them, own'd me king" (157-58) and the lines reflect the schism of authority within the Anglican Church where ritualist congregations were simultaneously members and renegades. Though Tennyson was silent on the specific issue of the Nonconformist desire for the separation of church and state, it is worth noting that these lines were composed little more than a year after the passage of Gladstone's 1868 bills for the Abolition of Compulsory Church Rates and the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (Watts 590).
Bedivere's betrayal, born of his unwillingness to part with Arthur or his symbols, is less severe, and he redeems himself in his final obedience to his king's command that he cast Excalibur into the lake. Christopher Hodgkins notes the ecclesiastical and political implications of the scene and writes that
once Bedivere casts the sword away, the emergence of the mystic, receiving hand from the lake seems to reconfirm a divine presence that reconfers divine blessing on some future British holy warrior. Here again is the old myth of authorizing humility; an ancestral act of surrender empowers the heirs to rule. The mystic hand points to Victorian Britain and the kind of renewed "faith" that will be necessary if its empire is to survive and thrive. (208)
There are, of course, many sorts of faith, but Tennyson frequently linked faith specifically with Anglicanism and the conservative order of church and state. In discussing parliamentary events of 1884, Charles Tennyson states, "The talk about the disestablishment of the Anglican Church caused him the gravest apprehension, for he felt that this would prelude the fall of much that was greatest and best in England" (478). The accuracy of Charles Tennyson's view is supported in Locksley Hall Sixty Years After (1886), where we also see the same parallels that Hodgkins reveals regarding The Passing of Arthur. As the poems speaker considers the further extensions of the vote and increasing rule by the masses, he laments that this will "[b]ring the old dark ages back without the faith, without the hope, / Break the State, the Church, the Throne, and roll their ruins down / the slope" (137-38). The ideology of the Idylls counters such changes by encouraging nineteenth-century readers to conclude that since the religious and political traditions of England had stood the country in good stead from such an ancient past, those same traditions were no less viable and valuable in their own time. Through links with divinity--the Christ-like king and England's ties to the Grail--the British monarchy and the Church of England gained an additional degree of reverence and inviolability. Implicit in Tennyson's Idylls is the assertion that any usurpation of power or the authority from Queen Victoria or the Anglican Church was, if not unthinkable, at least spiritually suspect.
Kent State University, Trumbull
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(1) See films King Arthur (2004), which imagines Arthur as the bridge between Roman and Saxon civilizations, and First Knight (1995) wherein Arthur stands as a defender of truth, justice, and the British way.
(2) The Victorian elevation of Saxon rather than Celtic heritage may be found in Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) and Past and Present (1843), which present the English as the inheritors of the noble characteristics of Saxon and Nordic ancestors. John Beddoe's, The Races of Britain: A Contribution to the Anthropology of Western Europe contains a chart--the "index of nigrescence"--that shows the whitest sections of the British Isles as those whose population has primarily Saxon or Viking ancestry. Also see Clare Simmons, Reversing the Conquest: History and Myth in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, for a detailed examination of Victorian interest in Saxon culture and heritage.
(3) Richard Barber notes that "[f]or English speaking readers, the publication of three editions of Malory's Morte D'Arthur in 1816 and 1817 reopened the gates of Arthurian legend" (262).
(4) Mark Girourard's Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman gives a thorough review of the pervasive influence of medievalism on English culture.
(5) The "renascent Roman Catholics" to whom Chapman refers are those English citizens whose civil rights were restored with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. However, Chapman also refers to the Oxford movement as the "Catholic movement within the Church of England" (Sense 40). The terms can be confusing because Anglo-Catholicism is used interchangeably with the Oxford Movement, Tractarianism, and High Church ritualism. See W. S. F. Pickering (17-24) for a concise discussion of the difference and historical progression of the terms.
(6) Archaic spellings and contractions have been standardized for easier reading.
(7) Tennyson was one of the founders of the Metaphysical Society in 1869: however, he resigned his membership in 1879, having attended only eleven meetings (Hallam Tennyson Memoir 2: 170).
(8) There are other "Arthurian" poems, most notably The Lady of Shalott (1842), Sir Galahad (1842), and Merlin and the Gleam (1889), that are not part of the epic sequence Tennyson imagined for the Idylls.
(9) References to and citations from Tennyson's poetry are from Robert. W. Hill Jr.'s edition of Tennyson's Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Juvenilia and Early Responses Criticism unless otherwise noted.
(10) In his footnotes to The Epic, Hill explains the history of the poems composition and Tennyson's desire to create a larger epic in which the work would belong (81-82). Mort d'Arthur as referenced here appears in Hill's edition as lines 170-444 of the revised and expanded poem The Passing of Arthur (Hill 82). In this essay, the original title Mort d'Arthur is used to indicate the first publication of these lines (both within The Epic and later as an individual poem) in order to locate the poem within the development of Tennyson's ideological and artistic framework.
(11) The reference to geology reveals Tennyson's awareness of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which, as Hill notes, was "one of the major contributions to the 'new' science which challenged the Biblical interpretation of creation" (n.7 81).
(12) Bowen's The Idea of the Victorian Church provides examples of advertised sales of ecclesiastical livings (12-13).
(13) Watts explains Dissenting grievances as
the frequent refusal of clergymen to allow the bodies of Dissenters to be buried in parish graveyards; the liability of Dissenting chapels to demands for the poor rate when parish churches were exempt; the refusal of the courts to accept the validity of Dissenting baptismal and birth registers in the absence of a civil registry of births and deaths; the forcing of Dissenters, apart from Quakers, to submit to the rites of the Church of England for marriage; and the levying on Dissenters of church rates for the support of the established church. (455)
(14) The lines here are printed in Hill's edition as part of the revised and expanded The Passing of Arthur and not as they first appeared as part of The Epic.
(15) The text here, as cited in Tennyson's Letters by Lang and Shannon, comes from Carolyn Fox's Memories of Old Friends, 349-51. Her father, Robert Were Fox, geologist and scientific writer, was one of Tennyson's friends, and Carolyn Fox was well acquainted with him and other preeminent figures such as John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Lang and Shannon note, "she knew everyone" (Letters n.1 226).
(16) Fox's comment regarding Arthur's national identity should not be understood as an endorsement on her part of any religious affiliation for the legendary king, for her own family was Quaker.
(17) The "Church question" is the conflict between Low, Broad, and High Church Anglicans, and in the Gorham case, the question centered around who would have final authority over ecclesiastic courts and interpretation of religious doctrine.
(18) The decision against the Bishop of Exeter refers to the then famous Gorham case wherein the Bishop of Exeter denied the induction of Rev. G. C. Gorham into the living he had been promised on the basis that the bishop found Gorham's views on baptism to be too overtly Calvinist. Gorham had appealed his decision from the Arches Court of Canterbury to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. This court, however, was secular, and its ruling strongly implied that the Crown had final authority over matters of doctrine. Thus, the ruling against the bishop was a victory for Low and Broad Church Anglicans who objected to High Church interpretation of the articles of faith.
(19) The 1859 edition of the Idylls included Mort d'Arthur, Merlin and Vivien, Geraint and Enid, Guinevere, and Lancelot and Elaine. The poems gained a supplemental dedication to Prince Albert in 1862, but no other poems were added until 1869. The publication in print is dated 1870 because the expanded edition came out in late December 1869.
(20) Benjamin Jowett was one of seven contributors to Essays and Reviews (1860) which "changed the Church of England (and probably modern theology) forever" (McKenna 51). Tennyson remained one of Jowett's friends and supporters in the aftermath of the essay's publication, earning the poet Jowett's deep gratitude (Charles Tennyson 331).
(21) M. M. is Max Muller, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford and a noted religious scholar. In his letter, Tennyson also requests his publisher to discover if Max Muller will forward "the name of the book, which contains all the Medieval literature about the Grail" (Hallam Tennyson 62), he promises to read it even if he has to translate it from the German. Tennyson's offer here indicates his skepticism that there is a single text in which all lore is contained.
(22) Tennyson was on cordial terms with George Eliot, Charles Kingsley, and Cardinal Newman.
(23) Whether Ambrosius foreshadows or echoes Arthur's sentiments depends, to some degree, on how we wish to read the sequence of events. Ambrosius's remarks, made long after the fall of Camelot, occur sandwiched between Arthur's comments regarding for whom such quests are appropriate but before we learn of Arthur's final assessment of the quest.
(24) Anglican sisters often performed social services such as working in shelters for abandoned women, caring for the poor, and visiting hospitals. For example, St. John's House (est. 1848) was an Anglican sisterhood devoted to nursing. Picketing notes that the Devonport Sisters helped nurse soldiers during the Crimean War (1854-1856) under the guidance of Florence Nightingale (130-31).
(25) The Coming of Arthur was composed in the winter of 1868-69 and completed in September of 1869, and Mort d'Arthur revised and expanded to The Passing of Arthur in September 1869 (Hill 287); therefore, the composition of The Coming of Arthur predates that of The Passing of Arthur.
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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