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--- --- - --- - TENNYSON ~S IDYLLS F. E. L. PRIESTLEY ONE of the most persistent heresies in Tennyson criticism is the belief that the Idylls are literature of escape. Ever since Carlyle) with his usual vigour and not unusual critical myopia, greeted the first group with remarks about "finely elaborated execution,>> "inward perfection of vacancy,, and "the lollipops were so superlative," the myth has persisted that the poems are mere tapestry-work, "skilfully wrought of high imaginings, faery spells, fantastic legends, and mediaeval splendours ... suffused with the Tennysonian glamour of golden mist, ... like a chronicle illuminated by saintly hands ..."; "a refuge from life"; "a mediaeval arras" behind which Tennyson fled from 1 'the horrors of the Industrial Revolution.'' The Idylls are so far from being escape that they represent one of Tennyson's most earnest and important efforts to deal with major problems of his time. Their proper significance can only be grasped by a. careful reading, not of separate idylls, but of the cmnplete group in its final form. The misunderstandings by critics have, I think, arisen largely from the reading of detached idylls, a habit encouraged by Tennyson's mode of composition and publication. The real deficiency of the Idylls grows out of their piecemeal composition; quite clearly Tennyson's intention, and with it his treatment , passed through three stages, introducing inconsistencies which only comp1ete revision and a larger measure oi rewriting of the earlier idylls could have removed. Tennyson began in the eighteen-thirti~.s with "Morte d'Arthur/~ which is comcientious1y epic in style, and fo1lows Malory very closely. But even at this stage he was not content merely to "remodel models/' and recognized that only the finding of a modern significance in the Arthurian material would redeem his poem "from the charge of nothingness.1 ' It seems evident> however, that he could see at this time no satisfactory way of continuing the epic treatment, and his next step was to abandon the "epyllion'' for the ((idyll." The titles, Enid and Nimue: The True and the False, of 1857, and "The True and the False: Four Idylls of the King,)' in the proof-sheets of 1859, suggest a development of intention. The title of 1859 gives primacy to the exemplary and didactic function of the stories, wjth Enid and Elaine as types of :fidelity, Nimue (Vivien) and Guinevere as typ~ of the false and unchaste. The moral message is, however, very general, and the treatment is for the most part rather like that of the ''English ldyllsH; "Nimue'' in par35 36 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY ticular offers a convincing portrayal of ordinary human psychology. Critics who approach .these poems as typical of the Idylls may perhaps be forgiven for believing that the poet is concerned chiefly with a translation of the Arthurian material into a poetical variety of realistic fiction. But the style retains reminiscences of the epic, and "Enid~, and "Nimu'e)) often suggest symbolic overtones, especially in Earl Doorrn. Tennyson,s final intention appears ten years later, with the provision of the main framework of symbolic allegory m "The Coming of Arthur,)) "The Holy Grail,)) and ''The Passing of Arthur.,, ''Pelleas and Ettarre)} and the later poems complete the pattern, but however unified the total structure has been made thematically, the treatment remains heterogeneous. "Lancelot and Elaine".belongs quite dearly to a different genre from "The Holy Grail"-to the genre of "Enoch Ardenn or "Aylmer's Field,'> not to that of "The Vision of S. u m. Nevertheless, the twelve poems do in fact form a pattern, and this pattern is best appreciated by interpreting the whole in terms of Tennyson's last intention, and recognizing that it is not his primary purpose to re-vivify Maim-is story in a dramatic narrative, but to use the Arthurian cycle as a medium for the discussion of problems which are both contemporary and perennial. The Idylls are primarily allegorical, or (as Tennyson preferred to put it) parabolic. It is im· portant to remember that the allegory is not simple. Tennyson himself , after reading reviews of the 1869 volume, complained: "They have taken my hobby, and ridden it too hard, and have explained some things too allegorically...


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