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  • A Woman's Castle is Her Home:Matthew Arnold's Tristram and Iseult as Domestic Fairy Tale
  • Ingrid Ranum (bio)

When Matthew Arnold took on the project of crafting the first modern English retelling of the Tristram and Iseult legend, he focused his attention on Iseult, but not the bold, passionate Iseult of Ireland, Mark's wife and Tristram's lover. Rather, Arnold brought to the center the character that has traditionally been the marginal Iseult, Tristram's wife, Iseult of Brittany. The poem is constructed in three sections, with one named for each of the three main characters. The first section, "Tristram," recounts Tristram's tortured, death-bed wait for Iseult of Ireland to come to him. In the second section, "Iseult of Ireland," the awaited paramour arrives, the two lovers talk, and then they die together. The third section, "Iseult of Brittany," describes that woman's life a year after the deaths of her husband and rival. It may seem, then, that lovers still dominate the poem, that the Breton Iseult appears as an afterthought to the passionate lovers, but critics have convincingly argued that the whole of the poem really belongs to Iseult of Brittany.1 Her presence recontextualizes all of the action in the poem. This Iseult has the characteristics of a fairytale heroine. She is "the lovely orphan child"2 who meets her knight, falls in love, and lives with him in a castle by the sea. She is also, though, a distinctly domestic figure. As "chatelaine," she was the keeper of "her castle" before Tristram arrived (I.193-194), and she makes that castle into a home in which she nurses her wasting husband and raises their children. She is idealized as a "timid youthful bride" (I.214), "lovely youthful wife" (I.269), "the sweetest Christian soul alive" (I.54), and as a mother who is as innocent even as her own children (I.325-326).3 And, of course, she is the last character standing at the end of the poem.

Yet for all that, Iseult of Brittany is no triumphant figure. She is unable to save her ailing husband or even to capture much of his attention. He pines away his last hours in her castle, yearning for another woman. Iseult, the chatelaine, is pale and faded, and while she nurtures those around her, she is repeatedly linked with images of depression and death. In fact, the narrator reports that a year after the deaths of Iseult's husband and his beloved, "in truth, / She seems one dying in a mask of youth" (III.74-75). Iseult provides [End Page 403] a complex and troubling view of the good woman/wife who seems to embody Victorian ideals of domestic femininity.4 In "Tristram and Iseult," Arnold both acknowledges the appeal of the domestic feminine ideal and seriously questions the capacity of that model of femininity to sustain either a marriage or an entirely vital human self.

The poem was written at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, when Arnold was in his late twenties. It is not surprising that at this moment in his life Arnold wrote a complex, difficult, perhaps ambiguous poem. He was coming to see his age as one in which attaining goodness was difficult, a constant struggle not against evil, but rather through experiences, distractions, and trivialities. In an 1849 letter to Arthur Hugh Clough, he poured out these concerns that were occupying his mind at Thun:

My dearest Clough these are damned times—everything is against one—the height to which knowledge is come, the spread of luxury, our physical enervation, the absence of great natures, the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones, newspapers, cities, light profligate friends, moral desperadoes like Carlyle, our own selves, and the sickening consciousness of our difficulties: but for God's sake let us neither be fanatics nor yet chalf blown by the wind.5

Beset as he is, or imagines himself to be, by the challenges of his age, he is concerned with forging a careful path. Becoming a reactionary "fanatic" is as unappealing a fate as giving in and being carried along by this "wind," perhaps letting oneself become...


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