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Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000) 199-226

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Tennyson's King Arthur and the Violence of Manliness

Clinton Machann

Beginning with Tennyson's contemporaries, one of the targets for hostile criticism of Idylls of the King was his adaptation of the warrior-king protagonist portrayed in Malory's Le Morte Darthur. Swinburne mockingly referred to the "Morte d'Albert, or Idylls of the Prince Consort" and proclaimed that Tennyson had "lowered the note and deformed the outline of the Arthurian story, by reducing Arthur to the level of a wittol, Guenevere to the level of a woman of intrigue, and Launcelot to the level of a 'co-respondent.'" Henry Crabb Robinson thought Tennyson's Arthur was "unfit to be an epic-hero" and Henry James called him a prig. T. S. Eliot asserted that Tennyson had adapted "this great British epic material--in Malory's handling hearty, outspoken and magnificent--to suitable reading for a girls' school." 1 Clearly the gender issue is central to all these comments--contemporary readers were dissatisfied with the way Tennyson portrayed Arthur's "manhood," a problem of which Tennyson was well aware, and many modern readers either voice concerns similar to those of Swinburne and T. S. Eliot or offer readings of the Idylls which in my view seriously distort Tennyson's attempt to explore gender issues. Tennyson's modern editor and interpreter Christopher Ricks makes no serious attempt to defend Tennyson against the traditional critics who ridicule the Poet Laureate for making Arthur a wimp, something less than a real man. 2 On the other hand, more politically attuned critics taking a feminist or gender studies approach either ignore or deal inadequately with the question of Arthur's masculinity. 3

After offering a preliminary argument for the appropriateness and value of a masculist approach to Victorian literature in general, I will discuss the issue of Arthur's masculinity and explain why I believe it is central to the meaning of Tennyson's Idylls. In particular, I will focus on the problem of male violence, which in various manifestations dominates the narrative from beginning to end.


In his widely read and influential book The Victorian Frame of Mind, [End Page 199] 1830-1870 (1957), Walter Houghton suggests that his study of the "general character" or temperament of the age has a special significance for his readers "because to look into the Victorian mind is to see some primary sources of the modern mind." In the mid-fifties Houghton expressed his opposition to prevailing negative and patronizing attitudes toward the Victorians, but even earlier works like Jerome H. Buckley's The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture (1951) and John Holloway's The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (1953) had begun to create an academic vogue for Victorian studies at least partially based on the premise that the ideas, values, and life philosophies of early-to-mid-Victorian intellectuals and artists anticipated fundamental intellectual and aesthetic problems of the mid-twentieth century. A decade later, the popularity of works like George Levine and William Madden's edition of essays The Art of Victorian Prose (1968) demonstrated the continuing force of this idea, at least in English literature graduate programs in American universities. 4

By the early seventies, the now well-established tradition of the special relevance of Victorian literature was incorporating new voices that over the next two decades would profoundly transform the field of Victorian studies. Houghton, like many of the other scholars taking what now was seen as a traditionalist, humanist approach to Victorian literature, had focused on ideological and moral dilemmas associated with the sudden changes brought on by industrialization, urbanization, religious ferment, the growth of science and technology, and so on. Now, by focusing on gender issues, feminist scholars were beginning to interrogate the ways in which Victorian literature and culture had been studied. Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Martha Vicinus, Mary Poovey, Margaret Homans, Judith Newton, and Cora Kaplan are only a few of the important writers who helped to make feminism dominant in Victorian studies by the nineties...


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