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HUMANITIES 125 j.M. Gray. Thro' the Vision of the Night: A Study of Source, Evolution and Structure in Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King' McGill-Queen's University Press. ix, 179. $25.00 J.M. Gray's book-length study of Idylls of the King meets the high standards set by the series of authoritative essays he has already written on the poem. Gray offers useful discussions of the idylls' serial evolution and of Tennyson's adaptation of his Arthurian, classical, and biblical sources. In examining the issue of stylistic and dramatic unity in the poem Gray breaks new and important ground. Whatever one may think of his exalted claims for the Idylls, one is grateful for the inSight he has given. The defence of Tennyson's natural descriptions, which Gray himself calls a 'hazardous enterprise' (p 62), seems to me successful. He shows how settings are often presented not through 'detailed description but through the deeds that are enacted or commemorated' in these settings (p 66). As Arthur Hallam anticipates in his 1831 review essay of Tennyson, the landscapes in the Idylls often function as internalized geography, as regions of the mind. In many of the apocalyptic and infernal settings Tennyson has allowed primitive forces, far below the level of the conscious mind, and what Hallam calls 'innumerable shades of fine emotion' (far beyond the capacity of concepts to define) to acquire a life a precision of their own. Naturally few critics can accomplish in a single volume everything a reader hopes for. Sometimes Gray terminates a discussion prematurely. He argues persuasively, for example, that Percivale's quest in 'The Holy Grail' is not to be dismissed as a failure. But in showing how Tennyson 'singles out Percivale's heSitancy' (p 24), Gray fails, I think, to track down the implications ofhis argument. This hesitancy, farfrom beinga defect, is inseparable from Tennyson's own sceptical distrust of vision, from his restraint, deferment, and reserve. The subtle grandeur of 'The Holy Grail,' its power of self-critical nuance and hesitancy, can never be adequately systematized in a doctrine of personal immortality such as Arthur tries to formulate at the end of that idyll. Indeed, such a doctrine is precisely the form of reductive dogma that Tennyson, in the free intelligence of his visionary poetry, tries to defer till the final moment. The result, at its best, is an extraordinary fusion of the diffidence and visionary authority that a knight like Percivale embodies. Gray includes in his book an intelligent discussion of Tennyson's Spenserianallusions. Ishould have welcomed, however, more discussion of those cultural and stylistic differences which divide Tennyson's Arthurian firmament from the allegorical world of The Faerie Queene. Idylls of the King seems constructed over the lovely ruins of an older allegorical tradition. Except for an icon like the Holy Grail or the Sword Excalibur, the emblems in Tennyson's poem often resemble Merlin's rainbow: they 126 LETTERS IN CANADA 1980 are evanescent as 'Rain, rain, and sun! a rainbow on the leal,' for 'truth is this to me, and that to thee' ('The Coming of Arthur: lines 405- 6). Such emblems are not true mirrors of analogy like Spenser's icons, but mirrors in which each observer sees reflected an image of himself. I suspect that the reputation of Tennyson's Idylls has never quite recovered from Christopher Ricks's well-documented and damaging charge that the 'failure ofstyle' in the poem 'renders vacant oracademic or wishful the larger claims which the Idylls precipitate' (Tennyson [New York 1972], p 269). Gray often comments perceptively on language: he notes, for example, that 'Tennyson's imaginative use of conjunctions is one of the secrets of his style' (p 25). But any refutation of Ricks is weakened by the fact that Gray cites him on only one passage in the poem (p 90), and that single citation prejudges the case because it chooses those lines from 'Merlin and Vivien' (lines 228- 31) which Ricks himself calls 'the finest' in the Idylls (Tennyson, p 276). A full-scale defence of the language of the poem may have to await the publication of Walter Nash's dissertation, which Gray quotes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 125-126
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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