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Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King in the Discourse of Postcolonial Criticism

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Portland State University English 547: Arthurian Literature

Tobias Wilms 913944913

Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King in the Discourse of Postcolonial Criticism
Introduction: Ever since his name was first mentioned by the Welsh monk Nennius in the 9th century, writers modified and applied the great King Arthur's popular legend to convey their various political, religious and social beliefs. The Victorian author Alfred Lord Tennyson followed this tradition exemplarily and enwraped his imperialistic views in the famous Arthurian poem Idylls of the King. The aim of this paper is to accentuate his political and social ideologies from the context and introduce to some of the reactions of postcolonial critics.

Idylls of the King, a Piece of Victorian Literature: Especially if Tennyson's Idylls are the first and only piece of Arthurian literature one has read, one can irritatedly ignore its dedication and letter to the royals Albert and Victoria, and simply summarize it as the story of a medieval King, the adventures of his accompanying knights, the fortune of the ladies at his court, and the creation and downfall of his kingdom in twelve books. Those readers, however, who are familiar with the previous versions of Arthurian stories written by Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory, for instance, cannot be satisfied with that. They wonder about Tennyson's framing poems “Dedication” and “To the Queen”, stumble over the changes the author made in his adoption of the Arthurian legends, and start thinking about what Idylls of the King really is about. So did Cecil Y. Lang and published her results in the essay Tennyson's Arthurian Psycho-Drama. In her work she makes an important discovery, namely that “Tennyson seldom composed anything […] without some kind of contemporary reference” (Lang 16). This finding excludes the possibility 1

that Tennyson just wanted to preserve an ancient tale about a medieval king by rearranging it in his own more modern version. Instead, it indicates that his poems must contain some reflections about events or incidents which have happened during the author's lifetime. Lang proves her point by demonstrating that Tennyson did not randomly copy some old romances, but selected and modified those into which he was able to enwrap and reflect his personal environment. The idylls “The Marriage of Geraint” and “Geraint and Enid” represent perfect examples since they embody the story of the author's wife Emily and Alfred Tennyson himself. Lang assumes that Enid is depicted according to Emily's attributes. “Enid is quiet, retiring, pale, fair, and blue-eyed, like Emily Sellwood, and like her had a will of iron” (Lang 12). Also the poor gown made of faded silk in which Geraint finds Enid serving in her father's house, can be read as a reference to the simple gray dress which Emily was wearing when she and Alfred first met (Lang 12). In “The Marriage of Geraint”, Enid conquers Geraint's heart with her sweet voice. “So the sweet voice of Enid moved Geraint; / […] So fared it with Geraint, who thought and said, / 'Here, by God's grace, is the one voice for me'” (Tennyson 67). Cecil Lang calls this arrangement “a reasonable trade-off for Emily Sellwood's musicianship at the piano” (Lang 13). Further clear hints to Tennyson's life can be found in “Balin and Balan”. According to Lang, the story of the two antithetic brothers who destroy each other in the end, is the story of Tennyson's sons Lionel and Hallam. Hallam, by being depicted as “a highly conventional man, obedient, careful, devoted to his parents almost beyond credibility”, corresponds to Balan. In opposition to that, Lionel, who had “a talent for getting into scrapes […] and was a constant source of worry”, matches Balin (Lang 18). Cecil Lang's interpretation of the Idylls offers a few more connections to Tennyson's personal life. They shall, however, not be profoundly analyzed in this paper. The reason for this is that the reflection of his private life is not the central subject of Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Instead, many scholars agree that “[t]he real subject of this great poem is the British Empire” (Lang 11). In fact, this subject is so obvious in the writer's works that scholars call him “an enthusiastic


defender of British imperialism” (Bevis 188), and consider it to be “common knowledge that as a poet laureate Tennyson wrote occasional poems with imperialistic themes” (Brantlinger 8). This topic as well as the form of his long narrative poems, make his writings typical and representative for the entire genre of Victorian literature (Levine 133). In order to be able to recognize imperialistic ideology as prove for these statements in Tennyson's text, it might be helpful to define the term 'imperialism' and clarify what scholars like Brantlinger associate with it. Such a definition can also be used as a starting point to derive the aims and reasons of postcolonial critics and explain why Tennyson's Idylls get into their focus.

Imperialism and Postcolonial Criticism: A very general and carefully objective definition of 'imperialism' is provided in a book by George Lichtheim. He calls imperialism the “relationship of a ruling or controlling power to those under its dominion” (Lichtheim 4). A few lines later he applies his abstract concept on the level of inner- and inter-state relations by naming imperialism the “relationship of a hegemonial state to peoples or nations under its control” (Lichtheim 5). Patrick Brantlinger, however, delivers a much more provocative definition which is narrowed down exclusively to the example of Britain. He understands “[i]mperialism [as] the view that Britain has the right and duty to annex new territories whenever it seems in her interest to do so” (Brantliner 6). The course of this paper will show that the Idylls glorify and defend imperialism in at least the first two senses of these provided definitions. First, however, the evolution of postcolonial criticism from imperialism shall be illustrated. It does, because the British Empire can be seen as the initial reason for the third world testimony of which postcolonial criticism, departing from the dependency theory, emerges (Bhabha 428-9). It is the world order established by empires that postcolonial critics clarify, question, and refuse by bearing “witness to [its] unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation”, and by describing


“the uneven development and the differential, often disadvantaged, histories of nations, races, communities, peoples” (Bhabha 437). Their main concerns are “issues of cultural difference, social authority and political discrimination” (Bhabha 437), their central objections are the assimilation and/or objectification of minorities and different races, habits, and customs. The main goal of postcolonial criticism is the emancipation of the colonial or postcolonial subject. A crucial step to reach this goal is the deconstruction of the illusions of superiority and legitimization, which colonial powers often claimed to be the preconditions and the reasons for their behavior. A valuable tool postcolonial critics commonly apply to undertake this deconstruction, is the discovery and description of antagonisms in the social, ideological, or political structure of colonial or imperial powers (Bhabha 439-41). One can conclude that if the Idylls are a poem of empire, defending British imperialism as was asserted but not proved before, it would naturally be in the focus of postcolonial criticism. The confirmation of this assumption will be the main issue for the rest of this paper.

Glorification of Imperialism in Idylls of the King: The political statements in Idylls of the King are partly so obvious and clear that it is impossible to deny their imperialistic endorsement. Already the fact that the two framing poems “Dedication” and “To the Queen” are addressed to the royals Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were exemplary representatives of an enormous empire, is a highly visible hint. Their content confirms the suspicion of glorification of the two emperors. In “Dedication”, the death of Prince Albert is bemoaned bitterly and his character exuberantly worshiped. “He seems to me / Scarce other than my king's ideal knight, / 'Who reverenced his conscience as his king; / Whose glory was, redressing human wrong; / Who spake no slander, no, nor listen'd to it; / Who loved one only and who claved to her-'” (Tennyson 1). In this passage, Tennyson humbly describes the prince as an ideal knight. A little later in the poem, though, the laureate describes him “[w]earing the white flower of a blameless life”


(Tennyson 1). This is reason enough for Cecil Lang to believe that Tennyson “must have wanted to identify Albert with King Arthur”, since she associates a blameless life with the blameless king (Lang 15). Even though Prince Albert as one of its most important representatives can be closely related to the empire, one could yet argue that so far not imperialism nor empire, but a person was glorified. This objection becomes completely obsolete in “To the Queen”. In this final poem, Tennyson's praise exceeds the admiration of a person and applies to the concept of the crown, lineage, and most importantly the broadening empire. “The loyal to their crown / are loyal to their own far sons, who love / Our ocean-empire with her boundless homes / For ever-broadening England, and her throne” (Tennyson 288). Clear and direct statements like these do not leave a doubt about Alfred Tennyson's “participation in imperialistic ideologies” (Hughes 419). This ideology, however, is not only found in the framework of Idylls of the King, but is an important topic in the idylls themselves. A characteristic example is the initial idyll “The Coming of Arthur”. “As the poem that creates and unites the Kingdom, it is assuredly an Empire poem” (Lang 15). Already its initial lines are full of imperial thoughts. “For many a petty king ere Arthur came / Ruled in this isle, and ever waging war / Each upon other, wasted all the land; / And still from time to time the heathen host / Swarm'd overseas, and harried what was left. / And so there grew great tracts of wilderness, / Wherein the beast was ever more and more, / But man was less and less” (Tennyson 3). In this passage we find the description of a disastrous situation. A country suffers from reoccurring armies that plunder the land and obviate progress and prosperity. Typically imperialistic is the Otherness with which the foreign forces are described. They are “heathens”, of different, blasphemic religion and from “overseas”, a strange and foreign place. The poem continues with the salvation. “[T]ill Arthur came. / For first Aurelius lived and fought and died, / And after him King Uther fought and died, / But either fail'd to make the kingdom one. / And after these King Arthur for a space, / And thro' the puissance of his Table Round, / Drew all their petty princedoms under him, / Their king and head,


and made a realm, and reign'd” (Tennyson 3). Here, Tennyson foreshadows what the rest of the poem will be about, the banishment of the pagans and the unification of the kingdom. As Lang already indicated, both are typical imperial motives. Especially if we read the beasts Tennyson is referring to not as wild animals, but as Celtic tribes, Arthur already functions as an emperor who subdues minorities and their cultures and beliefs in his newly founded nation. In passages like these Tennyson's belief in royalty, the English nation and imperialism becomes obvious and catches the attention of postcolonial critics. But they do not only recognize and classify his poems as imperialistic advertisement, they pedantically analyze it. They look for antagonisms not just in the writer's argumentation, but also in the moral and structural foundations of the hegemonic society he derives from (Bhabha 440).

Postcolonial Reactions on Idylls of the King: One of the most important antagonisms in Victorian society that was discovered in Tennyson's Idylls and reflected in numerous postcolonial essays is the asymmetrical role of the different genders. This issue is discussed mostly in terms of female oppression, but is also seen as reason for male failure which has led to the downfall of the Arthurian kingdom. In her article “Victors and Victims: Tennyson's ‘Enid’ as Postcolonial Text”, Linda K. Hughes identifies that “women functioned analogously to “foreign” cultures and races as cultural Other in the Victorian era” (Hughes 419). According to her, Geraint fulfills the role of the colonial power and in fact he decides for her and treats her like a bond-slave. “I charge thee, on thy duty as a wife, / Whatever happens, not to speak to me, / No, not a word” (Tennyson 80). Quotations like these give a pretty good impression about the expectations husbands and wives in Victorian society could have had from each other. The female oppression goes as far as that physical abuse is at least indicated. On her quest, Enid has to fear that her husband beats her for violating his order. “For, be he wroth even to slaying me, / Far liefer by his dear hand had I die, / Than that my lord should suffer loss and


shame” (Tennyson 82). In this monologue, Enid expresses an important domestic Victorian ideology. Women, just like colonized cultures, were expected to willingly and admiringly accept their oppressor and act according to his benefit. Margaret Linley formulates that a “woman's presumed maternal nature dictated that her most important contribution to society would be […] self-denial, self-sacrifice, passivity, stability, morality, and affection” (Linley 367). The realization of these values would demonstrate how subordinated nations and societies had to act. Thus women's behavior “was crucial to England's representation of the national identity itself and helped to authorize the country's sense of mission, superiority, and its national ambitions” (Linley 367). Hughes, however, interprets these prescriptions of Victorian society as “insufficient conceptions of gender roles” (Hughes 420), which result in a disability of effective communication that affects Geraint's and Enid's fortune negatively “until nearly all is lost” (Hughes 420). But not only women, also men had to suffer from the Victorian gender roles which are reflected in the Idylls. Departing from Tennyson's admiration for Prince Albert in the line “[w]ith what sublime repression of himself” (Tennyson 1), Ian McGuire assumes especially sexual repression to be an important quality for Arthur and his knights. He recognizes that those of their actions that are admired as heroic are also correlated with celibacy. The very moment in their lives in which this “supreme ideological success” is overpowered by the desire to transgress, the knights lose their importance and are withdrawn from focus of the Idylls (McGuire 387). McGuire applies the example of Gareth in “Gareth and Lynette” to prove this hypothesis. He states that in order to gain recognition and fame, Gareth has to abandon the claims of his mother Bellicent and seek a quest at King Arthur's court. He is entrusted with the task to free the sister of Lynette and defeat the brotherhood of Day and Night. It is this adventure which is considered to be worth telling about him and during which, interestingly, he is free and independent from female authority. He earns his reputation as a knight, a representative of Camelot. But he loses his independence in the very moment his mission is complete and he surrenders himself to the authority of his marriage with


Lynette (or her sister), which McGuire argues to be a substitute for a motherly authority (McGuire 387). The moment he is married, Gareth withdraws from the poem immediately and is no longer valuable for Arthur. Consequently, McGuire comes to a displeasing awareness. “For Camelot to flourish the Oedipal process must not be successfully completed by Arthur's knights but must rather be suspended indefinitely between the renunciation of the mother and the discovery of the wifely substitute” (McGuire 387). He concludes that Camelot has to fail as a long-term project because it relies on the endless extension of male adolescence. The critic realizes that those who try to remain faithful to their “sublime repression” (Tennyson 1), end up in “a catalog of Freudian “perversions,” [as] the products of unsuccessful or interrupted Oedipal processes” (McGuire 387). Geraint, so he claims, has to suffer from paranoia, Balin from homoerotic sadism, for Perceval and others he diagnoses grail fetishism, voyeuristic masochism for Pelleas, and for the Red Knight sadism (McGuire 387-8). This set of problems becomes especially severe since we have to consider Camelot to be a metaphor for the British Empire. Consequently, it relies on the same values of “sublime repression”, as the “Dedication” remarks (Tennyson 1). The examples of Hughes, Linley, and McGuire nicely show how imperial ideology can be invalidated by refuting its own advocates like Tennyson. The poet was, however, no blind and uncritical asserter. Matthew Bevis found evidence showing that even the great laureate of the British Empire observed some of the internal and external movements of his beloved England critically and reflected them in his works.

Tennyson as Critic of his Beloved Empire: As examples, Bevis lists different instances in which Tennyson seems to express concerns about avoidable and exuberant violence that has been “committed in the name of the empire” (Bevis 191). One of them is the violent subjugation of the Muslim state of Oudh. Bevis suggests that Tennyson's depiction of the brutal Earl Doorm and his methods in “Geraint and Enid” is a reaction to this


incident and asks for more civilized practices in the control of the colonies (Bevis 191-2). Apart from that, the critic sees the great Indian Mutiny of 1857 reflected in the description of the behavior of Guinevere in the homonymous poem. Bevis sees the parallels in the “treasons” of the queen and the Indian people especially in the fact that they have been enacted by close, dear, and familiar people whom the emperors, be it Arthur or Victoria, had trusted (Bevis 192-3). The mutiny in India caused a public discussion about how to react to it. Under consideration were both military as well as diplomatic solutions. Matthew Bevis is not entirely sure how to read Tennyson's opinion on that since in “Guinevere” Arthur forgives his queen but also announces to “meet the 'Traitor' and 'strike him dead'” (Bevis 194). The empire, however, decided to strike back and the mutiny evolved to a conflict with unutterable cruelties committed by both participating parties. Tennyson reacted by emphasizing the “violence of the colonizer rather than the colonized” (Bevis 198). This is an act which indicates disagreement with the political decision of the government. Further critique gleams through in “The Last Tournament”. Here, “Arthur's imperial project meets with an imperious disobedience; the king insists that his knights do not seek revenge for mutinous uprising, but they disobey his orders” (Bevis 198). Hesitations and doubts like these do not suit the image of an uncompromising supremacist like Tennyson was sometimes said to be. It rather characterizes his poetry to be “something less clear-cut than propaganda” (Bevis 189). This was already recognized in Tennyson's lifetime. Once, Prime Minister Gladstone publicly called on him to write something more hymning about the Victorian culture. “But, given that he was speaking to a divided as well as a united public, Tennyson considered it a duty to include more than one tone in his poetry” (Bevis 201).

Conclusion: After taking the discoveries of Matthew Bevis into consideration, the classification of Alfred Tennyson as an unrestrained and obstinate supremacist of any kind of imperial action is certainly


not possible anymore. The tradition to exploit the Arthurian legends for contemporary political, social or religious purposes, however, is still continued by him. Idylls of the King contains enough clear political comments and ideologies to call it an imperial piece of Victorian literature and its author an obedient servant of the royalty and a loyal believer in the British Empire. Maybe he can be seen as a defender of its values and an admirer of its glory. Therefore, his works have been discussed numerous times by postcolonial critics who, among other issues, discovered antagonisms in his depiction of gender roles. To some extent, however, he also has to be acknowledged as a critic of the empire's sometimes uninhibited violence. An agreeable characterization of his authorship is provided by T.S. Eliot, who described Alfred Lord Tennyson as “the most instinctive rebel against the society in which he was the most perfect conformist” (qtd. in Bevis 201).


Sources: Bevis, Matthew: The Art of Eloquence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print. Bhabha, Homi. “Postcolonial Criticism.” Redrawing the boundaries: the transformation of English and American literary studies. Eds. G. B. Gunn, S. Greenblatt. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992. (437-465). Print. Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. Print. Hughes, Linda K. “Victors and Victims: Tennyson's ‘Enid’ as Postcolonial Text.” Victorian Poetry. 31.4 (1993): 419-426. JSTOR. Web. 3 March 2010. Lang, Cecil Y. Tennyson's Arthurian Psycho-Drama. Lincoln: The Tennyson Society, 1983. Print. Levine, George. “Victorian Studies.” Redrawing the boundaries: the transformation of English and American literary studies. Eds. G. B. Gunn, S. Greenblatt. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992. (130-154). Print. Lichtheim, George. Imperialism. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971. Print. Linley, Margaret. “Sexuality and Nationality in Tennyson's ‘Idylls of the King’.” Victorian Poetry. 30.3/4 (1992): 365-386. JSTOR. Web. 5 March 2010. McGuire, Ian. “Epistemology and Empire in ‘Idylls of the King’.” Victorian Poetry. 30.3/4 (1992): 387-400. JSTOR. Web. 3 March 2010. Tennyson, Alfred L. Idylls of the King. New York: The Heritage Press, 1939. Print.


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