Submerging the Subersive Pagan in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King – Handout

Jeremiah Alexander Henry | | twitter: @jhenry0302 |

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Common Mythopoeic Features: Movement from Chaos (Primordial) to Order | Ambiguous, Anomalous, or Unknown Creators

Selected Passages from Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction

Atum-Ra “acted as both father and mother by giving himself an erection, taking his ‘seed’ into his mouth, and spitting out the first divine couple, Shu and Tefnut. . . . The androgynous nature of the creator was sometimes made clearer by personifying the hand of Atum as a goddess who united with his penis to create life” (Pinch 48-49).

Selected Passages from Metamorphoses (Book 1, “The Shaping of Changes”)

“Before the seas and lands had been created / . . . / Nature displayed a single aspect only / throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name” (6-9).

“Some god (or kinder nature) settled this / dispute by separating earth from heaven, / and then by separating sea from earth . . . “ (26-28).

Selected Passages from The Popol Vuh

“Whatever there is that might be is simply not there: only the pooled water, only the calm sea, only it alone is pooled” (Tedlock 64).

“Only the Maker, Modeler alone, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the Bearers, Begetters are in the water, a glittering light. . . . and then humanity was clear, when they concedived the growth, the generation of trees, of bushes, and the growth of life, of humankind, in the blackness, in the early dawn, all because of the Heart of Sky, named Hurricane. Thunderbolt Hurricane comes first, the second is Newborn Thunderbolt, and the third is Sudden Thunderbolt. So there were three of them, as Heart of Sky, who came to the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, when the dawn of life was conceived” (Tedlock 65).

Selected Passages from The Prose Edda

“’Niflheim was made many ages before the earth was created, and at its center is the spring called Hvergelmir. . . . First, however, there was that world in the southern region which is called Muspell. It is bright and hot. That region flames and burns and is impassable for foreigners and those who cannot claim it as their native land. . . . Just as coldness and all things grim came from Niflheim, the regions bordering on Muspell were warm and bright, and Ginnungagap was as mild as a windless sky” (Sturluson 12-13).

Selected Passages from Idylls of the King, “The Coming of Arthur”

“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, till Arthur came” (5-12).

“I know not whether of himself [Arthur] came, / Or brought by Merlin, who they say, can walk / Unseen at pleasure” (345-47).

“And Arthur and his knighthood for a space / Were all one will, and thro’ that strength the King / Drew in the petty princedoms under him, / Fought, and in twelve great battles overcame / The Heathen hordes, and made a realm and reign’d” (514-18).

“. . .he heard of Arthur newly crown’d, / Tho’ not without an uproar made by those / Who cried, ‘He is not Uther’s son’ . . .” (41-43)

“. . .‘Who is he / That he should rule us? Who hath proven him / King Uther’s son? For lo! we look at him, / And find nor face nor bearing, limbs nor voice, / Are like to those of Uther whom we knew” (67-71).

Then from the castle gateway by the chasm
Descending thro’ the dismal night – a night
In which the bounds of heaven and earth were lost –
Beheld, so high upon the drery deeps
It seem’d in heaven, a ship, a shape thereof
A dragon wing’d, and all from stem to stern
Bright with a shining people on the decks,
And gone as soon as seen. And then the two
Dropt to the cove, and watch’d the great sea fall,
Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
‘Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in flame:
And down the wave and in the flame was borne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin’s feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried “The King!
Here is an heir for Uther!” And the fringe
Of that great breaker, sweeping up the strand,
Lash’d at the wizard as he spake the word,
And all at once all round him rose in fire,
So that the child and he were clothed in fire (369-89).
‘And there I saw mage Merlin, whose vast wit
And hundred winters are but as the hands
Of loyal vassals toiling for their liege.
‘And near him stood the Lady of the Lake,
Who knows a subtler magic than his own –
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful.
She gave the King is huge cross-hilted sword,
Whereby to drive the heathen out: a mist
Of incense curl’d about her, and her face
Wellnigh was hidden in the minster gloom;
But there was heard among the holy hymns
A voice as of the waters, for she dwells
Down in a deep; calm, whatsoever storms
May shake the world, and when the surface rolls,
Hath the power to walk the waters like our Lord (279-293).‘There likewise I beheld Excalibur / . . . / rich / With jewels, elfin Urim, on the hilt, / Bewildering heart and eye . . . / . . . / Graven in the oldest tongue of all this world, / “Take me,” but turn the blade and ye shall see, / And written in the speech ye speak yourself, / “Cast me away!” And sad was Arthur’s face / Taking it, but old Merlin Counsell’d him, / “Take thou and strike! The time to cast away / Is yet far-off.” So this great brand the king / Took, and by this will beat his foemen down’ (296-308).

Works Cited

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Martin, Charles. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print

Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology. Trans. Byock, Jesse L. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh : The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the King. New York, New York: Penguin Putman Inc, 1983. Print.

A Brief Primer to Victorian Poetry

A Brief Primer to Victorian Poetry

The vast and unprecedented volume of change during the long nineteenth century is what, in my eyes, drives Victorian literature, including its poetry, to explore new directions with both content and form. These changes force poets to move in new directions with content and form in order to reflect on and cope with a world whose undercurrent is that of increasing doubt and uncertainty. Unlike the Romantics that preceded them—who often used snapshots from natural landscapes to trigger philosophical reflection—Victorian poets like Tennyson, Arnold, and the Brownings attempt to elucidate the social, cultural, and theological problems of the present (at times using the past to do so). Though certainly not an exhaustive list by any means, following are some of the major shifts that drive the spiritual undertow leading to feelings of doubt, uncertainty, and fin de siècle fear along with how some poets have attempted to illuminate and respond to these shifts.

One of the markers that some critics and historians use to distinguish the Victorian period from that which precedes it is the First Reform Bill of 1832 which, among other things, substantially increased voting rights and participation in Parliament to those who were outside of the elite aristocracy (the other marker, of course, is the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837). This creates a cultural climate where a vastly larger number of people have a stake in the nation’s growing pains, and the added political and cultural power from non-noble-born and non-aristocratic people challenges the once prevailing sense of the divine’s appointment for certain people to be gentlemen and certain people to work in the service of the gentry. The British Industrial Revolution enables texts to be reproduced extremely cheaply, so anyone who was literate had easy access to all of the poetry being produced, and this wider audience certainly had reciprocal effects on the writers producing the poetry. Poetry was no longer only for the educated elite but for the educated masses. The Industrial Revolution also creates the strongest sense of a “middle class” that Britain had ever seen —along with a separation between workers and factory owners where the problems and horrors of the former, including child labor, were virtually invisible to the latter. Elizabeth Barrett Browning attempts to speak for these invisible children in her poem “The Cry of the Children” when she writes of “their pale and sunken faces” with looks that are “dread to see,” asking “‘How long, O cruel nation / Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart” (149-50, 153-54).

Furthering the problems on the shores of Victorian England’s spiritual side, Charles Darwin published his seminal work On the Origin of Species in 1859, challenging Wordsworth’s sense of how “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her” with nature’s indifference toward man (“Tintern Abbey” 122-23). Tennyson, in one of his most widely quoted passages, best anticipates this shift in one’s position relative to nature in 1849 when he writes in In Memoriam: “Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law / Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek’d against his creed” (56.13-16). Matthew Arnold also reflects on the spiritual waning of the Victorians in his poem “Dover Beach” in 1851 when he writes, “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full… / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (21-22, 24-25). While Tennyson’s poem is strict tetrameter quatrains with an ABBA rhyme scheme, Dover’s poem is lyrical and blank verse whose stanzas vary in length. It is also an early example of what becomes known as the dramatic monologue, a type of poem I would characterize as one that with an implied or explicit audience attempts to capture a single moment in time along with the psychological resonances that lead up the moment being captured. Of course the true forerunner to the dramatic monologue poetc form is Robert Browning. Through the dramatic monologue form in his poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” he similarly reflects on the waning sense of the divine that Tennyson and Dover explore. He writes—after having strangled his lover with her own hair in an attempt to freeze and immortalize her present state of what the narrator considers female perfection—“And thus we sit together now, / And all night long we have not stirred, / And yet God has not said a word!” (58-60). So while exploring the psychology and logic of a character on the margins of sanity, Browning is able to explore a fresh form of poetry that also anticipates Victorian conversations of spiritual doubt and crisis.

Though my particular focus hitherto has been on the spiritual side of Victorian culture, I would be mistaken to say that spiritual crisis is the only wave that runs through the literature. A variety of poets also attempt to illuminate issues of social class along constructs of femininity, gender, and “The Woman Question,” all issues which are strikingly relevant to our own time. A surprising amount of problems that are the present challenges of our own time were born in the age of Queen Victoria’s reign. This makes the study of Victorian literature and its poetry all the more intriguing, revealing, and poignant.

Troilus and Criseyde: A Translation

Taken from Book III, lines 1422-1477
Troilus and Criseyde

“Myn hertes lif, my trist, al my plesaunce,
That I was born, allas, what me is wo,
That day of us moot make disseveraunce!
For tyme it is to ryse and hennes go,
Or ellis I am lost for evere mo!
O nyght, allas, why nyltow over us hove
As longe as whan Almena lay by Jove?

“O blake nyght, as folk in bokes rede,
That shapen art by God this world to hide
At certeyn tymes wyth thi derke wede,
That under that men myghte in reste abide,
Wel oughten bestes pleyne and folk the chide,
That there was day wyth labour wolde us breste,
That thow thus fleest, and deynest us nought rest.

“Thow doost, allas, to shortly thyn office,
Thow rakle nyght! Ther God, maker of kynde,
The, for thyn haste and thyn unkynde vice,
So faste ay to oure hemysperie bynde
That nevere more under the ground thow wynde!
For now, for thow so hiest out of Troie,
Have I forgon thus hastili my joie!”

This Troilus, that with tho wordes felte,
As thoughte hym tho, for piëtous distresse
The blody teris from his herte melte,
As he that nevere yet swich hevynesse
Assayed hadde, out of so gret gladnesse,
Gan therwithal Criseyde, his lady deere,
In armes streyne, and seyde in this manere:

“O cruel day, accusour of the joie
That nyght and love han stole and faste iwryen,
Acorsed be thi comyng into Troye,
For every bore hath oon of thi bryghte yën!
Envyous day, what list the so to spien?
What hastow lost? Why sekestow this place?
Ther God thi light so quenche, for his grace!

“Allas, what have thise loveris the agylt,
Dispitous day? Thyn be the peyne of helle!
For many a lovere hastow slayn, and wilt;
Thy pourynge in wol nowher lat hem dwelle.
What profrestow thi light here for to selle?
Go selle it hem that smale selys grave;
We wol the nought; us nedeth no day have.”

And ek the sonne, Titan, gan he chide,
And seyde, “O fool, wel may men the dispise,
That hast the dawyng al nyght by thi syde,
And suffrest hire so soone up fro the rise
For to disese loveris in this wyse.
What, holde youre bed ther, thow, and ek thi Morwe!
I bidde God, so yeve yow bothe sorwe!”

Therwith ful soore he syghte, and thus he seyde:
“My lady right, and of my wele or wo
The welle and roote, O goodly myn Criseyde,
And shal I rise, allas, and shal I so?
Now fele I that myn herte moot a-two,
For how sholde I my lif an houre save,
Syn that with yow is al the lif ich have?”

“With my heart, my trust, my joy, my life,
What woe is me that I was born, alas,
That the coming of day should separate us!
For the time has come for us to rise and go,
Or else I’ll be lost in eternity!
Oh night, alas, why do you not hover over us
As long as when Alcmena laid by Jove?

“Oh black night, as we’ve read in books,
Created by the craft of God:—
Who hides the world at certain times
Within his cloak of darkness so that men may rest—
Often beasts and men may complain
That the day with its labor breaks us in two,
That you, night, flee and deny us rest.

“Alas, too shortly do you do your purpose,
Thou hasty night! May God, maker of nature,
For your hasty and unkind malice,
Fasten you to our hemisphere
So that nevermore under the horizon you may go!
For now, since you have left Troy
I have forsaken hastily all of my joy!”

With her words Troilus felt
A pitious distress, and he thought
Bloody tears were dripping from his melting heart,
For he never felt such a heavy sadness
Grow from so great a gladness.
He held his dear lady Criseyde
In his arms and spoke thus:

“Oh cruel day, betrayer and thief of the joy
That night and love have hidden,
Curse you for your coming into Troy,
For every hole bears one of your bright eyes!
Envious day, why do you wish to spy on us?
What have you lost? Why do you seek this place?
In His grace, may God quench your light!

“Alas, how have these lovers offended you,
Pitiless day? May the pain of hell be yours!
You have slain and will slay many lovers;
You spy on us and will let us dwell nowhere.
Why do you offer to sell your light here?
Go sell it to those who engrave small seals;
We ask not nor have need for daylight here.”

He also scolded the sun, Titan,
And said, “Oh fool, men may well dispise you
Who has the dawn all night by your side,
And suffer her so soon to rise
To plague lovers by her coming.
Titan! Hold to your bed with Aurora!
I bid to God to give you sorrow!

Thence full of sadness he sighed, and thus he said:
“My lady at the root of both my wellness and woe,
Oh my goodly Criseyde,
Shall I, like Titan, so rise?
Now I feel my heart breaking in two,
For how should I save my life after just an hour
Since with you is all of the life I have?”

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