I believe there are two fundamental questions that drive my reflection to the middle-idylls of Idylls of the King.
Why does Tennyson allow Merlin to be subdued by Vivien, a temptress and trickster?
The middle-idylls being primarily relationship-driven, why do the denizens of Camelot and the surrounding area continue to pursue matches they know are impossible while at the same time ignore what appear to be good matches?
Unlike my previous reflection, I feel like the Pagan undertones in the middle-idylls are subdued to the point of being virtually nonexistent. This puzzled me at first: perhaps this was a line of thinking that Tennyson only by hap wrote in to The Coming of Arthur. At first glance, there are only minor references to the Pagan under-culture surrounding Camelot, and they tend to manifest as malevolent forces that threaten Camelot. For example, when we’re first introduced to Vivien toward the end of Balin and Balan, she says to her squire, “This fire of Heaven, / This old sun-worship, boy, will rise again, / And beat the cross to earth, and break the King, / And all his Table” (450-53, emphasis added). Here Vivien presents old sun-worship—Paganism in a phrase—as a force to overtake Christianity by “beat[ing] the cross to earth” which threatens to destroy Camelot. This alone gives me pause because I personally do not like to think of Paganism as a malevolent, destructive force—whether it’s directly present or an obscure undertone; however, the malevolent presentation by Vivien can be a matter of perspective. After all, Vivien has a point: Camelot is ideal in theory but is being slowly but surely corrupted in reality, perhaps deserving to be exposed for what it is becoming and consequently re-shaped. In this way, I see eye-to-eye with Vivien, especially when she says to Merlin, “In Love, if Love be Love, if Love be ours, / Faith and unfaith can ne’er be equal powers: / Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all” (152). Camelot’s façade failing (with the façade of Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship coming to light), Vivien’s actions may not be altogether malevolent—she’s pointing out the differences between what we see and what’s really going on. But that makes her seduction and subjugation of Merlin all the more complicated.
It may or may not be self-evident, but I take Merlin as the strongest Pagan presence in the Arthur narratives (along with Morgan le Fey and the Lady of the Lake in other narratives). It is so in Idylls of the King as well. At the beginning of Merlin and Vivien, Tennyson describes the setting:
A storm was coming, but the winds were still,
And in the wild woods of Broceliande,
Before an oak, so hollow, huge and old
It look’d a tower of ivied masonwork,
At Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay. (1-5)
The “wild woods” and “huge and old” oak tree invoke a sense of the ancient, the Pagan, while at the same time paralleling the appearance of ancient Merlin himself. “A storm was coming,” aptly foreshadows the dark age of Camelot, too. Yet the strongest pagan symbol in the narrative, one who is the master of his art, the seer, the sage, has his charm worked against him by the force in the narrative that wants paganism to destroy Camelot. How can a mere trickster overpower Merlin? This makes me think of a scenario where Shakespeare would have allowed Caliban to subdue Prospero. Preposterous! Perhaps. Might this because Merlin advocated a balance between the Pagan and the Christian, a balance that is failing? As the idylls reflect, the presence of the pagan in Arthur’s court seems to be vanishing (along with the ideals of knighthood and courtly love), so it makes sense that Merlin’s power would be waning as well, allowing him to be subdued by a stronger, more domineering pagan force like Vivien. Interesting that threats seem to be coming from outside of Camelot because the inside of Camelot is undoing itself.
Camelot seems to be possessed with the habit of chasing after ideals that are, in reality, impossible. One of the thick threads causing Camelot’s implosion is the failure of ideally matched relationships and the refusal of potential and realistic relationships. Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship is clearly the flagship failure. According to cultural codes, they are a good match both in terms of intellect and class. Guinevere refuses—for lack of a better word—that relationship because she has fallen for Lancelot, and Arthur turns a blind eye to this. Lancelot essentially has his pick of any woman, including the well-suited Elaine (but perhaps for her youth as he claims, yet an older man paired with a younger woman was by no means out of the ordinary for both antiquity and the Victorians); however, Lancelot refuses Elaine and all others, preferring to pine away for the one woman he knows he cannot be with. Elaine also passes on a good match, Gawain being a good match her for. Like Lancelot, she holds out for someone who she knows she cannot be with and, like Camelot is doomed to follow, dies of a broken and lonely heart. In this, the ideal begins to destroy itself through a deconstruction of its own ideal nature, just like questing for the Holy Grail, another ideal in the space of symbols, contributes to Camelot’s destruction as well.
Having read closely only Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Lanval, I feel my background in primary texts in the Arthurian Tradition is very weak, but I have read (and watched) a wide range of contemporary retellings of the Arthur legends. I’m also aware in how high a regard the figure of Arthur is kept in British culture (including its literary tradition). To the British, there are two seats of ideals higher than all others: the ideals of Christ and the ideals of Arthur. From this mindset, I make an immediate distinction between Christ and Arthur—not that Arthur is the Christ particularly of British legend per se but rather a Christ-like figure who serves as a sort of middle-ground between Christianity (re: Rome) and Celtic Paganism (re: Heathens). The majority of contemporary retellings of the Arthur legend position Arthur this way. Some pseudo-scholarly work even suggests that Merlyn [to adopt the Celtic spelling] was a member of the Order of Druids whose task was to teach Arthur to balance the values of the old with the new so the realm would not destroy itself. I say pseudo-scholarly because 1) I take anything published by Llewellyn Publications with a grain of salt—such that I would be, at this point, skeptical about citing The 21 Lessons of Merlyn and The Lost Books of Merlyn in any formal research project—and 2) Douglas Monroe’s books listed above are really works of fiction that attempt to pass themselves off as non-fiction, causing huge credibility issues for any scholarly purposes. Still, all of this is to take inventory of the things I think I know about Arthur and Merlyn and reflect upon them so I can have a better understanding of my initial perspectives in reading Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. I am also happy to give a nod to the fact that Tennyson apparently visited Cornwall and Ireland in 1848, “taking up again the idea of writing a long poem on the Arthurian legend” (7). Not surprisingly then, Tennyson’s take on The Coming of Arthur seems to be in alignment with the idea of Arthur being a middle-ground or a negotiation between Christianity and Celtic Paganism.
I see Tennyson immediately invoking this perspective on the Arthur legend throughout the first (full) poem, The Coming of Arthur , placing Arthur as a clear and present middle-ground between the old and the new. He writes, “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” (8-11). The beasts, the wild, and the untamed are frequently used to refer to the pagan, so while Tennyson may literally be invoking a sense of untamed land full of wild stags and boars, he’s symbolically pulling in that pagan resonance (another example of this is the popular legend of St. Pádraigh having banished the serpents from Ireland, a metaphor for his bringing of Christianity to Ireland). Tennyson presents Arthur further as a Christ-like figure through his mysterious and miraculous birth, but Merlyn’s hand in this miracle mixes the Judeo-Christian narrative with a pagan narrative. Later when Arthur receives Excalibur from The Lady of the Lake, Tennyson describes the sword as being “cross-hilted,” which invokes one of the most important symbols in Christianity (285)—but it is the Lady of the Lake, a pagan figure who “Hath power to walk the waters like our Lord” who gives it to him (293). Finally, there also seems to be a value system that attempts to reconcile Christianity and secular beliefs, done so in a way that is in and of itself a middle-ground. Perhaps one of the most famous features of the Arthur legend are the Knights of the Round Table. The “petty” kings before Arthur, we might assume, placed themselves always at the “head” of a rectangular table in order to highlight their role as leader, as authoritarian. Arthur’s round table is different though: just like when Guinevere cannot distinguish Arthur from the rest of his knights when she first sees him, the round table allows Arthur to be one among his council, to be one of the “people” rather than a pompous figurehead. This allows Arthur to gain respect and to lead by example and by deeds as opposed to by birthright (much like Christ). This equalization of power between king and knights is the perfect euphony between being the middle-ground in a practical role as well as a symbolic role. This juxtaposing and sometimes conflicting imagery illustrate the intermingling of Christianity and Paganism. This much seems clear. But to what end? I think this may have something to do with Tennyson’s time and audience.
Tennyson’s retelling of the Arthur legend may at least in part be a way for him to express the possibility (along with the difficulties) of reconciling the spiritual crises present throughout nineteenth century England. I can’t help but think that it’s not a coincidence that Tennyson began publishing early versions of Idylls in 1859, the same year of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The dates do not line up perfectly, so I realize I’m making the assumption that Tennyson was aware of what Darwin was doing well in advance of Darwin’s publication, but I believe scientific rather than religious worldviews were coming into prominence even before Darwin’s work. So while the Victorians were struggling to make sense in an increasingly scientific world, Tennyson taps into a culturally sacred narrative in order to help his audience reconcile these feelings of spiritual crisis.
The fallen-woman paradigm has always been something of a sore spot in my brain. There are several questions causing this tension, and their inter-woven nature gives me a headache to try to loose the Gordian knot they tie. For example, one of the fundamental questions I ask myself about the fallen-woman issue is why is all of the focus on the women, leaving the men who perpetuate the cycle of prostitution in the blurry background. Why must women bear the brunt of shame brought on by this market fuelled by the demand of the sexual desires of men? Hell, men aren’t even explicitly in the background: they are implicitly in the foreground. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” is a testament to these gender dynamics. In a poem centered around a fallen woman, Jenny, Rossetti’s narrator is the only one who speaks! Sure we could say that Rossetti is playing with the dramatic monologue form—and that’s certainly true—but he is choosing to use the form because it is especially appropriate to reflect Victorian attitudes toward women, especially fallen women: they have no voices. Telling the stories of fallen women is the domain of men (particularly—apparently—men who are their customers).
(how to cite this article)
I suppose Robert Buchanan makes a useful observation when he writes, “What we object to in this poem is not the subject. . . .But the whole tone, without being more than usually coarse, seems heartless. There is not a drop of piteousness in Mr. Rossetti” (qtd. in O’Gorman 358). Granted that I am taking this quote from a secondary source and am thus perhaps treating it out of context from the original source, I find the statement useful not because I think it is of itself enlightening—it is a rather obtuse reading, in fact, conflating Rossetti’s voice with his narrator’s voice; rather, it forces us to 1) make distinctions between Rossetti’s voice and that of his narrator and 2) it forces us to question the “heartless” tone with which the narrator uses to deliver his narrative: a dramatic monologue, remember. The heartless tone that Buchanan rightly recognises is perhaps indicative of a general Victorian male attitude toward prostitution and the fallen woman (not necessarily Rossetti’s own view, mind you). The “heartless tone” is designed to call attention to the issue not by attempting to maintain the status quo treatment of prostitution but by shedding light on it. But am I making assumptions on Rossetti’s intent here? In the mitigation of the possibility of my reading being treated as likewise obtuse, I offer a few observations.
It’s through imagery and allusion that Rossetti evokes his sympathetic stance toward Jenny, treating her as a sort of virginal-Mary figure. By the first stanza of the poem, it is made clear that Jenny is a prostitute. Rossetti writes, “…with your head upon my knee; – / Whose person or whose purse may be / The lodestar of your reverie” (18-20). The pun Rossetti makes using Victorian slang for “purse” immediately associates male sexual organs with money all in the context of Jenny’s head being on the narrator’s knee. Yet in the same stanza, in fact just one line earlier, Rossetti invokes the image of the holy virgin when he writes, “Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace” (17). Never minding the obvious reference to the “Hail Mary” prayer—“full of grace” being the common ending to both lines—I also note that Jenny and Mary are both two-syllable names that end in an “e-y” sound. The words “hail” and “shameful” also have similar phonetic characteristics, again both two-syllable words ending in an “el” sound. Along with the references to the holy mother, there are also specific images that, pardon the seemingly contradiction in terms, arouse a sense of the virginal a bit earlier in the same stanza. “…kisses which the blush between / Could hardy make much daintier” give us an image of Jenny blushing between kisses—something we would not expect from a prostitute (7-8). This alone contradicts our assumptions about prostitutes as being fallen rather than innocent. “Fresh flower,” he goes on, “scarce touched with signs that tell / Of Love’s exuberant hotbed” (11-12). So not only does Jenny blush between kisses, she is a “fresh flower” who shows no outward signs of rapacious sex. Hardly the vision we’d expect from fallen women who are at once dirty, untouchable, and insatiable according to certain Victorian mindsets. Stepping away from the text for a moment, there is further evidence suggesting Rossetti’s sympathetic treatment of the fallen woman, and it comes in the form of one of his paintings, Found.
Although I understand that the painting is an unfinished work, the overall layout and composition working with the specific existing visual elements reveal tensions Rossetti sees between fallen women, men, and innocence. In fact, from left to right, subjects could be labeled as such: the prostitute with her craning neck on the left, the man in the middle who has found her, and the calf on the right. The calf’s neck is similarly craning—innocent and pure in its whiteness, trapped by a net not too dissimilar to how the woman seems to be trapped by the brick wall at the left edge. It’s also worth mentioning that The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of poets and painters whom Rossetti was a part, often idealized the purity of Medieval women in their work by highlighting both long hair and long, “craning” necks. The white calf standing in a cart of hay also alludes to the manger scene of Christ’s birth, again bringing unity to the perceptions of the fallen woman and purity rather than treating them as a dichotomy. Curiously, the male figure is the largest element in the scene, located right in the middle. His carries the most visual weight not only by means of sheer volume but by color contrast as well (our eyes immediately move to areas of high contrast—in this case, the white shirt with the black hat worn by the man carries significant visual weight). What’s most significant about this isn’t just that the male is literally the center of our visual attention: he is also the visual element in the painting that is separating the fallen woman with innocence. Note that this isn’t Rossetti perpetuating the dichotomy: I believe this is his attempt to call attention to the falseness of it and who is specifically responsible for it. In a variety of ways, it is not just oil on canvas—it is “Jenny” on canvas, and even if the male in the painting or the male narrator in Rossetti’s dramatic monologue are attempting to conflate the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, they aren’t saying anything. “Let the thoughts pass,” the narrator says, “an empty cloud! / Suppose I were to think aloud, – / What if to her all this were said?” (155-156). These lines reveal that while this is a dramatic monologue, it’s an internal monologue. These are the thoughts of the narrator, not the spoken words of the narrator. Perhaps this is all in an effort for Rossetti to bring the unspoken truth about the Madonna-Whore dichotomy to light.
“Purse” – Thank you, O’Gorman, for the footnote on the Victorian slang for “purse,” making the connection to Jenny as prostitute even more self-evident through the image’s association of male sexual organs and money.
I have not yet read Hilary Morgan’s accompanying commentary on this page for the sake of keeping my own analysis generative and independent.
Cite my work:
Henry, Jeremiah A. “An Initial Response to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny’ and Victorian Constructs of Gender, Genre, and Social Critique.” Web log post. The Snow of the Universe. N.p., 06 Oct. 2013. Web.
“I am trying not to be stuck in
my old ways. I am trying not to love my own pride and ignorance.”
-Frank Gaspar from “I See Men but They Look Like Trees Walking”
Shasta cola sufficed over the weeks when we were too poor to afford Dr. Pepper, but that didn’t matter when we sat on the front lawn under the eyes of Pegasus and Pisces hovering just above the horizon, the dimmed day an aquarium for the constellations. Beneath a barren mulberry tree, tucked away in the curve of our dirt road, Dad and I plugged a milk jug with Copperhead BBs. Three pumps was enough pressure to penetrate the plastic; three copper stars shot the pattern of Orion’s Belt just like the Milky Way, but one pump and one shot was just enough to tease the chickens.
I could see the BB match the arch of the earth—one pump stung the senses back into the hens, always sending them to flight, but they were bound to the earth. Offended by the bite of a BB on their ass, they found a way to restore their pride: necks pecking back and forth with staccato steps. And I thought this was not unlike the gangsters at school and the way Jim Callings walked as if snubbed by some random pellet, but those boys had different fathers: one too many beers and Jim would catch another swipe across his face. Those sore circles around his eyes reminded me of Saturn’s rings.
I did not know, back then, the immortal yet simple truths of Carl Sagan, that we all are made from the stuff of stars-we all are a way the cosmos can know itself. But I cannot go back to Jim and befriend him-my brother among the ether. I gaze up today and see the stars’ light from twenty years ago, and I remember the only thing I caught from my father were footballs rising and falling beneath the mulberry trees.
Chicano Writers and Artists Association Seeking Submissions for Reborn Journal
Attention Fresno and Central Valley writers and artists: The Chicano Writers and Artists Association is accepting all original submissions for its re-surging literary and art journal, Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, a multimedia collective focused on issues of social justice, social awareness, and multiculturalism.
The journal is accepting submissions from multiple genres including prose (creative fiction, creative non-fiction, scholarly writing, etc.), poetry, and visual art.
If you wish to submit any of your original work for consideration, please send an email with the appropriate attachments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Guidelines for submissions in the genre(s) of your choice are in the graphic below. You may contact me with any questions, and I will forward your information to the appropriate channels if I can’t answer your question myself.
Cobwebs on my extra helmet lofted in drafts from my squeaky ceiling fan and streaked shadows on the wall beside the bay windows where light came in from dusk. The spider’s silk made a small sheet keeping the helmet stuck to the wall, and I felt the fibers stretch and tear when I pulled it away from my bookcase. Dusty from disuse, I wiped it down then felt a spider scuttle across my fingers, sending shockwaves up my arms that made my spine reverberate from an echo of Aracnae’s curse. In a moment of pure instinct, I smashed the critter against my wall and left it there.
A parallel twin engine powered my bike when I left to find my date for the night. The more familiar vibrations from the handlebars resonated my bones back into shape while the throaty baritone from the tailpipes sped me to courage in a series of sforzando crescendos as I shifted from first to second, from fourth to fifth. My Ninja’s whine announced my arrival in advance while my date waited; she pretended not to see me at first, yet it did not take her long to mount my ride. This was her first time, but I told her not to worry as she situated the helmet’s straps. Under this ninja guise where through tinted visors you can see only eyes, I assured her with careful words: “Don’t worry: I lost the need for speed a long time ago—we’ll be safe and take it slow.”
She straddled the seat and rested her breasts against my back as I started my bike back to life, and we were already connected with sweat from the heat of a Fresno spring evening. We leaned together and swam through traffic while her nails tore at my chest, and I twisted my throttle to the lawful limits of Shaw Avenue’s lanes. The parallel twin’s four strokes hummed between my knees, and her thighs were snug around my hips. Those pistons and their carefully calculated explosions drove shivers along the shafts of our backs, wrenching each breath, leaded with thrills while blurred street lights caught reflections on our masks.
After dinner we stopped to share coffee in paper cups before saying good night. This time with her breasts resting against my chest, we parted ways after a quaint embrace, and I’d never even feel a kiss from those coveted lips—it was one of those frozen-frame moments that menace the mind like a blurry photograph, knowing that something must have gone wrong but you cannot fathom where the focus was off.
It’s all but natural in Fresno not to find the stars through the smog unless you try, but I could see the moon struggling to rise above the horizon on my ride back home. The diminuendo of my exhaust thickened the air around my neighborhood streets as I came to a stop. Just then, earth and ozone bonded in the first moments of a spring shower and brought the water beetles out. Something of an Afro-Cuban rhythm came of droplets that fizzled and sizzled on the pipes of my bike. I watched the beetles from my porch and listened to the rain’s music in a splintery chair, and after a while I noted how the quiet ticking from the cooling engine was a metronome for the rain, for the beetles: their primordial errands in scavenging for food and sex was like a dance where the spider parts twitching on my bedroom wall in the darkness kept the beat. I sat until my bike was silhouetted by the moon that had finally won the sky—a rusty, crescent thing hanging beneath Venus, a frozen pendulum on a stopped grandfather clock in an otherwise blank nightscape save for a thin spider-web sheet of rainclouds receding from the horizon like the ebb of tides and my hairline. The antiquity of the thing—of the beetles and the earth and the rain—made me think of the cosmological impotence of us all and how foolish we are to hate instead of love before our time is done.
If you enjoyed this poem, please like it, [dcssb-link] it, and please respect my creative works by not plagiarizing. This and several other [prose] poems will be formally released in a chapbook hopefully by early 2013, and this certainly won’t be the only motorcycle poem to appear. Thank you for reading!