Tennyson's Balin and Balan as the Reconciliation of the Divided Self: A New Reading of the Final Idylls of the King

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W. H. Auden, according to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, apparently informed his tutor at Oxford at his first tutorial, "'I am going to be a poet.' The tutor, Neville Coghill, replied patronisingly that this was a splendid way to start reading for an English degree, that it was an admirable idea to practise writing techniques and so on.... The young Auden scowled: 'You don't understand at all' he said. 'I mean a great poet.'" (1)

Alfred Tennyson's certainty about his vocation was at least as strong as Auden's. According to his younger brother Arthur, he announced at an early age, "I mean to be famous." His poetry had from the beginning, in his own mind, a public dimension. The necessary consequence of being a "great poet," however, with its Laureate responsibilities and, for his time, unparalleled fame, was, according to later critical consensus, a vitiating self-division. Henry James famously found, to his great disappointment, that Tennyson the man was not sufficiently "Tennysonian." (2) The tension is probably most explicit in the Idylls of the King, in which critics have often felt that Tennyson moves uneasily between public epic and private "psychodrama." (3) Within the Idylls, it is most evident in the last three to be written, The Last Tournament, Gareth and Lynette, and in particular Balin and Balan (not published until 1885). It may be, however, that a more nuanced contextual reading of these final Idylls will yield a different story and a different resolution, one in which Balin and Balan emerges as the ultimate psychological resolution of the cycle as a whole.

The final three Idylls were written from 1870 to 1873, when one of the issues troubling Tennyson was whether or not to formalize his own Fame by accepting a baronetcy. "I am become a Name," he had written of the aging Ulysses, when he himself was a young man of twenty-three. Now, in his sixties, he was quite literally in a position to choose "a Name" for himself. On 16 and 25 March 1873, while he was at work on Balin and Balan, he twice rejected Gladstone's offer of a baronetcy. Not until 1883 did he finally accept from Gladstone--not a baronetcy, but a full hereditary peerage. However, he still maintained his ambivalence about receiving the honour: "By Gladstone's advice I have consented to take the peerage, but for my own part I shall regret my simple name all my life." (4) The "Simple Name," his private self, was to be subsumed forever into "Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Freshwater." It is tempting to see in those two names yet another version of the public/private split in his identity, Aldworth, near London, being much more linked to his public life, while Farringford (in Freshwater, Isle of Wight) meant Christmases, the family and home. The last three Idylls were, unlike the others, largely written at the poet's "public" home, Aldworth. Tennyson became a peer in 1883; two years later he finally published Balin and Balan and the Idylls of the King was complete.

Throughout the writing of these last three Idylls, then, Fame was much on Tennyson's mind and this is evident, not simply in the Baronetcy saga, but in many larger and smaller moments. In September 1871, for example, he had been offered the astronomical sum of 1000 [pounds sterling] by The Ledger magazine in New York for any poem, "even if not more than twelve lines long." He produced twenty lines (adapted from an earlier poem) but admitted to the American editor that he considered the sum offered "extravagant." (5) The power of Fame to distort, to magnify, to threaten integrity, must have been obvious to both Alfred and Emily, faced as they were every day with begging letters requesting very much smaller sums to make the writers' lives possible at all.

Other moments suggest Tennyson's concern during this period with the public/private dichotomy. On 3 November 1872 he was recalling his obscure Somersby boyhood in reciting Lincolnshire nursery rhymes for James Knowles. …