Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Contemporaneity of the Last Tournament

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Contemporaneity of the Last Tournament

Article excerpt

The Idylls of the King [functioned as] a shell to encase the nineteenth century.

--Robert Bernard Martin (1)

The single poems making up the collective Idylls of the King were released over a very long period of time, more than sixty-five years if one counts from a first version of Lancelot and Elaine ("The Lady of Shalott," published in 1832) to the first printed insertion of the line "Ideal manhood closed in real man" in 1899. (2) Most of the separated, and sequentially collected, idylls appeared first in volumes of Tennyson's new verse, but one was published in a periodical: The Last Tournament at the opening of the December 1871 issue of the Contemporary Review (hereafter LT and CR, respectively). Tennyson started the idyll in November 1870 and completed it by May 21, 1871. (3) It was essentially original, borrowing very little from Malory although the Tristram and Isolt story was available in several versions and popular among some of Tennyson's contemporaries. By 1870 the narrative trajectory of the Idylls was essentially completed; LT tells of further degeneration both at Camelot and among Arthur's knights fighting the Red King on the northern border of the realm, while the infidelity of Guinevere has long since become widely known and the end of Arthur's reign is clearly near. The last line of the preceding idyll is Modred's thought that "The time is hard at hand" (Pelleas and Ettarre, l. 597).

Therefore in this idyll Tennyson had room to imagine what the last days before the final battle might be like, unfettered by any need to incorporate further plot. LT deals with two sets of events: (1) Tristram's victory at the Tournament of the Dead Innocence and transmittal of the prize jewels to Isolt of Britain, wife of King Mark of Cornwall, and (2) Arthur's fight against the Red Knight, whom Tennyson identified as Pelleas--thus connecting the new idyll to the one immediately preceding in the series, Pelleas and Ettarre, composed and published in 1869. In that idyll, Pelleas becomes disillusioned and furious at the betrayals of love he experiences himself and hears about from Percivale. At the opening of LT he has established a realm that parodies and inverts the protocols of chivalry once observed in Caerleon: a maimed swineherd, "spluttering through the hedge of splintered teeth" (l. 65), reports that the Red Knight's practice is that "whatsoever [Arthur's] own knights have sworn / My knights have sworn the counter to it" (ll. 79-80). Framing these episodes are scenes with the King's fool, Dagonet (not the same character as the knight in Malory), whose ability to make the King smile, presumably related to his dancing and music, is crushed by the newer music of Tristram. (4)

What has gone relatively unremarked about this idyll is the extent to which, by being one whose "content" Tennyson could invent, it converses with issues vexing contemporary Britain. Its placement at the beginning of the December 1871 issue of the CR, facing the advertisements for commercial products printed on the inside cover wrapper, seems to be an inappropriate juxtaposition of Arthurian medievalism to Victorian commodities (see Fig. 1). But a closer examination of the periodical context within which LT appears for its first readers reveals substantial congruence between matters agitating the subjects of Queen Victoria in 1871 and those eroding Arthur's kingdom more than a thousand years before. I shall first establish the critical context within which the Idylls as serial has been understood; second, turn to recent discoveries about Tennyson's relationship to the publisher and the editor of the CR and his stated reasons for publishing in that periodical after having the manuscript set in type for a volume; third, read the CR itself for the preceding year, during which Tennyson composed the poem and decided upon its publication venue, to discover its principal concerns and commitments; and fourth, adduce some of the ways LT might be seen, by its first readers as well as by us now, to speak both to Victorian issues and to the overarching thematic and historiographical structures of Tennyson's poem. …

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