Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Tennyson and the Metaphysics of Material Culture: The Early Poetry

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Tennyson and the Metaphysics of Material Culture: The Early Poetry

Article excerpt

Heritage culture, the institutionalization of material forms of cultural memory, emerged in England over the course of the nineteenth century in conjunction with a new set of languages about the relationship between human communities and the physical worlds they create and inhabit. The development of modern geology, archaeology, and anthropology from the 1830s onward made it possible to think about artifacts, landscapes, and even the everyday things of the present as participants in human history and thus expressive of that history. (1) Preserving the physical remains of the past became a major concern in the later decades of the century as a number of institutions were established to collect and maintain the artifacts and scenes of the English past. Yet, organizations such as the Society to Preserve Ancient Buildings (1882) and the National Trust (1895) were long in coming, only forming after several decades of debate about the status of England's material culture. Tennyson is one of the earliest nineteenth-century writers to articulate the need for a change in the way his contemporaries thought about and exercised concern for the objects and landscapes of English culture. Though he himself remained ambivalent about the material world past and present, his poetry nevertheless adumbrated the central cultural tensions and anxieties that English heritage institutions ultimately came to assuage. The "Morte d'Arthur" (1833-34), for example, debates whether we must maintain physical contact with the past-to preserve its material traces, in other words--or whether the imaginative realms of poetry, myth, and legend provide a more effective means of conserving cultural memory. The tension that Tennyson registers in this early poem between a desire to define history by its records, and an opposing impulse to record history in the more ethereal expanses of poetry and myth, governs all of his subsequent efforts to imagine personal and national histories.

The "Morte" stages a battle of wills, at the end of Arthur's own last battle, between the great mythic king and his loyal knight Sir Bedivere over the preservation of Arthur's memory. The latter takes the mortally wounded king to "a chapel nigh the field" of battle, "a ruined shrine" which has a "broken chancel with a broken cross." (2) At Arthur's request, Bedivere leaves his dying sovereign in "the place of tombs, / Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men, / Old knights" (ll. 46-48), so that he can cast the great brand, Excalibur, away. Bedivere, though, fails twice to dispatch Excalibur as his dying king wishes, agonizing over the consequences that the loss of Arthur's renowned sword would entail. In his second venture to the verge of the lake where he must throw Excalibur, Bedivere pauses and wonders:

   What record, or what relic of my lord
   Should be to aftertime, but empty breath
   And rumours of a doubt? but were this kept,
   Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,
   Some one might show it at a joust of arms,
   Saying, "King Arthur's sword, Excalibur,
   Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake.
   Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps
   Upon the hidden bases of the hills."
   So might some old man speak in the aftertime
   To all the people, winning reverence. (ll. 98-108)

Bedivere's desire to retain Excalibur as a "relic" of his king would seem to derive from a motive similar to the age-old custom of preserving saints' relics, that is, from a desire to retain some physical contact with an object that has been intimately connected to a figure, now lost, of great cultural or spiritual significance. It is the public nature of the display that Bedivere imagines here, however, which makes his attachment to this object so different from that older conservative impulse. Like so many of the objects in The Idylls of the King where this poem would ultimately come to reside, Excalibur, by Bedivere's reckoning, should not be discarded, but instead "stored in some treasure-house" (l. …

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