Dionysian Music, Patriotic Sentiment, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King

By Celikkol, Ayse | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Dionysian Music, Patriotic Sentiment, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King


Celikkol, Ayse, Victorian Poetry


In The Coming of Arthur, the first idyll in the narrative sequence of Idylls of the King, (1) the youthful Gawain, who is not yet a knight, wanders a terrain that is not yet Arthur's:

   And Gawain went, and breaking into song
   Sprang out, and followed by his flying hair
   Ran like a colt, and leapt at all he saw. (2)

The gush of a spring and its animalistic counterpart, the gallop of a colt, evoke untamed and irrepressible ebullience. The act of breaking into a song, which suggests a sudden outburst, complements the overwhelming energy that Gawain's actions embody. Unbroken like a colt, Gawain sings and travels impulsively. This glimpse at the pre-Arthurian world suggests a link between music and spontaneity that the Idylls in its entirety develops and elaborates. I will suggest in this essay that, through this link, the poem provides a sophisticated commentary on the affective and political functions of music--and, in fact, of the aesthetic as a general category--that is in dialogue with contemporary debates about the topic.

As recent scholarship has revealed, music in early- and mid-Victorian culture was "a charged site of struggle insofar as it was promoted as both a transcendent corrective to social ills and a subversive cause for these ills." (3) From educational reformists to public moralists, many believed that instrumental and vocal music could strengthen the sense of national belonging, foster religious devotion, and promote domestic happiness. As music theorist Herbert Spencer noted, music developed an "emotional language" that cultivated sympathy, the "essentialelement" of "friendship, love, and all domestic pleasures." W. E. Hickson, known as the "father of English school music," ascribed a positive moral valence to music's appeal to emotion: "[Music] has a tendency to wean the mind from vicious and sensual indulgences; and, if properly directed, it has a tendency to incline the heart to kindly feelings, and just and generous emotions." Another music educator, Joseph Mainzer, justified musical education by reference to its religious benefits, arguing that school songs "remind[ed] [children] of their duty towards God." (4) Anglican and nonconformist churches contributed immensely to the popularity of music among all classes of society because of the prominent role singing played in worship. The interest in hymnody peaked by the mid-Victorian period, with more hymn books being published than ever before. Oratorios reinforced the affinity of music with spirituality. Wagner observed upon hearing Handel's Messiah at the Exeter Hall in London that "an evening spent in listening to an oratorio may be regarded as a sort of service, and is almost as good as going to church." (5) But, as Linda Colley reminds us, The Messiah also owed its appeal to its glorification of Britain as a second Israel. Nationalism played a central role alongside religion in exalting musical experiences, with the coronation hymn, the national anthem, and military bands playing crucial roles in rituals of nation-building. (6)

The theory that musical sounds mobilized emotions affiliated music with unruly passion in addition to linking it to domesticity, spirituality, and patriotism. Music appeared to produce rapture and sensuality. Frequently, "musical entertainments of a low and immoral character" available in "public houses of an inferior stamp" shouldered the stigma of music's appeal to passion, but the broad category of music, too, could receive criticism for it. (7) In 1838, the young John Ruskin wrote, "music ... raises the passions, or excites the feelings; but it cannot direct intellect, convey ideas, or furnish materials for thought." He asserted that music offered a type of pleasure that is more instinctive than cultivated: "Brutes can enjoy music: mice, in particular, are thrown into raptures by it; horses are strongly excited by the sound of trumpets, and may be taught to dance in excellent time, or even beat a tambourine with their fore-feet; the iguana, a kind of lizard, is so passionately fond of music that if you will do him the favour to whistle a tune to him,. …

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