The English Destiny of Tennyson's Camelot
Heisler, Aaron Yale, Philological Quarterly
FOUR FALSE WOMEN
Alfred Tennyson's prefatory manuscript note to "The Coming of Arthur," the first of his Idylls of the King, (1) remarks that its "form"--the next sentence implicitly indicates verse form--is "purposely more archaic than that of the other Idylls" (2) An earlier note to the same Idyll quotes eighteen lines on Arthur's nativity and infancy from Layamon's Brut, a vast thirteenth-century Middle English verse chronicle recounting the history of Britain from its founding by the mythical Brutus of Troy to its final conquest by the English. Like "The Coming of Arthur," the Brut was, in its day, a self-consciously archaic work, essentially a versification of Wace's twelfth-century Norman Roman de Brut (itself based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's slightly earlier Latin History of the Kings of Britain, on which the Idylls also declaredly draws), (3) but with reference to Anglo-Saxon monastic sources, a predominantly Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and an inconsistent verse form most strongly influenced by the alliterative style of the Anglo-Saxon scops. (4) Vestiges of this verse form, with its hemistichic construction, strong caesura, and alliteration of stressed syllables, but in a flexible and irregular incarnation not dissimilar to Layamon's own, are the most obviously archaic features of the first Idyll: "And still from time to time the heathen host / Swarm'd overseas and harried what was left." (5) The parallels between Layamon's project and Tennyson's are evident from the very first lines of "The Coming of Arthur," a set-off quatrain: "Leodogran, the King of Cameliard, / Had one fair daughter, and none other child; / And she was the fairest of all flesh on earth, / Guinevere, and in her his one delight" (1-4).
Proper names aside, these lines consist almost entirely of Anglo-Saxon words--words ("king" "daughter," "other," "child;' "fairest," "flesh" "earth") unchanged in meaning or even much in pronunciation since centuries before Layamon. The only word for which this is not the case is the very last one, "delight" which is from Latin, and which finally gestures towards the Latin and Norman sources that for the most part furnish the content of Layamon's, Thomas Malory's, and Tennyson's respective Arthuriads. In this context, the indigenous proper and place names of ancient Britain ironically sound an exotic note. Such a lexical move is not in itself remarkable in the light of Victorian Anglo-Saxonism, which was philological as well as racial, and to which Tennyson could be sympathetic: as an undergraduate, he kept a glossary of Old and Middle English words, and even tried his hand at translating some lines of Beowulf. (6) But the matter with which the mature poet is dealing in the Idylls makes the deployment of such an exclusively Anglo-Saxon vocabulary less usual and more--to use a term that will become ironic later in this essay--pregnant.
Tennyson is undoubtedly following Layamon here; the unannounced intrusion of lines from the Brut into his notes, a non sequitur following a passage on his first exposure to Malory, might perhaps be taken as the coyest possible admission of the line of influence. (7) Of course, in an important sense, both Layamon and Tennyson are "mistaken" in resorting to an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and verse form in order to evoke the Britain of antiquity. Such language, such a verse, would have been literally foreign to the Celtic ancient Britons, and is in fact closer to that by which the invading Germanic "heathens" might have memorialized their victories over the British. If the effect of the probably Welsh-born Geoffrey's Historia was to wrest his island's history away from the English and restore it to the Britons with whom he identified--as Rees Davies puts it, "providing Britain with a glorious pre-English and non-English past" (8)--Layamon's mistake, if it was one, in his derivative work accomplishes just the opposite, rendering the British Isles English from prehistory, and ruling out from the start the possibility of understanding Britain's history as anything but the gradual unfolding of an English destiny. …