Tennyson’s “Idylls Of The King” -- By: Theodore W. Hunt

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 055:219 (Jul 1898)
Article: Tennyson’s “Idylls Of The King”
Author: Theodore W. Hunt


Tennyson’s “Idylls Of The King”

Professor Theodore W. Hunt

Every critic of Tennyson raises, at the outset, the question as to the appropriateness of the term “Idyll” as used by the poet. Meaning, in its Greek form, a little image or representation, it is then applied to a short, descriptive poem of the lyric order, and especially adapted to pastoral themes. There is no reason, however, why such a poem should not be long as well as short; any more than that the lyric should always take the form of the sonnet, and never that of the extended poem, as “L’Allegro” or “Comus.” What Tennyson evidently emphasizes in the poem before us is the quality, or literary type of the verse, rather than its length—its descriptive, symbolic, or pictorial character, while the term “Idyll” that he uses is all the more appropriate, in that the poem is made up of a series, a gallery of word pictures, each in itself being entitled to the name “Idyll,” applied to the poem as a whole. The name “The Divine Comedy,” given by Dante to his celebrated poem, is far more rightfully open to criticism as to literary adaptation.

1. We notice, first, the Origin of the Poem. This is partly historical and partly traditional. We are taken back at once to the name of the notable Sir Thomas Malory, the Welshman, whose “La Morte d’Arthur” was finished in the ninth year of the reign of Edward the Fourth, of England, and based on the legends and traditions gathered up in the French Romances of the thirteenth and fourteenth

centuries. There are the so-called Arthurian Legends of Merlin and Tristan, and Lancelot and the Round Table. Malory’s work is, of course, a modification or free compilation of the material which he had in hand from these earlier sources in foreign literature; and, yet, it is so well executed that Saintsbury, in his “Specimens of English Prose Style,” begins with Malory as rightly entitled to open the illustrious list of English Prose Writers. He speaks of the version as “having caught the whole spirit and beauty of the Arthurian Legends, and as one of the first monuments of accomplished English Prose.” His selections open with “The Death of Lancelot.” The issue of this work from Caxton’s press in 1485, and its immediate and continuous popularity evince the esteem in which it was held by scholars and the general public. An edition by Southey, as late in English literary history as 1817, confirms the same opinion as to its comparative merits.

As Malory’s version takes us back to the days of Chaucer, we must go still further back to 1138, to the days of the old Welshman, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the idol and the butt of later chroniclers, as he, in turn, ...

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