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THE PASSING OF ARTHUR.
BY JOHN LEE, B.A.
[The quotations are given by kind permission of Messrs. Macmillan & Co.] KING ARTHUR represents too often, to those of us who read Tennyson's idyll for its romantic spirit merely, the mighty king who was ever triumphant, who set the weak king Leodogran free from his foes; he is the greatest of all rulers of men; the lord of peace and of good government; the ideal man, whose passion was purity, whose labour was love; who hated wrong and overthrew it; who sought the right and upheld it.
Touched with this romantic spirit, warmed with this romantic fire, we have loved our ideal man even as he loved his Guinevere,
Shall I not lift her from this land of beasts
I seem as nothing in the mighty world. It is indeed the first note of optimism which Tennyson strikes in the Idylls of the King. Shadowy though the figures may be, one can almost see Arthur standing in the grey mists; one can imagine the proud defiant head, the eyes gleaming, love-lit, as he gazes upon his Guinevere. The wrongs, ills, pains, and sorrows of this world lie at his feet; he is ready to trample them in the dust even as he had trampled the beasts and heathens which racked the soul of Leodogran.
The note of triumph swells to a thunder-roll at the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere. Here Tennyson gives us of his best; but not without a warning of the coming tragedy, not without a little piping of the rift within the lute. Here we have the noble description of the flowerdecked church; the white-robed knights standing round; Lancelot, the betrayer; Dubric, the High Priest; and Guinevere, eye-drooped, wistful and sad, vowing with false lips the terrible love-oath. Then there is the great coronation song of the knight.
Then Arthur charged his warrior whom he loved
“ Reign ye, and live and love, and make the world
Was ever such a pæan sung? One can well imagine the white knights, into whose faces there came “a momentary likeness of their king,” looking out on the marshes, and deserts, and woods, and hills of this misty, poetic country, and even over the great deep from whence their king came, and rejoicing that now had come the day of liberation from the thraldoms of sense and of sin. They indeed knew the wondrous might of their king; the sword that he wielded to blind them; the strange, unseen powers which were ever around him. Perhaps Lancelot, himself, the personification of doom, who, by an odd irony, saved Arthur's life, looked with keen foresight to the establishment of a new kingdom, for his heart thrilled when King Arthur had said
“Man's word is God in man, Let chance what will, I trust thee to the death." The white knights, too, knew the three queens to be faith, hope, and charity; they knew the lady of the lake, “clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,” to be the church on earth, who gave the sword Excalibur, the sword of the spirit, to their great king, wherewith he should fight the base, the selfish, the wrong, the unclean. What were their expectations, indeed? Perhaps Merlin alone, the personification of intellectual power, with his sweet, cynical, tragic note, knew the doom which lay, alas, only too imminent. The coronation song was the exuberant song of youth and strength, and love of conquest. Merlin knew more than this of life; he knew of the rain as well as of the sun; of the sorrow as of the rejoicing; of the rainbow of heaven as well as the storms of earth.
Rain, rain and sun! a rainbow in the sky!
An old man's wit may wander ere he die. And so the curtain rises, and we find the king crowned and married. All is peace and joy. The beasts, the heathens, the Romans are smitten to the dust. Arthur is beloved of all; day by day he sends forth his knights to remove oppression, to seek the wonderful Holy Grail, to venture daring escapes. How sweet, how wonderfully sweet is this life,–
Clear honour shining like the dewy star
And all this built upon the fabric of pure love, the pure love of Arthur and Guinevere. How they commence, in the pursuit of lofty aims; in the accomplishment of mighty deeds! How they meet here at the altar shrine, blest by Dubric, hailed and honoured by the knights ! How they part, alas! There beside the black sea, behind them a shattered empire of wonderful hopes and wonderful possibilities; and before them death-retribution for the one, the real spirit life for the other.
When we come to view the story allegorically, to my mind, we stand in the gravest danger of misapprehension. That the story of Arthur represents in Tennyson's allegorical scheme the battle of spirit against sense; the fight of the ideal against the hard, cruel real; the constant war of the spirit against the flesh, I can well understand. I can well understand, too, that the ideal reign of truth, purity, and righteousness is shewn to be founded upon man's love for woman; and that the failure of that love may, nay, must certainly bring down the whole fabric to earth with a disastrous crash. Beyond this, to any extent, I fear one is only too likely to overshadow the romantic interest of a beautiful story with an allegorical interest whose validity is at least doubtful.
But so far as we have gone in admitting an allegorical interest, a wondrous charm seems to gather itself around poor erring Guinevere. The intense human-ness of Guinevere contrasts most strongly with the overwhelming loftiness of the character of Arthur. He was too great for her love; she loved the frailty of human nature! He is all fault who hath no fault at all!
She broke into a little scornful laugh
And then we have the wonderfully tragic description, in “The Last Tournament,” of Arthur finding the hall empty; his queen had fled. He knew the whole shame; he, the “majestic” king, midst of a stained and degraded world, faithful alone among the faithless.