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That night came Arthur home, and while he climb'd
There are those who say that Guinevere represents allegorically the human heart. It may be so, but to me she is too vivid, too real a person to represent any mere ethical quality. From this point her character, unvaried as it is, weak, even shallow and passionate, represents a normal humanity. “A Queen she is, but not a queen in poetry.” It is the old story, the new story,—the blindness of unanalysable love, the preference for what she knew was the inferior. One thinks of the other women who have danced before us at the impulse of wild, unreasoning passion, but Guinevere is not of them. She is wildly calm; though indeed she is confirmed, eye-opened in wrongdoing, yet it is simply and solely the following of her heart. She is the flesh, Arthur the spirit; and, alas for this our life, the flesh triumphs.
Of Lancelot one cannot say very much, for there seems to be in the Idylls a desire to make his character twofold. Arthur was conscious of Lancelot's faithfulness to him as king, not as man; his faithfulness to Guinevere as woman, his recognition of the hideous unrighteousness of her conduct. Awful indeed is the description
His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
It is not a little remarkable that, in giving another aspect of Lancelot's character, our artist has dovetailed into his terrible story of despair an even sweeter idyllic love, the love of Lancelot and Elaine. How far, indeed, this is consummate romantic art, the art of relieving the ponderous pessimism, or, on the other hand, how far it is intended as an additional love-story with the conventional bad ending, it is very difficult to say. Indeed, the story of Lancelot and Elaine is in itself peculiarly sad. That a sweet, good woman should shower the love of her heart upon an unworthy man is one of the ironies of fate to which we have almost grown accustomed. Further, as the modernest of fiction has shewn to us, there is something peculiarly and inexplicably strong about unrequited love : in spite of rebuffs it grows stronger and stronger ; the hand that strikes the blow is kissed and fondled; the cold, unresponsive nature is frequently adored.
Nowhere, not even in the most philosophic novels of the human heart, is the paradox more beautifully or more pathetically described than in Elaine's little song
And in those days she made a little song
And sang it: sweetly could she make and sing,-
And where the lily maid of Astolat sails out at dawn to find her Love. Dead, she lay upon the boat, rowed by the dumb servant, in her one hand a lily, the symbol of her own spotless purity--the one sweet stainlessness which shines forth in the stained society of her time like the solitary evening star peeping out from a sky of gray. In her other hand a letter for her Lancelot, that unworthy knight whom she loved even to the death.
The beginning of the downfall of the great kingdom is shewn in the idyll “Guinevere ”; here we have the first token of the triumph of the sense over the soul, the real over the ideal. The note is struck plainly by the poor little novice who prattles of the wickedness of the queen, not knowing that it is to the queen herself she is speaking. Indeed, here at Almesbury, we have an insight into the strange irony of human passion, its unreasoning-nay, its anti-rational preferences. The human heart, as agreed by all commentators, is the ethical antitype of this clearlycarved outline of personified human weakness. What might have been Guinevere's ? Ah, who can tell ? She, the sinful, heart-led woman, could look back upon pinnacles of greatness, mountain tops of purity, high exaltations of love, where her feet had been permitted to climb. And now? She was plunged into the abyss of despair, face to face with the terrible consequences of her own ill-considered conduct.
It is here then, in this convent of Almesbury, where the good nuns knew her not, where the innocent novice prattled of the wickedness of the great queen, that in remorseful clearness of sight she saw that her own wicked heart had destroyed the mightiness of the kingdom.
Not carelessly, not without art which is actual reverence, did Tennyson here place that exquisite little song of repentance. Here, where the flesh had triumphed over the spirit, she sang the song of spiritual remorse; here, where womanhood lay in the mire, the little novice sang her little, simple song, with its strange, weird antiphonal effect.
Late, late, so late! and dark the night and chill,
Have we not heard the bridegroom is so sweet,
This is the wonder of the author's art, and not of his art merely, but of the deep analysis of his ethic. He knew the perilous danger of heart-sins; the subtle whisper that once or twice we may succumb, but there is yet left the power to throw the temptations aside. Moreover, we find the bitter cry of regret begins to bring with it the deeper heart-wrung note of repentance.
Arthur finds Guinevere at Almesbury, and we come to that magnificent scene—the parting of the king and his wife; a parting scene of infinite pathos, a parting scene of forgiveness on his side, of deep, true, undeniable love on hers. Not here alone would he love her, but there yonder ;
Hereafter in that world where all are pure
Where true love is born there comes repentance. Arthur's tender forgiveness pierces her soul like a white hot iron. O, the horror of her sinful self, the hatred, the contempt of her selfish sin, the contempt for Lancelot. And above all, O, the grandeur of Arthur, how he stands the knight of knights, the purest, noblest, proudest of all, and yet she failed to treasure his love, for a false love, a chimeric love, she had exchanged her soul, and gained not even a thousandth part of the world. And then when he has gone, a wail, a despairing wail broke from her very soul,-
Gone-my lord !
His mercy choked me. Gone, my lord the King.
I cannot kill my sin,
This the doom, the terribly pathetic catastrophe. The greatest of all ideals is cast into powder at our feet by the malignant power of the human heart. Arthur, the hero, the sinless ideal, the one human soul who dwelt above the earth’s sorry clouds, the redeemer of the people, the hater of wrong, the type and figure of all purity and all love has crumbled away. His work has failed. O, the infinite, the true pessimism of it all! Arthur passes away, indeed. Beyond this dreamy misty world of doubts and failures he reaches the farther bourne, where, perchance, love rules and lust is trampled upon; where the ideal, the clearseeing of God is his always. Perhaps he will return. There is just a hint-vague, obscure, and evasive-but no more. Even this shaft of sunlight is not permitted by Tennyson to break the awful darkness of the despairing end. Moses viewed his promised land from a Pisgah of exaltation ; Arthur dreamt of it from the depths of despair and failure.
The fact is that there is clearly in the heart of our social improvements a Guinevere and a Lancelot. There is, in other words, an almost immoveable fleshly resistance