Tennyson Publishes “Morte d’Arthur” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Shortly after the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, adapted materials from the Arthurian legend to create a poem in which he explores the meaning of King Arthur’s death and potential return. “Morte d’Arthur” helped revive interest in Arthurian stories throughout the Western world.

Summary of Event

It is not strictly coincidental that Alfred, Lord Tennyson, began writing “Morte d’Arthur” within months after the untimely death of his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam and Tennyson became friends while at Cambridge University and they planned a series of joint projects to celebrate the new form of poetry, Romanticism, being produced by writers such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the deceased triumvirate of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. Tennyson, Alfred, Lord "Morte d’Arthur" (Tennyson)[Morte dArthur (Tennyson)] Arthur, King Poetry;English Hallam, Arthur Henry Romanticism;English Literature;English [kw]Tennyson Publishes “Morte d’Arthur” (1842) [kw]Publishes “Morte d’Arthur”, Tennyson (1842) [kw]"Morte d’Arthur", Tennyson Publishes (1842) [kw]d’Arthur", Tennyson Publishes “Morte (1842) [kw]Arthur”, Tennyson Publishes “Morte d’ (1842) Tennyson, Alfred, Lord "Morte d’Arthur" (Tennyson)[Morte dArthur (Tennyson)] Arthur, King Poetry;English Hallam, Arthur Henry Romanticism;English Literature;English [g]Great Britain;1842: Tennyson Publishes “Morte d’Arthur”[2220] [c]Literature;1842: Tennyson Publishes “Morte d’Arthur”[2220]

While traveling through Europe on a trip designed to improve his health in September, 1833, Hallam died in Venice. Tennyson was disconsolate; but as he often did, he sought, through writing poetry, a way to deal with his grief. A devotee of the Romantics, Tennyson often adopted their practice of turning either to nature or to literature to find models that would help him shape and express his feelings. In reading classical epics and medieval romances, he found two figures whose stories gave him some personal hope. The first figure, the Greek hero Ulysses, suggested to him the need for constantly going forward in the face of adversity; those ideas are expressed in one of his most poignant monologues, “Ulysses.” "Ulysses" (Tennyson) The second figure, King Arthur, appealed to him not only because the king’s name recalled the first name of his dead friend Hallam but also because many versions of the legend suggested that Arthur would return someday. Such an idea satisfied Tennyson’s hope for reunion with his friend in some form of afterlife.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

(Courtesy of University of Texas at Austin)

To write on medieval subjects in the early decades of the nineteenth century involved some risk for a poet. Since the sixteenth century, stories of knights and ladies had been dismissed as either barbaric or irrelevant. The Romantic poets and gothic novelists resurrected interest in medieval subjects, but they often used material from the Middle Ages merely as a form of costume drama to stress the faraway nature of their tales. Tennyson, on the other hand, wanted to link the medieval and modern worlds by showing the parallels that existed between them. The young poet believed that there was much to be learned by comparing the personal and social values of King Arthur and his knights with those of modern champions of various social and political causes, champions such as Hallam and Tennyson himself.

Tennyson wrote “Morte d’Arthur” within months after Hallam’s death in late 1833 and published it in his two-volume Poems (1842), which contained revisions of his earlier work and dozens of new offerings. To help distance himself from criticism for using medieval materials and to explain how such subjects could be relevant to a modern audience, Tennyson wrote a preface to the poem called “The Epic,” in which a group of young men and women pull from a fire the last book of a medieval epic being written by one of their colleagues. Ostensibly, the remnant saved from the fire, “Morte d’Arthur,” reprises the story of King Arthur’s death told in the fifteenth century by Thomas Malory Malory, Thomas Morte d’Arthur, Le (Malory)[Morte dArthur, Le (Malory)] in Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). “The Epic” immediately precedes “Morte d’Arthur” in the 1842 volume.

Tennyson had read Malory as a boy and was fascinated with his work. The poet’s first medieval tale, “The Lady of Shalott,” appeared in 1832 and was reworked for the 1842 volume. “Morte d’Arthur,” a longer work, adheres more closely to Malory’s account, focusing on Arthur’s charge to his last retainer, Sir Bedivere. Dying on the battlefield, Arthur laments the loss of the fellowship of his Round Table and observes that with him a way of life is dying. He then commands Bedivere to toss the sword Excalibur back into the lake from which Arthur had retrieved it years earlier. Bedivere twice balks at doing so and is rebuked by the king for his disobedience. On the third attempt he complies, and sees the sword caught by a magic hand arising from the lake. When he reports this to Arthur, the king rejoices, knowing that he has fulfilled his mission on Earth. Bedivere takes Arthur to the edge of the lake where three queens arrive in a barge to take his body to the Isle of Avillion. There, he says, he may be healed; at another time of crisis, he may return to lead his people.

Tennyson is intentionally vague about Arthur’s final fate, and at the end of “Morte d’Arthur,” Bedivere finds himself standing alone on the shore watching the barge move away. The words may be spoken by Bedivere, but the lament is surely Tennyson’s when he has the king’s faithful retainer exclaim, “For now I see the true old times are dead,/ when every morning brought a noble chance.” The knight, left alone to deal with “strange faces, other minds,” is much like the poet. Bereft of his friend and confidante Hallam, Tennyson must struggle alone to make sense of his life and carry on his work as a poet, work that Hallam had championed.

Tennyson’s 1842 volume was well received, and poems such as “Morte d’Arthur” reached a wide reading public. Meanwhile, Tennyson would continue to struggle as he had since 1833 to express fully the grief he first exposes in “Morte d’Arthur.” His fits and starts at coming to accept his friend’s death would eventually be woven into his most famous work, the long elegy In Memoriam, published in 1850. The poem finally established his reputation as the premier Victorian poet.

Significance

Although contemporary reviewers initially questioned the wisdom of resurrecting medieval materials as a means of exploring modern problems, Tennyson’s decision to treat Arthurian materials seriously helped inspire a revival of interest in medieval subjects that led to the production of numerous poems, novels, and artworks celebrating the Middle Ages. In Tennyson’s own work, Arthurian subjects were to become a principal preoccupation. During the 1850’s the new poet laureate Poet laureates began creating a series of Arthurian tales highlighting many of the characters celebrated in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur Morte d’Arthur, Le (Malory)[Morte dArthur, Le (Malory)] and other medieval works. The first four were published under the title Idylls of the King Idylls of the King (Tennyson) (1859-1885), which ostensibly was focused on women in the legend. The poems provided a decidedly Victorian interpretation of the Arthurian story, holding the knights and their ladies up to the scrutiny of nineteenth century moral standards.

Idylls of the King was well received by the British reading public, and during the next thirty years, Tennyson added new idylls to create a coherent story of the birth of Arthur, his rise to power, the work of his knights in carrying out his ideals, the eventual corruption of the Round Table, and the king’s death at the hands of his traitorous nephew. Particularly interesting is that Tennyson simply adapted “Morte d’Arthur” to suit his new purpose when he came to write the final idyll in his sequence. In fact, the portrait of Arthur in “Morte d’Arthur” changed very little when Tennyson recast the poem as “The Passing of Arthur” in 1869. As part of the new Arthurian epic, this tale celebrates not simply the passing of a good man (whose parallels with Arthur Henry Hallam would have been recognized by Tennyson’s early readers) but the passing of a great age as well.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lambdin, Laura, and Robert T. Lambdin. Camelot in the Nineteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. This book places Tennyson in the context of his Victorian contemporaries in reviving interest in the Arthurian legend. The chapter on Idylls of the King notes how the “Morte D’Arthur” became the genesis for that longer poem and how Tennyson’s early portrait of the king remained essentially static as the longer work developed through a fifty year period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manoff, David. The Return of King Arthur: The Legend Through Victorian Eyes. New York: Abrams, 1995. Manoff includes a chapter explaining how Tennyson’s retelling of the Arthurian story influenced his contemporaries. Manoff also discusses the changes Tennyson made to Malory’s tales to transform the story into a moral tale. The volume contains dozens of illustrations, most by Victorian artists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ricks, Christopher. Tennyson. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1989. In this critical biography, Ricks describes the personal impulses that drove Tennyson to write “Morte D’Arthur” soon after the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Herbert. Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Tucker examines the poem in the context of the epic tradition, noting that in “Morte D’Arthur,” Tennyson stresses the need to pass on values and traditions from one generation to the next. He also notes how Tennyson modified the poem later to make it the culminating section of Idylls of the King.

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