First, a poem frames “Morte d’Arthur,” entitled “The Epic.” The speaker says he is gathered at the home of Francis Allen on Christmas Eve. Also there are the parson, Holmes; the poet, Everard Hall; and the host. They gather around the wassail-bowl (hot mulled cider) and discuss how the honor seems gone from Christmas. The speaker is tired from his day of ice-skating and falling, and he dozes off, waking to the parson lamenting the general lack of faith throughout the world. Francis jokes and says he holds faith in Everard, and Everard responds by saying he has faith in the cider. The speaker asks Everard what became of his great gift of poetry that was so evident in college, and Francis says that Everard had been working on twelve books about King Arthur but threw them into the fire. It seems that Everard thought “nothing new was said” and the books were mere “Homeric echoes, nothing-worth.” Francis says he has saved one book from the fire. The speaker’s ears prick up, and he remembers the talent of his friend. After some urging, the poet begins to read.
The noise of battle goes on all day. All of the men of the Round Table have fallen in Lyonesse. King Arthur has also been wounded, and his last knight, Sir Bedivere, brings him to a chapel near the field in the “barren land.” The King speaks to Bedivere about the severing of the company of knights, the men he loved, and how they will never talk again of lordly deeds in Camelot. He tells Bedivere to take his sword Excalibur, which he had received from a white arm clothed in samite reaching up from the waters of the lake, and fling it back into the middle of the water. Bedivere is to watch what happened and then return.
Bedivere hesitates at leaving his lord, but obeys him. He passes by the place of the tombs of ancient men illuminated by moonlight and draws near the lake. He unsheathes Excalibur and gazes long at the sparkling, jeweled hilt. He finds he cannot throw it in the water and hides it in the waterflags about the marge. When he returns Arthur asks him if he performed the mission and what he saw. Bedivere replies, “I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, / And the wild water lapping on the crag.” Arthur is angry because he knows Bedivere did not do what he asked. He tells him that he has betrayed his nature and his name and that he must go back and try again.
Bedivere returns to the water’s edge. He wonders aloud how he could throw away something so precious and worthy; what good would come from this? He knows it is wrong to disobey, but he thinks that Arthur may not be in his right mind because he is ill. The sword should be kept in a treasure-house and be shown off at a joust of arms. Bedivere, “clouded with his own conceit,” hides Excalibur and returns to Arthur. When asked the same question as before, Bedivere gives the same answer.
Arthur, filled with wrath, calls him “miserable and unkind, untrue, / Unknightly, traitor-hearted!” He excoriates Bedivere for betraying him for a “precious hilt” and “lust of gold” and threatens to slay him if he does not follow his orders. This time Bedivere returns to the lake and immediately throws the sword out into the center of the lake. An arm, clad in white samite, reaches up mysteriously and catches the sword by the hilt, drawing it below the surface of the water. Bedivere is astonished.
When he returns, Arthur knows by his eyes that the task is completed and asks what the knight saw. Bedivere replies that he saw a great miracle he shall never forget, and he describes the arm. The King begins to breathe more laboriously and says he knows his death is near. He asks Bedivere to shoulder him, and the knight helps prop him up. The King looks about wistfully. Bedivere wants to speak to him but is too sad and does not have the words. He bears the King to the place of tombs.
As the King walks he pants hard from the duress. Bedivere tries as hard as he can to take the King to his resting place before he perishes. They finally arrive at the shore and see a “dusky barge,” dark and mournful. Three elegant Queens with gold crowns wait onboard and cry in one voice a moan of agony. This lamentation is like the wind “that shrills / All night in a waste land.” Arthur asks to be placed in the barge, and Bedivere complies. Arthur lays his head in the lap of the fairest Queen, and she loosens his casque (helmet) and calls him by his name. Her tears drop on his bloody pale face. He lies like a “shatter’d column,” very much unlike the heroic figure he once cut.
Sir Bedivere calls out in despair, “Whither shall I go?” The whole Round Table is dissolved, and the old times are dead; he is the last one left, companionless and unmoored. Arthur answers slowly from the barge that, indeed, “the old order changeth, yielding place to new,” yet Bedivere should not place his comfort only in Arthur, as he is departing from this world. Bedivere ought to pray for Arthur’s soul, since “More things are wrought by prayer / Than this world dreams of.” Arthur is going a long way to the island-valley of Avilion, which is free of rain and snow and full of flowers and peaceful fields. There he will heal from his “grievous wound.” The barge pushes off, and Bedivere stands on the shore, filled with memories. The ship sails into the horizon.
“The Epic” resumes. Hall ends his tale, and the men sit, rapt with attention. The speaker wonders if the work’s modern touches were what made it so memorable, or maybe it was just that they loved the poet himself. The cock crows in the night, mistaking the hour for dawn. When they all go to bed the speaker in dreams “seem’d / To sail with Arthur under looming shores.” He hears people cry out that Arthur was come again and that he cannot die. In the dreams the speaker hears bells, and he wakes to hear the real church bells signaling Christmas morning.
“Morte d’Arthur,” which would be called “The Passing of Arthur” when included in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1856-57), is one of the poet’s most famous works. It was completed in 1842 and included in Poems, but a first draft exists from 1835. Most critics agree that the poem was yet another one of Tennyson’s evocations of his grief over the passing of his close friend, another Arthur—Arthur Henry Hallam. It is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter).
Sources include, of course, Thomas Malory’s epic Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). In Book 21 of the work, Arthur has been fatally wounded by his nephew Mordred, and all of his knights including Sir Bedivere have died. Only Sir Lucan remains to help move Arthur. Other influences include Shakespeare’s Hamlet with its emphasis on immutable, gnawing despair, and Homer’s Odyssey.
Tennyson first conceived of the idea of an Arthurian epic in the 1830s in the context of his Cambridge circle of friends, which included Hallam. These young men looked to literature to compensate for the lack of spiritual values they observed in their own time. Tennyson had begun to study Malory’s work in 1833 when news came of Hallam’s sudden death. Tennyson did not stop writing poetry in the months and years right after his friend’s death, but rather composed or began some of his most famous works, such as “Ulysses” and “Tithonus.” Tennyson did start working on “Morte” by the end of the year. The first draft is deeply personal and, as critic Marcia Culver notes, it is “as if Tennyson released his darkest vision of death in this one poem.” The brotherhood of Arthur and Bedivere symbolizes the deep friendship of Tennyson and Hallam, and the profound grief of their severance is manifest in the utter lack of faith or hope Bedivere experiences at the poem’s close.
Tennyson continued to work on the poem over the decade; “the restrained consolations and weary peace Tennyson finally achieved ... evolved only gradually, with time and revision [and] over a period of many years, the ‘Morte’ was transformed and enriched by the emergence of new dimensions of hope and ethical concern.” In particular, the second draft has the intimations of immortality of the King. This, of course, has biblical allusions, but it is also a meaningful and poignant wish for the immortality of Tennyson’s cherished friend.
“Morte” is framed with another poem, “The Epic,” written in 1842. It presents a domestic scene of four friends gathering on Christmas Eve. They are lamenting the loss of meaning in the holiday and the ascendance of modern ideas that attack Christian faith, such as “geology and schism.” One of them, Francis Hall, mentions that the poet, Everard Hall, was working on a heroic poem about King Arthur but threw the work into the fire except for one book that Hall saved. Hall is implored to read it. This framing scene is very much rooted in the 19th century, what with its cast of characters perfectly English and middle class: a parson, a poet, and a country gentleman. The critic Angela O’Donnell writes, “The colloquial, conversational tone of ‘The Epic’ counterpoints the heroic language of the poem it frames ... and the connections between the characters and actions in the two poems are numerous and intricate. As a pair, they demonstrate that human truth, whether ancient or modern, is universal.”
Some critics have claimed that “The Epic” is an apology for “Morte d’Arthur” or is somehow inconsistent with the poem that it precedes. However, J.S. Lawry makes the case that both poems are entirely consistent and present a cogent defense of the recovery of heroic attitudes and heroic literature as well as Christian faith. The attitudes of the men gathered on Christmas Eve are proven wrong, and the tale they listen to is inspiring and revivifying; the speaker finds his faith in God and humanity restored. The lack of faith and the failure of poetry are combated by the “modern man” of Sir Bedivere finding his faith restored. The speaker in “The Epic” finds the same thing, as his dreams reveal Arthur achieving Christ-like immortality. Lawry writes, “the poem ends by driving its point of Christian revival so insistently that the other recoveries of faith may be missed. The faith of heroic ages in human greatness is recovered and validated through the ‘rapt’ response of a modern audience to the hero, Arthur.” The poem thus insists that epic poetry is valid and both intellectually and emotionally stirring.