Tennyson's Poems

Morte D'Arthur

This is Tennyson's first study from Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur'. We learn from Fitzgerald that it was written as early as the spring of 1835, for in that year Tennyson read it to Fitzgerald and Spedding, "out of a MS. in a little red book," and again we learn that he repeated some lines of it at the end of May, 1835, one calm day on Windermere, adding "Not bad that, Fitz., is it?" ('Life', i., 184). It is here represented as the eleventh book of an Epic, the rest of which had been destroyed, though Tennyson afterwards incorporated it, adding introductory lines, with what was virtually to prove an Epic in twelve books, 'The Idylls of the King'. The substance of the poem is drawn from the third, fourth and fifth chapters of the twenty-first book of Malory's 'Romance', which is followed very closely. It is called "an Homeric echo," but the diction bears a much closer resemblance to that of Virgil than to that of Homer, though the rhythm is perhaps more Homeric than Virgilian. It is Tennyson's masterpiece in "the grand style," and is indeed as near perfection as any work of this kind could be. In spite of its singular mixture of simplicity, purely Homeric, and artificiality, at times ultra-Virgilian, the incongruity never shocks, so noble and impressive is the general effect. The text of 1842 was never subsequently altered except in the spelling of "mere" and "though" in lines 37, 77, 147, 155, 162, 272, and in the insertion in 1853 of the line:--

"Across the ridge and pac'd beside the mere."

So all day long the noise of battle roll'd

Among the mountains by the winter sea;

Until King Arthur's table, man by man,

Had fall'n in Lyonness about their Lord,

King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,

The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,

Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,

And bore him to a chapel nigh the field, [1]

A broken chancel with a broken cross,

That stood on a dark strait of barren land.

On one side lay the Ocean, and on one

Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:

"The sequel of to-day unsolders all

The goodliest fellowship of famous knights

Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep

They sleep--the men I loved. I think that we

Shall never more, at any future time,

Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds,

Walking about the gardens and the halls

Of Camelot, as in the days that were.

I perish by this people which I made,--

Tho' Merlin sware that I should come again

To rule once more--but let what will be, be,

I am so deeply smitten thro' the helm

That without help I cannot last till morn.

Thou therefore take my brand [2] Excalibur,

Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how

In those old days, one summer noon, an arm

Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

Holding the sword--and how I row'd across

And took it, and have worn it, like a king:

And, wheresoever I am sung or told

In aftertime, this also shall be known:

But now delay not: take Excalibur,

And fling him far into the middle mere:

Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word."

To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere:

"It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus,

Aidless, alone, and smitten thro' the helm.

A little thing may harm a wounded man.

Yet I thy hest will all perform at full,

Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word."

So saying, from the ruin'd shrine he stept

And in the moon athwart the place of tombs,

Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men,

Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang

Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down

By zig-zag paths, and juts of pointed rock,

Came on the shining levels of the lake.

There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,

And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon,

Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth

And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt:

For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks, [3]

Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work

Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long

That both his eyes were dazzled, as he stood,

This way and that dividing the swift mind, [4]

In act to throw: but at the last it seem'd

Better to leave Excalibur conceal'd

There in the many-knotted waterflags,

That whistled stiff and dry about the marge.

So strode he back slow to the wounded king.

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:

"Hast thou perform'd my mission which I gave?

What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?"

And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:

"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, [5]

And the wild water lapping on the crag."

To whom replied King Arthur, faint and pale:

"Thou hast betray'd thy nature and thy name,

Not rendering true answer, as beseem'd

Thy fealty, nor like a noble knight:

For surer sign had follow'd, either hand,

Or voice, or else a motion of the mere.

This is a shameful thing for men to lie.

Yet now, I charge thee, quickly go again [6]

As thou art lief and dear, and do the thing

I bade thee, watch, and lightly bring me word."

Then went Sir Bedivere the second time

Across the ridge, and paced beside the mere, [7]

Counting the dewy pebbles, fix'd in thought;

But when he saw the wonder of the hilt,

How curiously and strangely chased, he smote

His palms together, and he cried aloud,

"And if indeed I cast the brand away,

Surely a precious thing, one worthy note,

Should thus be lost for ever from the earth,

Which might have pleased the eyes of many men.

What good should follow this, if this were done?

What harm, undone? deep harm to disobey,

Seeing obedience is the bond of rule,

Were it well to obey then, if a king demand

An act unprofitable against himself?

The king is sick, and knows not what he does.

What record, or what relic of my lord

Should be to aftertime, but empty breath

And rumours of a doubt? but were this kept,

Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,

Some one might show it at a joust of arms,

Saying, 'King Arthur's sword, Excalibur,

Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake.

Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps

Upon the hidden bases of the hills."

So might some old man speak in the aftertime

To all the people, winning reverence.

But now much honour and much fame were lost."

So spake he, clouded with his own conceit,

And hid Excalibur the second time,

And so strode back slow to the wounded King.

Then spoke King Arthur, breathing heavily:

"What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?"

And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:

"I heard the water lapping on the crag,

And the long ripple washing in the reeds."

To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:

"Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue, [8]

Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!

Authority forgets a dying king, [9]

Laid widow'd of the power in his eye

That bow'd the will. I see thee what thou art,

For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,

In whom should meet the offices of all,

Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt;

Either from lust of gold, or like a girl

Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes.

Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice,

And the third time may prosper, get thee hence:

But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur,

I will arise and slay thee with my hands."

Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran, [10]

And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged

Among the bulrush-beds, and clutch'd the sword,

And strongly wheel'd and threw it. The great brand

Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,

And flashing round and round, and whirl'd in an arch,

Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,

Seen where the moving isles of winter shock

By night, with noises of the northern sea.

So flash'd and fell the brand Excalibur:

But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

And caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him

Three times, and drew him under in the mere.

And lightly went the other to the King.

Then spoke King Arthur, drawing thicker breath:

"Now see I by thine eyes that this is done.

Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?"

And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:

"Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems

Should blind my purpose, for I never saw,

Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die,

Not tho' I live three lives of mortal men,

So great a miracle as yonder hilt.

Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him;

But when I look'd again, behold an arm,

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

That caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him

Three times, and drew him under in the mere."

And answer made King Arthur, breathing hard:

"My end draws nigh;'tis time that I were gone.

Make broad thy shoulders to receive my weight,

And bear me to the margin; yet I fear [11]

My wound hath taken cold, and I shall die."

So saying, from the pavement he hath rose,

Slowly, with pain, reclining on his arm,

And looking wistfully with wide blue eyes

As in a picture. Him Sir Bedivere

Remorsefully regarded thro' his tears,

And would have spoken, but he found not words,

Then took with care, and kneeling on one knee,

O'er both his shoulders drew the languid hands,

And rising bore him thro' the place of tombs.

But, as he walk'd, King Arthur panted hard,

Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed

When all the house is mute. So sigh'd the King,

Muttering and murmuring at his ear"

Quick, quick! I fear it is too late, and I shall die ".

But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge,

Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walk'd,

Larger than human on the frozen hills.

He heard the deep behind him, and a cry

Before. His own thought drove him like a goad.

Dry clash'd his harness in the icy caves

And barren chasms, and all to left and right

The bare black cliff clang'd round him, as he based

His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang

Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels--

And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,

And the long glories of the winter moon.

Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge, [12]

Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,

Beneath them; and descending they were ware

That all the decks were dense with stately forms

Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream--by these

Three Queens with crowns of gold--and from them rose

A cry that shiver'd to the tingling stars,

And, as it were one voice, an agony

Of lamentation, like a wind, that shrills

All night in a waste land, where no one comes,

Or hath come, since the making of the world.

Then murmur'd Arthur, "Place me in the barge,"

And to the barge they came. There those three Queens

Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.

But she, that rose the tallest of them all

And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,

And loosed the shatter'd casque, and chafed his hands,

And call'd him by his name, complaining loud,

And dropping bitter tears against his brow

Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white

And colourless, and like the wither'd moon

Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;

And all his greaves and cuisses dash'd with drops

Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls--

That made his forehead like a rising sun

High from the daeis-throne--were parch'd with dust;

Or, clotted into points and hanging loose,

Mix'd with the knightly growth that fringed his lips.

So like a shatter'd column lay the King;

Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest,

From spur to plume a star of tournament,

Shot thro' the lists at Camelot, and charged

Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere, [13]

"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?

Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?

For now I see the true old times are dead,

When every morning brought a noble chance,

And every chance brought out a noble knight.

Such times have been not since the light that led

The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.

But now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved

Which was an image of the mighty world;

And I, the last, go forth companionless.

And the days darken round me, and the years,

Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways, [14]

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

I have lived my life, and that which I have done

May He within Himself make pure! but thou,

If thou shouldst never see my face again,

Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains [15] about the feet of God.

But now farewell. I am going a long way

With these thou seest--if indeed I go--

(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)

To the island-valley of Avilion;

Where falls not hail, or rain, [16] or any snow,

Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies

Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard-lawns

And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea, [17]

Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

So said he, and the barge with oar and sail

Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan

That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,

Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood

With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere

Revolving many memories, till the hull

Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn.

And on the mere the wailing died away.

Here ended Hall, and our last light, that long

Had wink'd and threaten'd darkness, flared and fell:

At which the Parson, sent to sleep with sound,

And waked with silence, grunted "Good!" but we

Sat rapt: It was the tone with which he read--

Perhaps some modern touches here and there

Redeem'd it from the charge of nothingness--

Or else we loved the man, and prized his work;

I know not: but we sitting, as I said,

The cock crew loud; as at that time of year

The lusty bird takes every hour for dawn:

Then Francis, muttering, like a man ill-used,

"There now--that's nothing!" drew a little back,

And drove his heel into the smoulder'd log,

That sent a blast of sparkles up the flue;

And so to bed; where yet in sleep I seem'd

To sail with Arthur under looming shores.

Point after point; till on to dawn, when dreams

Begin to feel the truth and stir of day,

To me, methought, who waited with a crowd,

There came a bark that, blowing forward, bore,

King Arthur, like a modern gentleman

Of stateliest port; and all the people cried,

"Arthur is come again: he cannot die".

Then those that stood upon the hills behind

Repeated--"Come again, and thrice as fair";

And, further inland, voices echoed--

"Come With all good things, and war shall be no more".

At this a hundred bells began to peal,

That with the sound I woke, and heard indeed

The clear church-bells ring in the Christmas morn.

[Footnote 1: 'Cf. Morte d'Arthur', xxxi., iv.: "They led him betwixt] them to a little chapel from the not far seaside".

[Footnote 2: 'Cf. Id.', v.:]

"'Therefore,' said Arthur, 'take thou my good sword Excalibur and go

with it to yonder waterside. And when thou comest there I charge thee

throw my sword on that water and come again and tell me what thou

there seest.'

'My lord,' said Bedivere, 'your commandment shall be done and lightly

will I bring thee word again.'

So Sir Bedivere departed and by the way he beheld that noble sword,

that the pommel and the haft were all of precious stones, and then he

said to himself, 'If I throw this rich sword in the water, thereof

shall never come to good but harm and loss'. And then Sir Bedivere hid

Excalibur under a tree."

[Footnote 3: 1842-1853. Studs.]

[Footnote 4: Literally from Virgil ('AEn.', iv., 285).]

"Atque animum nunc huc celerem nunc dividit illuc."

[Footnote 5: 'Cf. Romance, Id.', v.:]

"'I saw nothing but the waters wap and the waves wan.'"

[Footnote 6: 'Romance, Id.', v.:]

"'That is untruly said of thee,' said the king, 'therefore go thou

lightly again and do my command as thou to me art lief and dear; spare

not, but throw in.'

Then Sir Bedivere returned again and took the sword in his hand, and

then him thought sin and shame to throw away that noble sword, and so

eft he hid the sword and returned again, and told the king that he had

been to the water and done his commandment."

[Footnote 7: This line was not inserted till 1853.]

[Footnote 8: 'Romance, Id.', v.:]

"'Ah, traitor untrue!' said King Arthur, 'now thou hast betrayed me

twice. Who would have weened that thou that hast been so lief and

dear, and thou that art named a noble knight, would betray me for the

riches of the sword. But now go again lightly.... And but if thou do

not now as I bid thee, if ever I may see thee I shall slay thee with

mine own hands."'

[Footnote 9: There is a curious illustration of this in an anecdote told] of Queen Elizabeth. "Cecil intimated that she must go to bed, if it were only to satisfy her people.

'Must!' she exclaimed; 'is must a word to be addressed to princes?

Little man, little man, thy father if he had been alive durst not have

used that word, but thou hast grown presumptuous because thou knowest

that I shall die.'"

Lingard, 'Hist'., vol. vi., p. 316.

[Footnote 10: 'Romance, Id'., v.:]

"Then Sir Bedivere departed and went to the sword and lightly took it

up and went to the waterside, and then he bound the girdle about the

hilt and then he threw the sword as far into the water as he might,

and then came an arm and a hand above the water, and met it and caught

it and so shook it thrice and brandished it, and then vanished away

the hand with the sword in the water."

[Footnote 11: 'Romance, Id.', v.:]

"'Alas,' said the king, 'help me hence for I dread me I have tarried

over long'.

Then Sir Bedivere took the king upon his back and so went with him to

that water."

[Footnote 12: 'Romance, Id'., v.:]

"And when they were at the waterside even fast by the bank hoved a

little barge and many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a

queen and all they had black hoods and all they wept and shrieked when

they saw King Arthur. 'Now put me into the barge,' said the king, and

so they did softly. And there received him three queens with great

mourning, and so they set him down and in one of their laps King

Arthur laid his head; and then that queen said: 'Ah, dear brother, why

have ye tarried so long from me?'"

[Footnote 13: 'Romance, Id'., v.:]

"Then Sir Bedivere cried: 'Ah, my Lord Arthur, what shall become of me

now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies?'

'Comfort thyself,' said the king, 'and do as well as thou mayest, for

in me is no trust to trust in. For I will unto the vale of Avilion to

heal me of my grievous wound. And if thou never hear more of me, pray

for my soul.'"

[Footnote 14: With this 'cf>/i>. Greene, 'James IV'., v., 4:--]

"Should all things still remain in one estate

Should not in greatest arts some scars be found

Were all upright nor chang'd what world were this?

A chaos made of quiet, yet no world."

And 'cf'. Shakespeare, 'Coriolanus', ii., iii.:--

What custom wills in all things should we do it,

The dust on antique Time would be unswept,

And mountainous error too highly heaped

For Truth to overpeer.

[Footnote 15: 'Cf.' Archdeacon Hare's "Sermon on the Law of] Self-Sacrifice".

"This is the golden chain of love whereby the whole creation is bound

to the throne of the Creator."

For further illustrations see 'Illust. of Tennyson', p. 158.

[Footnote 16: Paraphrased from 'Odyssey', vi., 42-5, or 'Lucretius',] iii., 18-22.

[Footnote 17: The expression "'crowned' with summer 'sea'" from] 'Odyssey', x., 195: [Greek: naeson taen peri pontos apeiritos estaphan_otai.]