Author: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

eNotator: Barbara Bedell

The eNotated Idylls of the King

Based on the collection of "Idylls" Alfred, Lord Tennyson published together in 1874, this volume includes more than 500 eNotations that provide definitions and historical information - especially useful because Tennyson used hundreds of archaic, compound, and invented words in his poetry. In addition, more than 130 Arthurian-related illustrations are included, many in color.

In her introductory essay, Bedell points to the major polarities Tennyson illustrates in his "Idylls:" Trust/betrayal, duty/failure, faith/disbelief, commitment/infidelity. Additional essays focus on narrative structure as theme, the spectrum of knighthood (illustrated through Galahad, Gawain, and Lancelot), and Tennyson's use of language.

Bedell has included a Tennyson biography that provides information about the poet's life and appreciation of him in Victorian England. A Bibliography offers the interested reader a path to further reading about Tennyson and his work and an extensive Chronology outlines the evolution of the Arthurian corpus from the Ninth through the Twenty-First Centuries.

As Bedell explains in her introduction, "One could reasonably argue that after Sir Thomas Malory's "Morte d'Arthur," the best-known English version of the Arthurian legends is Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King." Memorable in their depth of understanding of human motivations and their evocative descriptive power, certain passages from "Guinevere" and "The Passing of Arthur" stand out in my mind as clearly as if I had read them yesterday. I continue to be drawn to this brilliant work by one of England's greatest Victorian poets who, in turn, was greatly influenced by the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table all of his life."

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About Alfred Tennyson

Born in 1809, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the fourth son of the Reverend George Clayton Tennyson, rector of Somersby in Lincolnshire, and Elizabeth Fytche. Tennyson's father was a bitterly disappointed man: he was the first born of his father (also George Clayton Tennyson) but had been rejected as heir in favor of his younger brother Charles. In spite of his accomplishments as a musician, an avid reader, and a doctor of civil law, George retreated into acute alcoholism, severely affecting three of Alfred's brothers, two of whom went insane and a third who became an alcoholic much like his father. In contrast, and largely to escape the oppression of his home life made miserable by his father's drinking and violence, young Alfred chose a different path--he turned to writing.

Tennyson attended Louth Grammar School from 1815 to 1820, returned home to be privately educated, and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in November of 1827. During the spring of 1829, Tennyson met Arthur Hallam, son of the historian Henry Hallam. By the end of that year, the two men had become close friends, and one of the most important intellectual and emotional attachments of Tennyson's life had begun its all too brief course. While at Cambridge, Tennyson and Hallam were part of a society called the Apostles, a group interested in philology and the literary and historical studies related to it. Tennyson's poetry was admired by the Apostles and particularly by Hallam.

During Christmas of 1829, Hallam visited Somersby where he met Tennyson's sister Emily whom he subsequently wanted to marry. Although Hallam was financially more secure than his friend, he was also subject to parental censure. Hallam and Tennyson had planned to publish a joint volume of poetry: Henry Hallam did not like his son's poems and condemned the publication. He also interfered with his son's relationship with Emily, regarding Tennyson's family as not respectable enough and ordered Arthur to stay away from Somersby. In spite of Henry Hallam's censure, Tennyson published his early poems in June of 1830 as Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. The volume contained, among others, "Mariana," "The Kraken," "Ode to Memory," and "Supposed Confessions." In "Mariana" for example, Tennyson displayed his skill at using landscapes and certain objects to convey states of mind and particular emotions.

Although this first collection sold poorly, Tennyson continued to write. He refused to submit to family pressure to enter the Church, and supported by Hallam's beliefs in his talents, Tennyson published a second volume in 1832. The simple title Poems was a contrast with the richness of "The Lotos-Eaters," "The Palace of Art," and most importantly, "The Lady of Shalott" with its reference to the Arthurian stories and the mystery of a woman who can only see life as reflection, not as reality.

In August of 1833, Arthur Hallam left England for a visit to Vienna with his father. On October 1, Tennyson received a letter from Hallam's uncle relating the news that Hallam had died in Vienna of a hemorrhage on September 15. Tennyson was bereft. Hallam's belief in Tennyson as a poet and his friendship, his support, and the affection he had brought into Tennyson's life were all gone. Only by turning to poetry could Tennyson start to write himself out of his almost incapacitating grief, and by the end of 1833, Tennyson began composing the verses that would become In Memoriam A.H.H., a series of 131 quatrain stanzas written in iambic pentameter which Tennyson began within days of Hallam's death and worked on for 17 years.

Tennyson's friends encouraged him to publish again, but the poet remained unmovable in his refusal in spite of growing support from writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Following Hallam's death, he was especially hard hit by the melancholy that would plague him all his life and so dominate his poetry. Finally, Tennyson yielded, and he published a two-volume work entitled Poems (1842). The poems in the second volume were the first new works to appear in ten years and included "Locksley Hall" and "Ulysses." The reviews were neither critical nor enthusiastic, yet a writer such as Charles Dickens commented that Tennyson's writings "enlist my whole heart and nature in admiration of their truth and beauty."

Shortly after the publication of In Memoriam A.H.H. in 1850, Tennyson finally attained the public recognition long denied him and earned enough money to marry Emily Sellwood after a ten-year on-again, off-again courtship. In Memoriam A.H.H. was a great monetary success with 60,000 copies sold by the end of that same year. The Prince Consort became an admirer of Tennyson on the basis of this poem; Queen Victoria offered Tennyson the laureateship, vacant after the death of Wordsworth. Tennyson accepted; he was 41. His popularity increased, and the high regard in which Tennyson was held continued the rest of his life.

Tennyson's last major work was Idylls of the King, a project that occupied him for nearly 50 years from the first version of the "Morte d'Arthur" in 1835 to the publication of "Balin and Balan" in 1885, the last of the "Idylls" to be written. The first four "Idylls" were published in 1859 and the complete cycle of twelve in 1885. In Idylls of the King, Tennyson popularized the then obscure Arthurian legends and upheld the Victorian ideals of adherence to duty, commitment to one's faith, and honesty and trust in all relationships.

The honor of a peerage was conferred on Tennyson in December of 1883, and six years later, while crossing from Lymington to the Isle of Wight, Tennyson wrote "Crossing the Bar," one of the most famous English lyrics, a metaphor for death written by a man nearing the end of his life. "Twilight and evening bell,/And after that the dark!/And may there be no sadness of farewell,/When I embark" (ll.9-12). Tennyson died on October 6, 1892 with his family around him. His hand rested on a volume of Shakespeare, the last thing he had asked to see.

Of his great works, Tennyson's Idylls of the King, along with In Memoriam A.H.H., exhibit his command of form and meter, his brilliance with mood and atmosphere, his expression of a variety of themes, and finally, his insights into the human condition--all of which ensure Tennyson's stature as one of the greatest poets of the English Victorian period.

Barbara Bedell


About eNotator Barbara Bedell

Barbara G. Bedell was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and lived for over thirty years in northwest Iowa before moving to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. She received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from the University of Iowa and completed a Master's Degree summa cum laude in English Literature with an emphasis in Medieval Literature from the University of South Dakota. For almost twenty years, Bedell taught a variety of courses in the English Department of Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, including College Writing, Introduction to Literature, and survey courses in American Literature. Idylls of the King is Bedell's second eNotated Classic, preceded by Willa Cather's My Antonia.