One of the poem's most interesting features is its shifting and unstable point of view. This can also present problems in interpretation, however; the narrative is psychologically complex and subtle, but thematically and structurally centrifugal. Unity depends on our acceptance of speaker's own equation of his personal problems (his father's suicide and his own sense of malaise) with an assumed general moral corruption of the age; of his idealized love of Maud as a compensatory and redemptive antidote to these problems; and, most problematic for some readers, his identification of that love with desire to immolate himself in the larger movement of war. The poem was written during the Crimean War, when patriotic and war-directed sentiments might have seemed a more fitting ending to a young man's internal crisis than in earlier or later times.

Within the context of the troubled emotions of the plot, the speaker's apparent killing of Maud's brother--allegedly at least in part in self-defense--seems presented as a forgivable and tangential excess--neither a crime to be sincerely repented, nor yet a responsible, politically-motivated attack on an embodiment of aristocratic greed. It is hard to think of a major poem in which a hero is permitted to kill someone in private life, yet continue on to assume a position of civic or private authority (except perhaps William Morris's "Bellerophon at Argos"/"Bellerophon in Lycia", and in these the hero is, after all, mythological, and the slaying unintended and deeply mourned). So readers might well accept the speaker's possible future death as a form of delayed atonement.

The parallels between the speaker's murder of Maud's brother and his desire to kill in the Crimea are all too apparent--how can the narrative present the first as vaguely, ambivalently evil, the second as vaguely and ambivalently heroic? Can the assumption that patriotism cleanses all justify the clear differentiation between the two?

A strength of the poem is its haunting portrayal of the fluctuation of near-madness and idealized love, and its lyrical evocation of the hope that an unsullied attraction, or even its memory, can form the basis for sanity and a sense of purpose. Interpretation--and even perception of the basic events--of the poem is complicated by the fact that the narrator/protagonist is possibly or sometimes unreliable. An unreliable or partially unreliable narrator was not uncommon in fiction, of course, as is Thoby in Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent or Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, but unreliable poetic narrators seem to be less expected.

In fact, Tennyson's narrator seems fundamentally reliable on an emotional level--that is, he tells us what he thinks--yet deranged or confused in his interpretation of outer events. In part this confusion results from the difficulty in plotting a first-person narrative of a hero who himself has perceptual limitations, and whose mental state must be shown to be affected by the traumatic events he witnesses (or causes).

As a poet Tennyson would have been principally concerned with presenting a sequence of emotional and mental states reflecting the character's psychological consciousness, not bare facts or external causes for these emotions. In Maud, the unreliable narrator or faulty protagonist should be perceived as unreliable-as we look back the reader should see be able to see clues, as in Emma or The Good Soldier (in which the narrative works like a puzzle).

In this instance the puzzle of the outside world is ultimately unresolvable; not only does it contradict the perception of the narrator at points, but concerning some basic events important to our responses, we can never know whether external reality contradicts his pecrception. For example, did Maud indeed feel love for the speaker, as he claims? What does Maud think of her lover's slaying of her brother, and to what degree does she blame him?

Or has he in fact killed the brother--perhaps the murder is a guilty projection? Does she in fact die, and from what cause--or does she simply die to him? Is the speaker placed in an asylum, or does he simply fall into incoherence? Is the narrator's mental state a cause of, effect of--or even unrelated to--the events he describes? The catastrophic ending would seem to permit or even demand all these interpretations.

It has been observed that Tennyson was influenced by the contemporary fashion for "spasmody," a term given to recent poems by a group of young men whose depressive and agitated Byronic protagonists often made extreme or violent choices. In the case of Sydney Dobell's Balder (1854), for example, the hero attempts to kill his sick wife during a period of despair over the progress of his writing (though according to Dobell his case was intended as a Faustian warning, and his hero is permitted to draw back from the deed and begin a period of repentance).

Perhaps even more relevant to the plot of Maud was Dobell's earlier The Roman, in which a priest suffering from emotional wounds and a sense of unfocused identity gathers himself together to lead an army in support of Italian independence, and dies a noble and contented death in service to his cause. Whatever the merits of these predecessors, briefly admired during the 1850s but since fallen into critical disfavor, Tennyson would have been aware of their current popularity as well as their modeling of the portrayal of extreme or depressive mental states.

The "Spasmodics" were criticized for their doubtful morality, melodramatic situations and inability to frame clear, coherent plots. Similarly it may be argued that, despite the fact that Maud contains some of Tennyson's most lyrical and evocative poetry, the poem's plot approaches melodrama to a degree to which Tennyson was incapable in his use of more distanced medieval and classical sources.

In fact the Victorian romantics as a group--Tennyson, D. G. Rossetti, William Morris, A. C. Swinburne--had more success in dealing with the past than the present. It may be argued that Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were exceptions, and that Matthew Arnold's best poetry presents an autobiographical speaker's emotions in the present, in "Dover Beach," "The Buried Life," "Isolation: To Marguerite" and other early lyrics, even though his critical writings advocated the use of classical and distanced subjects.

Browning also presented unreliable monologuists but the point of the presentation lies in their unreliability--e. g. "Bishop Blougram's Apology"--and as modern criticism has shown, the alert reader must balance sympathy with judgment. In Maud, by contrast, there is an extent to which we really do not know and cannot judge; and moreover the degree to which this unknowability is shared by the author and/or intended as part of the poem's structure seems likely unresolvable from the evidence given.

What are some opening themes of the poem?

What are some parallels between parts I and II of the poem?

--concern with the psychological effects of violence-preoccupation with unpleasant detail as a sign of tension and inability to concentrate (section I);

--conviction of the general moral evils of age accompanied by the speaker's instability. He identifies his personal problems (his father had committed suicide after losing money in an investment) with the corruption of his age (too commercial). In particular the father had been driven to death by "voices" which tormented him, an anticipation of the speaker's own tormenting "voices" which form a counterpoint to the "voices" of Maud.

--an alternating distaste and love for Maud are held in tension (his first fantasy of Maud is as an exalted and distant, but also hostile and cold woman). Her own view of things is not readily ascertained, and indeed, seems scarcely important or recognizable to the speaker.

In both sections of the poem, the speaker converts from brooding to acceptance of a higher ideal. Is this shift more convincing the second time round?

--in section I, the transition to his love of Maud is more carefully presented, whereas the speaker's sudden adoption of a military ethic and acceptance of death in section II seems a bit hasty, and perhaps too convenient and indefinite an ending (and anyone aware of contemporary conditions for British soldiers in the Crimea might well be anxious for his fate). The intended moral seems to be that despair ultimately produces redemptive emotions.

Can you see parallels between the themes and lyrics of Maud and those of Tennyson's The Princess? "In Memoriam"?

How are some of the poem's thematic changes reflected in shifts in rhythm? Which passages seem especially onomatopoeic?

How effectively is the speaker's madness conveyed? His recovery from madness and conversion to political purpose? Does his lack of prior interest in international political/social issues undermine his credibility?

To what degree does the poem cohere in a final unity of theme and structure? Do you have a sense of progressive intensity or inevitability of outcome? Does the poem end with a sense of closure?

In your view, which of Tennyson's poetic skills are most revealed in the writing of this poem?

Maud was set to music by the eminent Victorian composer Arthur Sullivan, in a rendition which makes considerable use of the minor key. Which aspects of the poem are especially suited to musical accompaniment?

The Idylls of the King

An "idyll" (from Latin "idyl[lium]" and Greek "eidyllion," a short pastoral poem) is defined as "a poem or prose composition describing pastoral scenes or events, or any charmingly simple episode, appealing incident, or the like; a long narrative poem on a major theme; material suitable for an idyll; a episode or scene of idyllic charm; or in music, a composition, usually instrumental, of a pastoral or sentimental character."

According to Hallam Tennyson, the word was to be pronounced "I-dylls"/"Eye-dells." The title also contains a pun on the world "idle," not in the sense of "frivolous" but in the sense of imaginative, fictive, lacking immediate practical application and therefore able to speak to the deepest truths.

Tennyson began his epic cycle based on Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, with the tales of Enid and Nimue--an ideal wife juxtaposed with an evil temptress. Thus the moral cycle of the kingdom was conceived of as playing out--ironically for a story set in a time of severe restraints on women--the respective moral values of its female characters.

"The Coming of Arthur" (Tennyson's comments, Ricks, 1463)

How is the figure of Arthur related thematically or imagistically to the content of "In Memoriam"?

  • hero associated with light, bears same name;
  • Arthur seen as ideal man, viewed however from the outside;
  • Arthur, like Hallam, was born before his due time;
  • to describe him beyond the abilities of speech;
  • both Arthurs come come by water, are seen as dwellers in the spirit world.

What are some legendary or mythological allusions associated with the hero?

  • his birth shrouded in mystery;
  • his sword--agent of his mystery and emblem of power--is inscribed in indescribable language;
  • wounded hero returns;
  • Arthur to be acclaimed in heaven as once on earth;
  • leaves no descendants or earthly dynasty; his kingdom is not of this world.

What are some traditional signs of Arthur's divinity, including comparisons with Christ?

  • he comes in simplicity and humbleness;
  • like Christ, he is the subject of prophecy and the object of calumny about the legitimacy of his birth;
  • like Christ, his birth is a miracle;
  • like Christ, his status is confirmed by wise men, most notably the sage Merlin
  • like Christ, he has a favorite male disciple, in this case, Lancelot; and like Christ he leads a brotherhood of twelve men;
  • like Christ, he can be both stern and meek, and he is kind to children (he rescues a child);
  • like Christ, he is betrayed by a closest friend;
  • --though wounded unto death, he will return.

How does the cycle of Tennyson's "Idylls," and this tale, seem to differ from his subjective lyrics?

  • fewer shorter lyrics expressing individual consciousness;
  • more emphasis on the processes of narration;
  • presentation of an ideal man is centered around a carefully interlinked plot.

Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship had celebrated great men in, among other roles, their guises as divinity and king. To what extent does Tennyson's Arthur resemble Carlyle's ideal in "The Hero as King"?

To what extent does Arthur represent Victorian ideals of heroism and manliness?

What are some features of the language of the Idylls? What aspects of its meter, sounds and descriptions make its language memorable?

  • alliteration, lovely medieval details
  • biblical echoes

What purpose is served by the interspersed songs? What tone or milieu do they evoke?

How is the narrative allegedly related to an earlier oral tradition?

Can you see seeds of kingdom's fall even in this beginning book of the cycle?

  • skepticism of the people toward Arthur and his rule;
  • his relationship to Guinevere-she doesn't recognize him at first; the narrative places the fault on her;
  • Arhtur hopes that he and Guinevere will have one will, l. 89, but he isn't sure;
  • Lancelot's vows are doubtfull and evasive-and Arthur, ominously, vows to trust Lancelot rather than vowing some higher purpose, l.133;
  • prophecy of sword; we know its time of efficacy will end.

How are Arthur's origins described? Are these seen in natural or supernatural terms?

  • both, a fully human explanation is also given;
  • facts confirmed by the testimony of Ulfilas and Brastias, and by Merlin, Queen Bellicent, Bedivere, and Blys.

What is significance of Merlin's song?

What are some allegorical elements introduced in this idyll?

What do we learn about Guinevere and the motivation of Arthur's love for her? Does his response represent a common Victorian ideal?

What are some of the idyll's most important images?

What are some of its memorable ideas? Which of the narrative's preoccupations would have seemed especially pertinent to the Victorians?

  • issues of faith and doubt; the ways in which we can know reality;
  • the possibility of human fidelity and an ideal human and social order

"Merlin and Vivien"

What is the significance of the change from the earlier title? ("Merlin and Nimue")

Do you find the story interesting? Sad? Too predictable?

To what extent are Merlin and Vivien fully humanized? If not, why may have Tennyson limited his characterization of them?

What motivates Vivien's charges against the knights of the Table Round? Is Merlin able completely to refute them?

What account does Merlin give of the origins of his book of spells? How is it described? (written in mysterious characters which even he cannot deciper)

Why do you think Vivien is so hostilely presented? What does she represent, and why is this a threat to the coherence of the Table Round?

"Launcelot and Elaine"

In Malory, Elaine enchants Lancelot and produces a son. What are some major changes in Tennyson's version of the tale?

What events form a background to this tale? How will they affect our judgment of its outcome?

What are some of the powerful descriptive images of the tale? How do they contrast with earlier versions in Tennyson's "Launcelot and Guinevere" and "The Lady of Shallott"?

How has Tennyson's moral conception of the tale changed in the intervening years?

Is Elaine's attraction for Launcelot presented as admirable? Would her quiet but evident courting of the hero have conformed to canons of Victorian taste?

Why cannot Launcelot respond to her? What does the poem imply about the effect of adultery upon the lives of innocent bystanders?

How does the tale judge the respective characters of Elaine, Guinevere and Launcelot?

What do we sense from the tale will be the future destiny of Sir Launcelot? Of Queen Guinevere?

For "The Holy Grail," see this page

"The Last Tournament"

How are imagery and plot carried on from earlier idylls?

What is the relation of the frame and earlier scenes to the Tristram - Iseult plot? To its ending?

What seems the theme of this idyll?

  • cyncicism and deceit, the decay of love and trust;
  • destroyed innocence represented by the death of a child, Nestling;
  • Arthur and mangled churl
  • tournament false and cynical, l. 136;
  • false wars, false wine;
  • false rulers-Red Knight, 443 ff., a false chivalry;
  • false love;
  • false vows, ll. 641 ff.;
  • contrast of present with the idealization of the past and Arthur, ll. 667 ff.

What use is made of color imagery throughout the idyll? Is this use consistent?

What are some instances of alliteration and onomatopoeia? (ll. 154-55; natural onomatopoeia in the churl's speech)

What is wrong with the love Tristram offers? Are its defects clear from his appearance? ll. 170ff. From his first song? ll. 275 ff.

What is shown by Launcelot's response to him?

What would Tennyson have found especially distressing about Tristram's vision of love?

Apart from their behavior in love, how else are Tristram's actions contrasted with of those Arthur?

--treatment of woman, l. 419, l.495 ff.; Arthur had been chivalrous and kind.

How is Iseult portrayed? To what degree is she rendered more sympathetically than is Tristram?

What is striking about the tale's final scene? (lovers attack each other, ll. 622 ff.)

What role is served by the fool? How does his presence reflect the themes of the idyll as a whole?

What are some parallels and contrasts between their love and that of Launcelot and Guinevere? (ll. 704-5)

What are some instances of bitter irony? (ll. 49-50, consistently pervasive)

Is the ending of this idyll effective? (most shocking and dramatic of idylls)

What in your view are the "The Last Tournament"'s most effective features?

  • portrayal of cynical lovers;
  • interest in the psychology of attachment without self-respect. For Tennyson selfishness and sensuousness contain the roots of their own unraveling in blame and self-recrimination--even Tristram argues to Iseult that she should be less sour, ll. 519-20, 535-36, her cynicism 591-92

"The Passing of Arthur"

This portion of the cycle embodies Tennyson's most deeply-felt theme, the remembered perfection of an idealized loved one lost to death.

What are features of the poem's language and tone?

How does it differ from his earlier 1842 "Morte d'Arthur"?

ll. 1-169 and 441 ff. were added in 1869. How do these additions affect the meaning and political emphases of the idyll? Our sense of its certainty?

What is the effect of emphasizing Bedivere's role as witness?

Are there ways in which this poem seems different in language or mode of narration from the poems of the cycle written later? Which style do you prefer?

Is the story itself well-integrated thematically and allegorically into the other poems of the cycle? Does it seem a culmination of and appropriate closure for the earlier ones?

If this poem seems somewhat different, how may this be appropriate?

Where and what is Lyonesse? What does it represent? What symbolic qualities appear in the final battle?

Why must the sword be returned to the mere?

What reason does Arthur give for the fall of his order? Is this consistent with the motive given in the other tales of the Idylls?

Does Arthur--and the poet--come to a final resolution of the problem of evil? (last scene, 400 ff.)

Can you explain the symbology of the barge? What historic kings had been so buried?

What is added by the presence of the three weeping queens, and what may they represent? (fates)

What is the effect of the poem's biblical echoes? ll. 155 ff., wound, l. 169, ll. 190ff.

Will Arthur indeed come again? Do we know?

What theory of history seems implied by Arthur's last words, with its recognition that no form of order, however desirable, can last indefinitely?

Are the views expressed in this poem consistent with Victorian views of progress? (Theories of inevitable progress were beginning to be replaced by theories of inevitable decay.)

In what ways is Tennyson's "Morte d' Arthur" indebted to Malory?

How has Tennyson changed his original source, for example, in the presentation of the Lady of the Lake? (body not seen in Malory)

What are some political and social implications of Tennyson's sequence? Are these fully integrated with the narration and epic style?

  • sense of richness and melancholy; conservative mourning of a old order;
  • moral aristocracy, absolute ideals; social and legal bonds are also moral bonds;
  • imperial realm; Arthur subdues pagan hordes (though we do not see much of Arthur in his warrior mode; and indeed, he does not seem very warlike);
  • need for order, respect for ideal hereditary leader (Arthur wasn't elected!);
  • clear division between evil and good;
  • sense of the interrelatedness of members of a society; the evil of a few members corrupts the whole;
  • the greatest evils presented are faithlessness to vows, disloyalty, sadism, cruelty and lust;
  • older and more experienced persons are seen as wise, stability and steadiness are valued;
  • social cohesion is valued above individual mystic visions (but the vision of the Grail is so attractively presented that this claim seems somewhat undercut).

According to the messages embodied in the Idylls, what may be the deepest psychological experiences available to humans?

  • kinship with an ideal embodied in past vows between men
  • a sense of the congruence of social and moral hierarchy

Can you compare this poem with William Morris's early Arthurian poems such as "The Defence of Guenevere"?

Morris's Guenevere had suffered from "Arthur's great name and his little love," a reversal of Tennyson's values;
--Guenevere is presented as a beautiful victim; in Tennyson's terms, "sense" is defended against "soul";
--Launcelot's role changes to that of a faithful but rejected lover; he, not Arthur, becomes the moral center of the cycle, or rather, he shares that role with Guenevere.