On either side of the river are fields of barley and rye, and through them a road winds to Camelot. The people gaze at the way lilies blow around the island of Shalott. The willows “whiten,” and little breezes blow forever around the island. On the island are four gray walls and four gray towers, and within is the Lady of Shalott. Heavy barges followed by slow horses pass by the island, but no one has ever seen the Lady wave or stand at the window. Only early morning reapers hear her cheerful song that reaches down to the river that winds to Camelot. The reapers pile up their sheaves and whisper that it is the fairy Lady singing.
In the tower she weaves day and night her “magic web with colours gay.” She knows there is a curse upon her if she looks down at Camelot, although she does not know what the curse is. She weaves steadily and thinks of little else. Through her mirror she sees the shadows of the world, the highway and the river eddy and the young men and women passing onward from Shalott. Sometimes she will see an abbot, or a group of damsels, or a page clad in crimson, or knights riding in twos. She herself has no “loyal knight.”
Regardless, she weaves and delights in her creations of the mirrors’ “magic sights.” Sometimes there is a general procession or two young lovers newly wed. Then the Lady of Shalott says to herself, “I am half sick of shadows.”
Sir Lancelot rides through the barley sheaves; on his breast is the emblem of a knight forever kneeling to a lady. The bells on his bridle ring out merrily, and the silver bugle he carried shines brightly. He rides by Shalott in “blue unclouded weather,” and his helmet, helmet feather, and saddle-leather burn like “one burning flame together.” He is like a meteor shooting through the starry night sky. Sunlight glimmers on his brow, and his black curly hair flows from under his helmet. His image flashes into the mirror as he sings “Tirra lirra” by the river.
The Lady of Shalott leaves her loom and crosses the room in three paces. She looks down and sees the water lilies blooming and Lancelot’s helmet and plume. She looks down to Camelot, and as she does so, her web flies out the window and her mirror cracks from side to side. She cries out, “The curse is come upon me.”
Nature becomes stormy over Camelot. She leaves her tower and finds a boat. On its prow she writes, “The Lady of Shalott.” She looks out over the river as a seer with glossy eyes would be wont to do, seeing his own “mischance.” When the sun sets, she loosens her chain and lies down in the boat. The broad stream takes her far away down the river.
She is robed in snowy white, and her garments flutter from left to right. Leaves fall upon her softly. Through the “noises of the night” she travels in her boat down to Camelot. She sings her last song. Those who hear her hear a “carol, mournful, holy, / Chanted loudly, chanted lowly” until her blood freezes and her eyes darken. By the time she reaches the first house by the water side singing her song, she dies.
Under the tower, balcony, and garden wall she floats by as a “gleaming shape” silently into Camelot. Everyone—knight, burgher, lord dame—comes out to see her name written on the prow of the boat. In the palace nearby the noise has died down and people wonder and cross themselves for fear. Lancelot, though, muses a bit and says that she had a lovely face and asks for God to lend her grace.
This is one of Tennyson’s most famous and beloved poems. It was originally written in 1832 and was published in 1842. The poem has four parts, with the first and second parts containing four stanzas, the third part containing five stanzas, and the fourth part containing six stanzas. Each stanza has nine lines with a rhyme scheme of AAAABCCCB. The syntax is also line-bound, meaning that the lines do not carry over from one to the other.
Most critics believe the poem is based on the episode in Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astalot, or the Maid of Astalot, who died of her unrequited love for the famous knight. Tennyson’s engagement with Arthurian legend is, of course, most notably seen in his Idylls of the King. Tennyson complicated the origins of his poem by claiming his source was the Italian romance Donna di Scalotta. This may be true in some sense, but it is impossible to ignore the Arthurian components of Camelot, Lancelot, knights and ladies, and even the name Shalott, which sounds somewhat like Astalot.
In Part I, readers see the isle of Shalott with its tall towers and imprisoned, fairy-like Lady. The interior where she is embowered is “silent” and immovable, whereas the world outside hums along in a busy and cheerful way. The placement of the great city of Camelot by the river emphasizes the progress, purposefulness, and ever-present sense of movement and vitality of the men and women outside of the tower, in stark contrast to the Lady of Shalott. The fact that there exists a connection between the inhabitants of Camelot and the Lady but that it is mysterious and magical further emphasizes the distinction between the realms of the external world and the tower.
In Part II, readers are introduced to the Lady herself, who is under the spell of a mysterious curse that does not allow her to look out her window. She seems happy regardless, and she spends her days weaving her “magic web” and singing (alluding to Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, who weaves while her husband is away, and other myths that involve a woman’s weaving). Her web, a symbol of artistic fecundity but also of her enslavement, depicts the world outside, but only as reflected in her mirror. She sees knights and pages and boys and girls, and sometimes she sees the two great events of earthly life, funerals and weddings. This state of affairs is what causes her to assert her identity by claiming that she is sick of shadows, for her life is paralyzed and stagnant. She feels a sense of loss and exclusion.
In Part III, the handsome and courageous Sir Lancelot is introduced. The language is sensual and heroic, and the Lady of Shalott is as entranced as the reader. She breaks the stipulation in the curse and strides to her window to look down on the great knight. Some critics have noted that it is the song of Lancelot, “Tirra lira,” that breaks down the Lady’s resistance, for song is one of her means of expression. Thus, she feels an intense connection with the man below (“Tirra lirra” is a bawdy song from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale). Once the mirror cracks and the web flutters out the window, she and we know she is doomed.
Finally, in Part IV, when she lets the river carry her, Tennyson emphasizes the disruption of the Lady’s being through scenes of chaotic and mournful Nature: the wind is “stormy,” the “pale yellow woods were waning,” and the “low sky” was raining heavily, the banks of the river straining. The inhabitants of Camelot are frightened and curious as they hear her last song and see her pale shape. The poem ends with Lancelot looking down at her and commenting that she “has a lovely face” and that he hopes God will lend her grace. One might compare the famous death of Hamlet’s sister Ophelia and other scenes where a woman dies in a river or ocean.
Most critics approach the poem as expressing the tensions between art and life. It raises the question of whether or not artistic seclusion is necessary for achievement. In the beginning of the poem, despite her isolation, the Lady of Shalott experiences artistic fulfillment and accomplishment in her safe haven of Shalott. She works on her web and sings her song, blissful and happy. However, her art is doubly removed; it mimics the shadows glimpsed through a mirror and is far from direct observation of real life. This isolation finally prompts her to a gesture of passion and thus an embrace of her own death. The mirror cracks, symbolizing the end of her artistic abilities. Harold Bloom concludes that “the end of artistic isolation leads to the death of creativity. The artist’s intense loneliness is absolutely necessary, for all great art demands solitude and silent reflection.”
Another critic, Flavia M. Alaya, agrees, noting that the Lady is placed in an eponymously-named boat which is an extension of herself, and that Tennyson is suggesting through this lonely scene that “an essential loneliness is the one element of the artistic condition that cannot be revoked, even by love.” She even interprets Lancelot’s last words, commonly perceived as callously and regrettably ironic, as redemptive: “Lancelot, who earlier had provided the symbolic type of cosmic love and human sympathy, is the only knight to express the mystery of her presence in language we find so curiously appropriate, recognizing her beauty and providing the benediction which her act of renunciation and egoism have sought and required.”
The following slightly revises an essay of mine that originally appeared in the C[ollege]L[anguage]A[ssociation] Journal, Vol. XXVII, No. 3 (March 1984). While I incorporate some of the documentation into the body of the revised version below, most of the documentation has been deleted; of course, you can consult the essay’s published incarnation for the full documentation.
Until recently, “Lancelot and Elaine” from Idylls of the King has usually been dismissed in favor of its author’s earlier treatment of the legend, “The Lady of Shalott.” (Tennyson cites Quì conta come la Damigella di Scalot morì per amore di Lancialotto de Lac, a fourteenth-century Italian novella, as the earlier poem’s source.) There, through the autumnal creature who in death becomes her own song, Alfred Tennyson imaginatively merges with his own art—a spiritual mirror-imaging between poet and subject. A quarter century later he no longer so willingly identifies with the lily maid of Astolat—perhaps with good reason. Or so it seems to some of us. By his insight into the solipsistic nature of her infatuation for Lancelot, Clyde de L. Ryals (in From the Great Deep) has at least made it easier to criticize Elaine without fear of reprisal for denigrating a saint. (In Tennyson’s Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns, James R. Kincaid notably comes to Elaine’s defense, however.) Although touched by her gentleness and pitiable plight, I cannot accept King Arthur’s declaration to Lancelot, after her death, that
. . . shaped, it seems,
By God for thee alone . . .
[She] might have brought thee, now a lonely man
Wifeless and heirless, noble issue, sons
Born to the glory of thy name and fame.
Insofar as he is a cuckold whose knights will inevitably fail to sustain his legacy and dream,* Arthur in this instance is projecting onto Lancelot his own despair at being “wifeless” and “heirless.” In truth, Lancelot has done well neither to wed nor love a maiden the obsessive purity of whose own love for him Tennyson identifies with human violence. Indeed, Lancelot is as much “redeemed” by his rejection of Elaine and what she comes to embody as by, as Jerome Hamilton Buckley proposes (in Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet), his pity for her.
Adapting Denis de Rougemont’s critique of romantic passion (I have in mind the chapter “The Love of Death,” in Love in the Western World; Ryals himself does not cite de Rougemont in this instance, though he does elsewhere in his book), Ryals says of Elaine’s love for her knight:
She gives up all sense of her identity to Lancelot—imposes it on him, as it were. Her passion is but a self-created mask thrown over the lover, and consequently her identity can only be confirmed by her beloved. . . . Her love is an insanity because it pursues a symbol and not a reality. . . .
That Elaine pursues an abstraction as pure as herself is the point of one of Tennyson’s revisions of his poem’s main source. In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le mort d’Arthur, when Launcelot answers her wish that he be her husband by saying, “I cast me never to be wedded man” (I am using Janet Cowen’s edition of Malory’s text), Elaine adaptably revises her suit and asks that he be her paramour instead. When he rejects this, too, death seems the only way left of moving his heart towards her. Most abruptly, however, Tennyson’s Elaine declares to Lancelot when he is simply readying to leave, “I love you: let me die.” Upon hearing from him his standing decision not to marry, she reveals the purity of her passion:
“No, no,” she cried, “I care not to be wife,
But to be with you still, to see your face,
To serve you, and to follow you through the world.”
Rather than “caring” to be his responsible (including lovemaking) wife, Elaine remains bound to those childish fantasies of hers which began when, having met Lancelot only once, she “read [his] naked shield,” “guessed a hidden meaning in his arms” and “made a pretty history to herself/ Of every dint a sword had beaten in it.” To some extent her becoming his nursemaid when his injuries have brought him close to death, and certainly her asking to be his wife, are as a child playing house. Whatever sexual feelings she may have for him remain sublimated in her pure passion for the object of art she persists in making of him. Rather than merely gaze upon his shield as she did before, now she wishes to have before her the face of Lancelot. A creature who “lived in fantasy,” Elaine is moved, against her understanding, to appropriate the knight for her private fairy-tale domain. For her, reality exists only to extend and preserve fantasy, and the final form of this fantasy of hers is death. Having converted Lancelot in her own mind into her Holy Grail, Elaine aptly confesses this in her suicide note: “[M]y true love has been my death.” Her love for Lancelot, she is saying, has taken her life; but the ambiguous inversion also suggests that her “true love”—what she has sought in the name of love—has been her own death. This helps explain the too holy nature of a love more of heaven than of earth. It also indicates the deadly fantasy into which she is in danger of absorbing Lancelot.
Nevertheless, the standard idea of Elaine runs: “She is a sweet and lovely maid, and it is a pity that Lancelot is not free to marry her” (A. Dwight Culler, The Poetry of Tennyson). On the contrary, as innocent of mean intent Elaine is, her lethal purity is a trap that might easily entice one so deeply embedded in mortal flesh and guilt as Lancelot. Regarding “Lancelot and Elaine” as a “dialectical counterpoint” to the preceding poem in Idylls of the King, “Merlin and Vivien,” W. David Shaw (in his essay “Idylls of the King: A Dialectical Reading”) finds Tennyson showing us
that the thwarted passion of the stoical Elaine is no less absurd than the excesses of the siren, Vivien . . . .
. . . Elaine fails to provide Lancelot with a clear alternative to Guinevere’s competing modes of conduct. . . . [She] should realize that her emotions, too, are a part of nature. Denial of this results only in madness and cruelties.
Lancelot’s marrying Elaine would mean succumbing to the hope of purgation or redemption without the harrowing of hell necessary to straighten his fallen moral posture. Elaine offers escape, in effect, suicide, the culmination of an intransigent purity that has always been her “curse,” her inverted Original Sin. This mere escape images the erotic trap with which Vivien ensnares Merlin—a trap into which Lancelot has already fallen, with Guinevere. So different from Guinevere’s love for him, Elaine’s is also oddly the same: one pure, the other lusting, both seek to appropriate, to possess, Lancelot.
To this extent at least, Elaine repeats Guinevere; and Lancelot’s rejection of her marks a positive step toward his disengagement from the Queen. Nevertheless, his leaving Elaine without saying goodbye—his one concession to her father’s plea to “ . . . use some rough discourtesy/ To blunt or break her passion”—strikes us as insufficient rudeness, the minor enforcement of a sorely violated code, a gratuitous act of grace. However, it may also be a psychological trial run for breaking with Guinevere. Upon Arthur’s unsettling comment about the dead Elaine later on—“What should be best, if not so pure a love/ Clothed in so pure a loveliness?”—Lancelot in musing mocks the phrase jealousy in love, Guinevere’s rationalized apology upon learning that he and Elaine had not been lovers after all:
“Ah simple heart and sweet,
Ye loved me, damsel, surely with a love
Far tenderer than my Queen’s. . . .
Farewell, fair lily. ‘Jealousy in love’?
Not rather dead love’s harsh heir, jealous pride?”
The distinction drawn between the two women seems less critical than the identification proceeding from it as Lancelot’s mind rushes from one to the other. By eyeing Guinevere’s love in light of the dead maiden’s, Lancelot mentally consigns the yet living Queen to an identical fate, the purity of abstraction. His delayed farewell to one, therefore, signals a farewell to both.
Insofar as it would have kept Lancelot away from Arthur’s wife, Arthur may be justified in believing, as I think we can infer he believed, that purity in love would have ensured Lancelot’s fidelity to him. This is why he insists on Elaine’s symbolical value, although the purity in love that he commends in her is contingent on her consequent ultimate purity: death. In this characteristic shying away from the purgatorial complexities of reality, the King resembles Elaine herself, whose
dream of ideal love [J. Philip Eggers writes, in King Arthur’s Laureate: A Study of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King] is a touching parallel to Arthur’s dream of the golden year; both fantasies are too naive to endure the test of reality. She, like Arthur, departs at her death on a barge; the people of Camelot believe she is the fairy queen come to take Arthur to Fairyland. Without knowing it, they reveal an ironic link between Elaine and Arthur—their fitness for an unreal world.
As Elaine wishes to be Lancelot’s nonwife, so Arthur is, in fact, a nonhusband to Guinevere, whose normal erotic passion as a result has degenerated into its own caricature, empty lust directed toward the very soul who once upon a time had mediated between Arthur’s heaven and her earth. Guinevere, to be sure, is rationalizing her own weaknesses when she tells Lancelot,
“Arthur, my lord, Arthur, the faultless King,
That passionate perfection, my good lord—
But who can gaze upon the Sun in heaven?
He never spake word of reproach to me,
He never had a glimpse of mine untruth,
He cares not for me . . . .
Rapt in this fancy of his Table Round,
And swearing men to vows impossible,
To make them like himself: but, friend, to me
He is all fault who hath no fault at all:
For who loves me must have a touch of earth;
The low sun makes the colour . . . .”
But her insights into Arthur’s nature are nonetheless sufficient to expose the ambiguity of his possibly godly birth to his clear failure as mortal spouse.
Moreover, Arthur’s “faultlessness” is fraught with even darker implications. In the historical frame that reverberates throughout the poem, indeed throughout the entire Idylls of the King, the purity that Arthur and Elaine both typify is identified with violence:
Arthur, long before they crowned him King,
Roving the trackless realms of Lyonnesse,
Had found a glen, gray boulder and black tarn.
A horror lived about the tarn, and clave
Like its own mists about all the mountain side:
For here two brothers, one a king, had met
And fought together; but their names were lost;
And each had slain his brother at a blow;
And down they fell and made the glen abhorred:
And there they lay till all their bones were bleached,
And lichened into colour with the crags:
And he, that once was king, had on a crown
Of diamonds, one in front, and four aside.
And Arthur came, and labouring up the pass,
All in a misty moonshine, unawares
Had trodden that crowned skeleton, and the skull
Brake from the nape, and from the skull the crown
Rolled into light, and turning on its rims
Fled like a glittering rivulet to the tarn:
And down the shingly scaur he plunged, and caught,
And set it on his head, and in his heart
Heard murmurs, “Lo, thou likewise shalt be King.”
Thus a background of carnage produces an image of supernal clarity and cleanness, the sparkling fratricidal crown symbolically evoking both Elaine’s purity and Arthur’s, his diamond-hard idealism.
In Arthur’s case, this imagistic marriage of purity and violence engenders subsequent history as well:
. . . when a King, [Arthur] had the gems
Plucked from the crown, and showed them to his knights,
Saying, “These jewels, whereupon I chanced
Divinely, are the kingdom’s, not the King’s—
For public use: henceforth let there be,
Once every year, a joust for one of these:
For so by nine years’ proof we needs must learn
Which is our mightiest, and ourselves shall grow
In use of arms and manhood, till we drive
The heathen . . . .”
That, when as a boy he donned the crown, he heard in his heart that he “likewise” would be King perhaps prophesies the strife and bloodshed of his own future leadership and rule, the violence that the diamonded crown seems to attach to kingship. For what are the annual jousts that Arthur institutes but miniature bloodlettings, gratuitous “mimic wars” set in a civil frame? Ultimately, violence is what they certainly provoke. Only Lancelot should win! the knights rationalize when what appears to be a stranger, but is really a disguised Lancelot, wins the final joust. But is it not jealousy that always Lancelot has won before, and not any of them, that unconsciously motivates their avenging assault? If so, their suppressed violence innocently—purely—finds its apt target, as the near murder of Lancelot is committed selflessly, for Lancelot himself: “a fury seized them all,/ A fiery family passion for the name/ Of Lancelot.” The fratricidal implication in this underlines the diamonded crown’s history and legacy, recalling more generally the war against ourselves that we seem perpetually doomed to wage and which achieves its most tragic expression in the Idylls with “Balin and Balan.” With good reason John D. Rosenberg (in The Fall of Camelot) cites the killing of kin as “one of the darker motifs linking the separate idylls.”
Tennyson’s identification of purity and violence throws light on the poem’s confusion of seeming opposites, the rose and the lily, Guinevere and Elaine. By their egotism their opposite loves for Lancelot, I have said here, mirror one another. Now, by extending the color imagery that identifies the two women back into the historical frame, we find fratricidal blood presaging Guinevere, the red rose of earth, and the diamonds presaging Elaine, the lily of heaven. Guinevere’s pivotal role in the submerged conflict between Arthur and Lancelot certainly bears out this imagery. Moreover, red and white combine in the pearled scarlet sleeve of Elaine’s that Lancelot wears into the final joust, aptly targeting him as violence’s victor and victim both. In a sense Lancelot’s anonymity, purging his identity into a resemblance with Elaine’s identity, which becomes increasingly consumed by her purity, reminds us of “The Holy Grail,” the poem immediately following “Lancelot and Elaine” in the sequence of the Idylls, where the fanatically pure faith of the nun (who inspires from the depth of her inwardly violent sexual repression, it is hinted, Arthur’s knights’ marathon quest) corroborates the purity-violence identification while also implying its most dire consequence: consumption of the communal identity of the Round Table.
The issue of identity returns us to Elaine and to Lancelot’s rejection of her. Elaine’s identity seems oddly reduced in a poem whose original title consisted only of her name. In a sense, though, she is nothing but this name, by extension, her public definition. The repetition of it at the outset, “Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable,/ Elaine the lily maid of Astolat,” bears no incantatory magic but suggests instead the immediate exhaustion of this character’s breadth; and the words here describing or identifying Elaine limit her personality to an outside, public view. She never expands, never matures, and in time merely substitutes a floating tomb for the protracted womb of her sheltered existence. Her world—a world of dreams—lies outside the selfconsciousness by which language in particular differentiates our names from our experiential selves. It is appropriate, therefore, that in this poem over three hundred lines pass before Elaine even speaks, and that her family’s mute servant, the “wordless man” at whom Lancelot marvels, should become (hauntingly) her guardian in death. Elaine’s posthumous letter to Lancelot and the court signals the extinction of language before language has truly begun for her.
Knowing herself only through others, Elaine wants Lancelot, whom she believes to be faultlessly noble and pure, in order to center in him her own existence. Lancelot faces a similar problem but with an opposite determination: he seeks to disengage his identity from others, in particular, Arthur, Guinevere, and the public in toto. Elaine’s offer of dependency, therefore, is of no good to him. Instead, he needs to confront his own doubleness: not merely his duplicity vis-à-vis his ego ideal, Arthur, however much his guilt arises from the discrepancy between his own actions and Arthur’s idealism, but the troublesome selfconscious split between his name and self. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, he has become a name only, his identity now less his own than the possession of others. Although each year he has won the diamond joust, Guinevere tells him that it is said
“That men go down before your spear at a touch,
But knowing you are Lancelot; your great name,
This conquers: hide it therefore; go unknown . . . .”
By disguising himself, Lancelot is able to participate in the tournament while covering the lie that he has told Arthur, that an “ancient wound” prohibits his entry, a lie told in the belief that Guinevere wishes him to remain with her. But the disguise may also help him fight his way out of the name that the public has long since appropriated. Vexed and ashamed, he tells Guinevere,
” . . . many a bard, without offense,
Has linked our names together in his lay,
Lancelot, the flower of bravery, Guinevere,
The pearl of beauty. . . .”
Lancelot keenly feels the self-anonymity that his appearance in the tournament seeks to resolve and ultimately parodies. Elaine, the fratricidal brothers whose names have been lost, and Arthur, who “realizes himself by seeing his values projected onto others” (Ryals), all suggest the nothingness Lancelot is in danger of falling into. In a sense, he is a fantasy, a folk-hero and public celebrity who must become real to himself—if you will, be reborn human. Certainly he needs to redirect his sense of self by integrating antithetical aspects of his personality: his public and his private self; animal and spiritual; fallen, unfallen. First, though, he must clear himself of the moralism of Arthur’s that threatens to bury his soul in guilt. His awareness that he has betrayed Arthur is morally necessary; disengaging the center of his personality, his being, from both Arthur and Guinevere would not diminish this, but it might free his consciousness from the unproductive, possibly even self-destructive self-condemnatory routine into which it has fallen—a routine that urges him to continue his affair with Guinevere past the point of love so that his debased self-image can be repeatedly reinforced and he be properly punished by it. Decadence is possible even in love.
It may be too bold an inference to suggest that Lancelot initially strays from Arthur’s path into the bed of Arthur’s wife at least partly because of the King’s hold on him, that is to say, Arthur’s success at tempering his closest friend and dearest knight into an image of himself. Wrong as it may be, however, sexual relations with Guinevere actually become an alternative to Arthur’s repressive code and, as such, may be tolerantly viewed as Lancelot’s first stumbling step in his quest for identity—a step away from Arthur’s purifying civilization and toward the humanness that Lancelot needs to embrace. It is true that the Idylls argue passionately against man’s reeling back into the beast; some would say that this is in fact Tennyson’s overarching theme in the complete series of poems. Nevertheless, it is precisely for the sake of what is human and holy in him that Lancelot must reject claiming too close an identification with either God or Arthur. In a morally problematic universe, a universe no longer apprehended through a rigorous communal faith, redemption—as in Tennyson’s glorious In Memoriam—must arise from the individual self.
Lancelot is caught up in such a total spiritual tangle, however, that right and wrong continually give way to an emotional chaos of necessity and guilt. Lancelot must save himself in spite of himself; his attachment to Arthur and to the Arthurian code is far too strong for any quick, clean break. Even his winning the joust without hiding behind his name is problematic and sorely ironic. Lancelot should not be pursuing differentials of superiority through combat in any way. Since he really needs to identify with humanity, not oppose it (regardless of his comrades’ ritual opposition to him), his victory succeeds only in exposing the bestiality inseparable from the name that he left behind, connected as it still is with King Arthur’s court. Yet this also carries an element of serendipity and grace. By committing their violence against him in his own name, the other knights succeed in objectifying this name and in (inadvertently) exposing its bloody meaning for him. Thus he initially rejects the prize. (He later accepts it, but only when Elaine, with her tempting purity, brings it to him.) While guilt for having deceived and cuckolded the King may make him feel unclean for the gem that he has falsely won, it is also the case that the diamond, which so clearly now completes a crown of violence, seems itself too unclean for him to take. With what disgust does Lancelot reject the jewel after his comrades have assaulted him:
No diamonds! for God’s love, a little air!
Prize me no prizes, for my prize is death! . .”
Lancelot’s death indeed seems imminent; and although Elaine tenderly nurses him and he recovers, in a sense Elaine herself is the death that Lancelot wakes up to. Hers is the suicidal course he must reject in order to be reborn. After Elaine’s suicide he muses, as I earlier partially quoted:
“Ah simple heart and sweet,
Ye loved me, damsel, surely with a love
Far tenderer than my Queen’s. Pray for thy soul?
Ay, that will I. Farewell too—now at last—
Farewell, fair lily. . . .”
If Lancelot feels grave guilt for Elaine’s death, his gentle, wistful tone conceals it. Having refused to do so earlier before leaving her father’s castle, he now bids her goodbye. Dead now, Elaine has ceased to be a temptation or threat for him; in death she has finally become pure symbol, which is to say, purity itself. By showing him inhuman purity’s full, burdensome face, Elaine can now help purge Lancelot of his own purity, its violences, its movement towards death. What remains in Tennyson’s astonishing poem is dramatic evidence of Lancelot’s rehumanization and revitalization. Earlier, when the lance-head had been drawn from him, “half his blood burst forth, and down he sank/ For the pure pain, and wholly swooned away.” His “marvellous great shriek and ghastly groan” then anticipates the poem’s last scene, where again Lancelot experiences a kind of death: the death of a god, the birth of a man. He is acutely introspective:
“Why did the King dwell on my name to me?
Mine own name shames me, seeming a reproach,
Lancelot, whom the Lady of the Lake
Caught from his mother’s arms . . .
. . . [E]ve and morn
She kissed me saying, ‘Thou art fair, my child,
As a king’s son,’ and often in her arms
She bare me, pacing on the dusky mere.
Would she had drowned me in it, where’er it be!
For what am I? what profits me my name
Of greatest knight? I fought for it, and have it:
Pleasure to have it, none; to lose it, pain;
Now grown a part of me: but what use in it?
To make men worse by making my sin known?
Or sin seem less, the sinner seeming great?
Alas for Arthur’s greatest knight, a man
Not after Arthur’s heart! I needs must break
These bonds that so defame me: not without
[Guinevere] wills it: would I, if she willed it? nay,
Who knows? but if I would not, then may God,
I pray him, send a sudden Angel down
To seize me by the hair and bear me far,
And fling me deep in that forgotten mere,
Among the tumbled fragments of the hills.”
So groaned Sir Lancelot in remorseful pain,
Not knowing he should die a holy man.
Painfully sorry he has failed Arthur’s ideals, Lancelot yet maintains no superiority for them or for the concomitant bondage of his that is now mirrored in his enervating relationship with Arthur’s wife. Instead, he believes his life worthless unless he can end his attachment to Arthur and Guinevere both (he “needs must break/ These bonds that so defame” him), and he falls just short of demanding of himself the strength of will to do it. His groan is for the anonymity of birth, a blanking out of the name that has come to objectify for him, among other things, his twin yet single bondage to his King and Queen. This cry entails, or anticipates, an extraordinary loss of innocence, the giving up of all that has imposed order on his life. Lancelot’s recognition that ideals of human purity and perfection inhabit a mythic domain culminates with this groan of his, this most audible embrace of his animal humanness as against the bestial purity that identifies man with God.
* Nineteenth-century English literature repeatedly shows fraternal love and idealism confounded by paternalistic prerogatives, those characteristic differences and inequalities that separate man from man. Arthur, who is both Lancelot’s “King and most familiar friend,” comes to embody this compromised or failed Romantic myth of spiritual identity or sharing. When Arthur says, for instance, that Lancelot should not have deceived him regarding the joust, he is father and brother confused, both betrayed King and wounded comrade. This conflict between fraternal union and paternal order pervades the Idylls, as in the search for the Holy Grail. By their mission the knights attempt to pursue, however separately, a common cause apart from—by implication, against—their King. Ironically, their secret fraternal vows emulate as well as parody, and ultimately destroy, the vows that Arthur himself has bound them to. As with God in the Garden of Eden, it may be the case that Arthur’s original rules themselves predict and provoke the disastrous outcome of his “perfect order.”
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