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How Tennyson Teaches Us How to Read

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In Idylls of the King, Alfred Lord Tennyson strives to bring the vitality of life to the legend of King Arthur by telling it, not as a dusty, old tale, but with all the force of real life. Yet, built into his account is a consciousness of the limitations of writing and the consequent importance of close reading.

One metaphor in particular, describing Elaine’s infatuation with Lancelot, reveals the project of Idylls of the King: “His face before her lived,/ As when a painter, poring on a face,/ Divinely thro’ all hindrance finds the man/ Behind it, and so paints him that his face,/ The shape and color of a mind and life, / Lives for his children” (Lancelot and Elaine, 327-335). Here, just as Elaine’s passion for Lancelot causes him to live in her mind, Tennyson hopes to transcend static storytelling in favor of placing the “shape and color of a mind and life” on the page for his reader, to render a verbal simulation real.

In order to accomplish this, Tennyson captures transcendent moments in the lives of his characters. On finding his fading brother, Balin “on his dying brother cast himself/ Dying; and he lifted faint eyes; he felt/ One near him; all at once they found the world,/ Staring wild-wide” (Balin and Balan, 582-585). In this way, Tennyson expertly renders the transformative moment that takes place during intense experiences such as this; Balin doesn’t merely weep over his dead brother, but rather, the curtains that usually conceal it part to reveal the gaping world.

Tennyson recognizes that perfection in reading and writing is an impossibility; writers can never entirely communicate the vibrant universes they envision, and readers can't fully absorb what the writers do successfully communicate. When Vivien grills Merlin to learn the “charm” that is housed in his magical book, he says, "Every margin scribbled, crost, and cramm’d/ With comment… but the long sleepless nights/ Of my long life have made it easy to me / And none can read the text, not even I;/ And in the comment did I find the charm” (Merlin and Vivien, 675-681). Tennyson places the solution to the problem of flawed written communication in Merlin's lips. The old wizard recognizes what many literary critics have missed: that the ultimate secrets of his text remain hidden, even from him; but he is satisfied to read carefully, regardless, and find the “charm” therein.

Ultimately, no matter how masterfully Tennyson renders the tale of Arthur, it is but a rendering, and the original remains remote. Idylls of the King teaches its reader that although stories are representations of thoughts, memories and histories that they can never fully embody, there is still a “charm” to be found in the process of close, impassioned reading.

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About Caroline Hagood

  • Jack Goodstein

    Nice to see people still reading Tennyson, closely or otherwise.

  • http://carolinehagood.typepad.com/ Caroline Hagood

    I guess it’s the dinosaur in me, but I still love old Tennyson.