On The Incredible Badness of Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Coming of Arthur’ With Sundry Slurs And Personal Smears Against the Poet Laureate
Tonight I read Tennyson’s ‘Dedication’, and ‘The Coming of Arthur’. I suggest we consign ‘The Coming of Arthur’ to the Office of Dead Bad Books. That we just forget it existed.
Let’s look at what ‘Arthur’ has got. Tepid sentiment. Rancid blank verse. Chilling second-hand reports of vapid inactions and trite offstage discussions between faceless characters.
Tennyson’s ‘Coming of Arthur’ is Milton left to go cold, reheated by Keats, then left to go cold again and reheated and served up as if fresh meat. Tennyson’s blank verse reads like three day old stew. Spenser in comparison is an imagiste.
I read aloud the opening four lines no less than four times to make them sing:
Leodogran, the king of Cameliard,
Had one fair daughter, and none other child;
And she was fairest of all flesh on earth,
Guinevere, and in her his one delight.
This scans like handful of mud. “Fairest of all flesh” – is she a lump of meat or what? “Of all flesh on earth” – and at what butcher shop the unearthly or heavenly flesh is to be got?
And what’s with that last line? “Delight” clinks against “child” in a nasty ole mis-rhyme. And, reader, you must read aloud the last two lines to really get for yourself how stilted and idiotically tuneless this poetry is.
Then I read three times the passage where Arthur decides to take Guinevere as his girl. The first read through I thought, “Sweet, a half decent poetic figuration!” and so re-read the lines to get at their meaning. But on second reading, I discovered that the figure (a rich expanded metaphor of Arthur and Guinevere as the alchemical and magical enaction of social unity), was in fact my own imagining projected onto the lines, and if present at all, it was not quite articulated.
Tennyson had just plain failed to put the idea across, and I read it a third time in disgust just to make sure that poor Alfred’s disaster was complete. I cannot quote it; it is too poor. It’s lines 81 to 93; Arthur is speechifying.
I quickly read the rest of the ‘Coming of Arthur’ so I could be sure there seems to be absolutely nothing of lasting value in it, and passed on to Plato’s superb ‘Theaetetus’. I even glanced forward over the chronological selection and realised that when I first as a thirteen year old kid read his short poems I had got the best his work.
I mean, did Alfred Tennyson have a stroke or just start taking anti-psychotic drugs? All his work from ‘In Memoriam’ on features lots of grinding rhythms, and precious little romance, music, color, and life, and woeful verbal fluff combined with vague imagery. It’s like a detailed record of really bad sex.
I want to suggest that Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ is in fact composed to commemorate a series of painfully ill-executed headjobs which Alfred got from Parisian whores, including a series of stanzas on the trauma of painful teeth grazings, and a sequence on Tennyson’s treatment for syphilis. I suggest this as the real meaning of these poems not because I believe you can read that into the text at all, but because any topic would be more exciting than the unpersuasive panegyric on the death of a friend that poor Alf has has inflicted upon posterity.