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had suffered, he chooses this for his subject, not in the hope of a wide immortality of fame, but preferring rather to live in the affectionate and grateful memory of his own countrymen. If only by his poem he may secure to himself a reward like this,
"mi satis ampla Merces, et mihi grande decus, (sim ignotus in ævum
Tum licet, externo penitusque inglorius orbi.)” But the news which hurried Milton back to England, before he had become satisfied with his stay in Naples, was the news of civil discord and commotion which was soon to be followed by civil war and a great revolution; and for years to come, he had enough to do "in liberty's defense,” without planning epics or writing them. When, at last, with a soul strengthened by experience of controversy in matters of religion and of state, disciplined and matured by personal affliction and suffering, he caine to the production of the promised poem, he found that he had all this time been in training for a nobler work than to record the fictitious story of any earthly heroes. He had been occupied too long with matters far sublimer than the wars of Arthur and the adventures of his knights. He could not descend again from the high places from which he had been doing battle for freedom, for purity of faith and order, and for eternal truth. Now that the time had come for him to sing, he sang “of man's first disobedience," and of the wise counsels and the mighty acts of God; -and so the epic of King Arthur has remained unwritten until now.
It has remained unwritten, but not unattempted. Only a few years after Milton died, Sir Richard Blackmore, a learned and excellent man, so eminent in the profession of medicine that King William III appointed him his own physician, employed his leisure time in writing a long poem, in which he celebrated the military exploits which are attributed to the early part of Arthur's reign. This production being received with unexpected favor, he followed it speedily with another poem, in twelve books, in which he recorded the tedious series of Arthur's later triumphs. Sir Richard was a man of un
commonly religious spirit. His motive in writing was a most excellent one,—and he succeeded in showing to a generation whose literary taste had been fearfully corrupted, that a poet could write good verses, and a great many of them, too, without polluting them with all the indecencies in which Dryden and his fellows had delighted. He succeeded, also, to some extent, in elevating the taste which had become thus degraded. But in spite of the excellent spirit in which they are written, and althongh the verses are smooth and polished and rhyme with faultless regularity, the poems are monotonous and heavy. The Arthur whom they celebrate is a mere military
. hero, although his general character, as far as it appears, is every way respectable; he appears chiefly engaged in battle with opposing armies, and with an occasional dragon; celestial powers array themselves on his behalf against the machinations of Lucifer and his fiends, who are contriving continually for his temporal and eternal destruction. Once or twice he is made to personate some Scriptural character. Lucifer, for instance, asks and obtains leave to distress and tempt him, feeling sure that in adversity his integrity of character will be destroyed. But he endures with the patience and constancy of Job. Merlin, the great magician, is represented, contrary to all history and all fable, as having proved false to Arthur and the British cause, and as giving the assistance of his wicked enchantments to the hostile army. Being brought, as Balaam was of old, for the purpose of pronouncing a curse upon the British king and people, he is forced to bless instead,-and does so in a very excellent and Scriptural style, very good in its place, but not what we look for from the wizard of King Arthur's court. But we look in vain through all these successive books for that King Arthur who was “the floure of all knights and kings,” who was so brave and yet so gentle, who was so pure and just, who was illustrious not only on the battlefield and at the tournament, but also “at the head of all his table round,” in council, as a king, a friend, a husband.
This last remark is true also, though in a less degree, of the Prince Arthur whom Spenser introduces as the hero of his “Faery Queen.” He is not distinctly the Arthur of the old romances. So far as the character of the hero is concerned, he might as well bear any other name. He appears at best but seldom, and the part which he plays in the poem is not a conspicuous one. The scenes and persons with which he is connected are allegorical and of the poet's own invention, and we catch no glimpse of all
"The goodliest fellowship of famous knights" that met at the round table, and whose delight it was to
“talk of knightly deeds, Walking about the gardens and the halls
Of Camelot." The “ Faery Queen ” has not, indeed, shared the fate of Sir Richard Blackmore's epics, and is not banished to the dusty shelves of libraries; but it is because the sweetness of the melody, the beauty of the verse, the pure and high morality of the poetic thought have made it worthy to be always read and loved; and not because it has successfully treated or even attempted to treat the history and character of its nominal hero, King Arthur.
It is not at all surprising that a subject which Milton considered worthy of his genius, and which, in some form and to some extent, has been a favorite one with a great many of the English poets, should long ago have attracted the attention of that poet who is, in our day, the greatest living master of English verse. Among the earliest of his poems are traces of his familiarity with the romances and legends that cluster about the almost mythical name of Arthur. It was when lie first began to be known as a poet, that he put in verse-and with such exceeding skill as even he himself has rarely surpassed—the story of “the Lady of Shallott,” to which we shall have occasion again to refer. Besides this he had given us such a perfect lyric as the “Sir Galahad ;" and such an exquisite little gem of description as the fragment of five stanzas, in which he paints Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere on one of those Maying parties in which, as old Sir Thomas Malory tells us, the queen delighted to ride, “ bedashed with hearbes and floures in the best manner and freshest;" and
such a complete and vivid picture as that which he hangs in his “Palace of Art," and in which he portrays how
"mythic Uther's deeply-wounded son
And watched by weeping queens." And such passages as these, even without the splendid fragment of an epic which we find in the “Mort d'Arthur," were sufficient to give evidence of a poetic taste which could appreciate what was beautiful and good in those old fables, and of a poetic power which could mold them anew, expanding and adorning them and making them, to countless readers in our time and in times to come, sources of pure and healthful pleasure and of real instruction. They gave evidence, too, that the poet who produced them was casting longing eyes toward the great field of ancient romance, from which these were only single flowers, and encouraged the hope that he was making ready by and by to enter it, in the maturity of his powers, and to bring us forth a noble poem and a worthy one,the poem which Milton might have written, but that he had higher work to do,—the poem for which all readers of English poetry have so long been waiting,—the epic of King Arthur. We welcome this volume of “Idyls,” regarding it as the first partial fulfillment of that cherished hope, and trusting that the Laureate is meaning to continue, prefixing and adding to them, till he shall have given us a series of poems,-idyls, if he chooses to call them so,-arranged, as these are, in a sort of chronological order,—having, as these have, some thread of connection, and so making the story of Arthur more or less complete, from the days of his birth by the fair Igrayne, and of his nurture under the cunning superintendence of Merlin, to that inagnificent closing scene which Mr. Tennyson has already described to us,--when
"all day long the noise of battle roared Among the mountains by the winter sea ; Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
len in Lyonness about their Lord King Arthur.”
Precisely such an arrangement as this, which, so far, Mr. Tennyson has adopted, would be most accordant with the style of the old romances, as we find them compiled by Sir Thomas Malory. There is no closely connected story, of which the fortunes of the “lily maid of Astolat," for instance, are an inseparable part, but the several subordinate stories are, to a great extent, complete in themselves, but strung together in some sort of unity by a common attachment to the story of Arthur,--something as was that rhyme of Vivien's which she likened to the fair pearl-necklace of the Queen." Is it too much to hope that Mr. Tennyson, who has never written better poetry than when he has written upon subjects connected with King Arthur, will give us more of so excellent a sort?
Before we pass to a more careful and particular examination of these poems, we ought to say something further about the subject of them. Whether there ever was a British King named Arthur has been not only doubted but even positively denied; and whether there ever was or not cannot greatly concern us now; for if there was we can positively know but little more about him than the fact of his existence in the earlier part of the sixth century. It is difficult, however, if there was no such real existence, to account for the fact that we find his name famous in tradition, in fragments of poems, and in the scanty historical records of those days, even centuries before the time when Geoffrey of Monmouth produced the startling and ingenious fables which were the basis of the romances, in prose and verse, that became so popular in later years. It is difficult to explain, on any other hypothesis, the legends which connect the name of Arthur with so many actual localities in Southern England and in Wales. And it is, certainly, vastly more satisfactory to accept the meagre historical evidence, liable as it may be to suspicion, and to conclude that there really was, in the first half of the sixth century, an Arthur, whose reign was so illustrious above those of the petty kings preceding and succeeding him, and whose character was so excellent and noble among a people, and at a time when snch nobility was uncommon, that his name