I love King Arthur. I love poetry. I love nineteenth-century Romanticism. So I expected Tennyson’s Idylls of the King to pull me into its magic web and keep me ensorceled from the stormy night at Tintagil castle all the way until the Round Table is broken and the King dead on the field of Camlann. But it hasn’t, so I’ve been trying to analyze my disappointment.
I’ve noticed a pattern that’s happened at least three times, and it suggests that the problem lies with me, not with Tennyson. (Try to appreciate my magnanimity in not insisting on ascribing the fault to one of the greatest poets of history.) Three times I’ve experienced disorientation and disappointment while reading parts whose plots aren’t familiar to me, only to find a few pages later that I’ve somehow become completely lost in enjoyment.
Since my dissatisfaction comes in the parts whose plots or characters are unfamiliar I think I just came to the work with too many assumptions on what the story would be. Tennyson doesn’t start with a stormy night at Tintagil; he starts with a dedication to the recently deceased Prince Albert. Then he portrays Arthur wooing Guinevere, with only a scant mention of Tintagil and Arthur’s birth as backstory. The next tale, that of Gareth and Lynette, is familiar and has been one of my favorite parts since I was twelve. So I loved that portion of the Idylls top to bottom. But then I got to two long cantos on Sir Geraint, of whom I don’t remember ever hearing before. And at first I most definitely did not like it.
So I’m reading along with vague thoughts of letdown, wondering why the poetic voice of the Poet Laureate sounds so dull, and wondering when I’ll get back to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. You know: the stories I grew up with. But without noticing any transition, suddenly I find myself transported to England. I’ve come to care for Geraint and Enid, and I ride along watching them eager to know what comes next. When the framework of reality snaps back in place and I realize again that I’m reading words on a page, that I’m reading lines of poetry, the language suddenly glistens with beauty. And this same pattern has happened with at least two other sections.
Let the Idylls be what they are, I have to tell myself. Let Tennyson be Tennyson. He has his own stories to tell, his own tableaus to paint, his own scenes to block out. When I quit expecting a poetic version of a familiar story and instead read to enjoy a new, fresh poetic tale, everything suddenly works. Because of Tennyson’s diction, every clash of swords sounds louder. Because of his rhythms, every color in a knight’s sigil is richer. Because of his imaginative figures, every pearl on a lady’s dress is more translucent. When I toss away my preconceptions, the steeds begin to snort and their skin twitches, the aroma of the forest paths wafts into my nostrils, hermits’ fingernails get dirty, and all the shades of ivory in Merlin’s long beard come to light.
I ruin my own enjoyment sometimes. Now what kind of way is that to pursue a ten-year reading plan? So I tell myself again: Let Tennyson be Tennyson.