November 19: Old-fashioned workmanship

The Excalibur in Vegas. It was not of this that Tennyson wrote: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/And God fulfils Himself in many ways,/ As here, where the town's loosest slots reside."

Tennyson can't be fashionable. As discussed, he is superfruity and Victorian. And it is impossible to read today's poem, "Morte d'Arthur", and not think in parts of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail":
In those old days, one summer noon, an arm
Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
Holding the sword...
Which, as we know, is no basis for allocating political power. And yet I admire the poem. It has narrative drive -- enough so that you find yourself yelling at the character of Sir Bedivere, whom the mortally wounded Arthur tells to deep-six Excalibur. He can't do it -- it's too bright and shiny -- so he lies when he reports back to Arthur, proving that Cover Your Ass belongs in the very realm of myth (it occurs to me that Adam and Eve provide literal proof of this as well):
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
“I heard the ripple washing in the reeds
And the wild water lapping on the crag.”
Come on, Sir B. just told the boss what he wanted to hear -- is he really bold? Plus Arthur can tell in an instant that he's lying. So then Arthur sends him to destroy the sword again, again he can't do it, and he comes back and tells him the exact same lie! I realize, for poetical purposes, that the refrain-ness of repeating the same answer lends a certain Mythic Greatness to the poem. But it would never happen that way in real life.

But here's the passage that finally made me like the poem for good. Bedivere has finally ditched the sword, and now must carry the dying Arthur to the lake so he can make his ferry:
But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge,
Clothed with his breath, and looking as he walk’d,
Larger than human on the frozen hills.
He heard the deep behind him, and a cry
Before. His own thought drove him, like a goad.
Dry clash’d his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clang’d round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels—
And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
And the long glories of the winter moon.
First of all, "Clothed with his breath" is a great phrase. But mostly, as I sat on my patio reading, the craft in this passage -- and I don't even know anything about poetic craft -- jumped out at me. The phrases don't end at the lines because he has to keep moving -- although he get one sentence for the long shot ("Larger than human"), and a state-of-mind status report ("His own thought drove him, like a goad.") And look at the sound pattern -- not just the alliteration, but "barren" and "bare" in consecutive lines, or how "goad" echoes "drove" -- "drove" drives "goad," almost. The craft is conspicuous -- it would pretty much have to be, for me to pick up on it -- but it doesn't seem ostentatious.

It's still Victorian and superfruity and, though easy to admire, hard to love. It's sort of like the way you admire the Victorian lords and ladies for being able to endure those clothes and those long afternoons in those antimacassar-filled rooms without running away screaming and dunking their head into a sink full of absinthe. Good on them for not doing that. But we'd probably have to.

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