The Passing of Arthur: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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      Lines. 1-5: The story of the poem is told by the bold knight, Sir Bedivere. He was made a knight by King Arthur first of all and he was also the last knight to be left live. Sir Bedivere told his story (about the last days of King Arthur) in his old age to new and unknown people.

      Lines. 6-28: When King Arthur's army was marching towards the west against Modred, one night Sir Bedivere heard King Arthur lamenting in his tent that all though he found the glory of God clearly manifested in nature but his ways seemed dark and mysterious with men. He (King Arthur) had fought for Him but now it seemed that all his purposes had failed and that he was to die amidst the failure of his own cause. It seemed as if some smaller god had made the world but was not skilful enough to make as beautiful as it should have been and that it would so remain till the supreme God would enter the world and make it beautiful. It seemed to King Arthur that he had waged his battles in vain. Even his wife and friends had turned a traitor to him and his Kingdom was once more rapidly becoming a land of uncivilised savages. But even now he had faith that he would come back again to the Earth at a more auspicious moment.

Introduction: The Passing of Arthur has grown out of an old poem of Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur of 1842, with a new beginning and an end. The introductory and the closing additions were necessitated by considerations of conformity with the general design of the whole series. It now takes place as the last idyll of the book and describes the departure of the great king from the world. Formerly, it was Mortd' Arthur or the death of Arthur and now it is his passing. Besides this title is rendered indispensable by the allegorical intentions of the poet. Arthur the pure human soul or the Christ-man comes and is not born, passes and does not die.
The Passing of Arthur

      Lines. 29-49: Now before the last fateful battle in the west, the ghost of Gawain (who was killed in the war against Lancelot) appeared before King Arthur, while he was sleeping, and warned him that he would die the next day. He further told Arthur that his soul would find an island of rest but that he himself (Gawain) was fated to wander about with the wind. With these few words the ghost of Gawain departed and his voice grew fainter and fainter with the wind mixing with other dim voices. King Arthur now woke up and wondered if the light voice was that of Gawain or of spirits who dwelt in waste lands and jungle mourning with him knowing that they would have gone with the spirit (of King Arthur), when he would die.

      Lines. 50-64: Sir Bedivere heard these mournful words of King Arthur and told him not to care for the voices of ghosts etc. and that Gawain was of as light a nature when he was living as well as when dead and no regard should be paid to his words. He (King Arthur) was not going to die as yet. He further asked the King to rouse himself and meet Modred who was advancing from the west, accompanied by many knights, who once were his followers, but now had turned against him breaking their vows. He asked King Arthur to advance and conquer these people as formerly.

      Lines. 65-78: King Arthur then spoke to Sir Bedivere that this battle was far different from the other battles they fought against the petty kings or against the army of Rome or when they threw back the heathens from the Roman wall to the northern waste lands beyond. It was unfortunate for him that he had now to fight against his kith and kin and the very knights, who once loved him so well. The death of these knights was as sorrowful, for him as his own death. He asked Bedivere to go with him and find a way out of the blinding haze which has filled the world since he saw his queen, Guinevere, lying in the dust in the convent of Almesbury.

      Lines. 79-117: The king then rose and moving his army forward by night, pushing back Modred league by league to Lyonesse, a land which had once come out of the sea through a volcanic eruption and was fated to sink down in the sea again, and here Modred took his stand for he could retreat no more, as he had reached the sea. It was no mid-winter and here the, two armies clashed with each other.

      King Arthur had never fought such a battle before. A heavy mist spread over the land and no distinction could be made between friend or foe. Both the armies were confused in this mist and fought furiously in the dark with one another all the day till almost all perished.

      Lines. 118-135: At last, just as silence follows the deathbed of a patient through death or death like swoon, a heavy silence fell over the whole shore, except the gentle whisper of the rolling sea. When the day faded, towards evening, a bitter wind blew from the north, lying the mist aside and the tide in the sea rose with the wind. The pale King Arthur looked towards the field but no man, either Christian or heathen, was moving there. Only the waves broke over the dead bodies, swaying the helpless limbs of the dead men and tumbling the head-pieces and armour of knights, who had once fought with Rome.

      Lines. 136-146: The king was whiter (in complexion, i.e, very pale) than the mist which had covered the battle-field all day long. He asked Bedivere if he (B) heard the noise of the waves which swayed the dead bodies of his own knights. He said that a great confusion had fallen on him and he did not know what to decide. He did not even seem to be a king for he appeared to be a king only among the dead people, as all the men had died.

      Lines. 147-153: Sir Bedivere told the King that he (A) was his liege lord every where, even though he might only be a King among the dead. The, king was still living as well as he (Bedivere), his obedient follower. Modred, who had brought the heathens against him, who was the traitor of his family and hated him, was also standing before them unharmed.

      Lines. 154-169: King Arthur said that this family had brought him to ruin but Modred did not belong to his family, having only lived in one house with him. His family rather consisted of those knights who had vowed obedience to him and it was well for him that even in this dark hour, when all the meaning of his reign had failed, Bedivere still owned him as his king. He would still remain a king; whatever anybody might say, and saying this he attacked Modred. Modred struck hard at his helm, which had become thin as a result of being struck by heathen swords and King Arthur slew Modred with one blow of his famous sword, Excalibur. But he himself was also nearly killed and fell down to the ground.

      Lines. 170-180: In this way, the battle continued all day long among the mountains of the sea-shore till every knight of King Arthur's Round Table had fallen round their liege-lord. As the king was seriously wounded, Bedivere took him up in his arms and brought him to a ruined church near the battlefield, which was the sea shore, and on the other, a big lake. It was the night of the full moon.

      Lines. 181-206: King Arthur told Bedivere that the battle of that day had completely broken the knighthood of the Round Table as all his beloved followers were lying dead, who shall no more delight him by talking about the gardens and halls of his palace at Camelot. He was brought to his death by his own men, though Merlin prophesied that he would come back once more to rule. But nobody could say about the future.

      He told Bedivere that he had been so severely struck through the helm that he did not hope to live till the morning without help. So he asked Bedivere to take his sword Excalibur, which had been given to him by a mysterious arm which rose out of the middle of the lake, to which he rowed across and took it and had worn ever since like a king, and throw it in the middle of the lake and watch and report to him what he saw happen.

      Lines. 207-212: Sir Bedivere in reply told him that it was not right to leave him all one in this condition, helpless and seriously wounded as a little thing might harm a wounded man. Yet he would obey his order, watch what he saw and soon inform him about it.

      Lines. 213-219: So saying, he came out of the ruined church and made his way among the graves of knights of ancient days, over which the cold sea wind, filled with flakes of foam, sang day and night. Soon, passing along zigzag paths and jutting rocks, he came to the lake, whose water were shining with the rays of the full moon.

      Lines. 220-233: Then he drew out the sword Excalibur which shone in the moonlight. It was a beautiful sword with the hilt studded with jewels. He looked at it so long that his eyes were dazzled and he seemed undecided whether to throw the sword into the lake. At last he thought it better to leave it concealed among the reeds which grew in large numbers besides the lake and slowly went back to the wounded King Arthur.

      Lines. 234-239: On seeing Sir Bedivere, the king asked him whether he had done the work given to him and what he had seen or heard. Bedivere replied that he had seen only the waves washing in the reeds and heard the sound of water striking against the rock.

      Lines. 240-249: The king, who was now both faint and pale (with loss of blood), now told Bedivere that he had betrayed against his nature and good name by telling he for some sign must have appeared or some voice heard if the sword had been thrown in the lake. This act was both against his oath of allegiance as well as his status as a noble knight. It was a shameful thing for him to tell a lie, yet he asked him to go back again quickly and do the work entrusted to him, watch and bring him word about what he saw or heard.

      Lines. 250-277: Then Sir Bedivere went for the second time to the lake and thoughtfully walked near its shores. But when he again saw the wonderful hilt, beautifully carved and studded with gems, he smote his palms together and cried aloud that if he threw away the sword into the lake, a wonderful thing would be lost for ever to the world which could have charmed many men. What was the good of doing such thing and what were the consequences, if it was not done. It was of course quite undutiful, not to obey the orders of his liege-lord but if the king ordered him to do any unprofitable act against himself, was he to follow that also? The king was seriously wounded and did not understand what he was doing. If the sword was lost, no relic would be left of him for the future times, except rumours and doubts. But if the sword could be kept in the treasure house of some mighty king, some one might bring it out during tournaments and show it to the assembled people as the famous sword of King Arthur, carved by the lonely lady of the lake inside her palace under the water for nine long years. People would then respect and revere the memory of King Arthur but all this would be gone if the sword was lost.

      Lines. 278-285: So he spoke, clouded with his own false ideas and hid Excalibur for the second time and slowly went back to the wounded king. He asked him (B.) what he had seen or heard but Bedivere replied that he had only heard the water striking against the rocks and the waves washing among the reeds.

      Lines. 286-300: To this King Arthur replied angrily that Bedivere was untruthful, unkind, unknightly and treacherous. It was a matter of great sorrow to him to find Bedivere acting in this manner. It seemed that a dying king, having lost the power of his eye, was apt to be disobeyed. He now saw Bedivere in his true colours. He, the last left of all his knights, who should have acted on behalf of all others seemed to betray him for the sake of the precious hilt of the sword. However, a man who failed twice might be successful at the third time; so he asked Bedivere to go once more to the lake and obey his orders. Otherwise, he would rise and slay him with his own hands.

      Lines. 301-315: Then Sir Bedivere rose quickly and ran down the rocks and took out the sword Excalibur from the reeds. He wheeled the sword strongly and threw it with all his force into the lake. The sword shone in the light of the moon and, flashing round, and round fell into the lake making an arch. But before the sword could reach the surface of the water, a mysterious arm rose closed in while samite, caught the sword by the hilt, brandished it three times and then drew if under the water. Sir Bedivere now went quickly to the king.

      Lines. 316-329: King Arthur, who was now breathing heavily, said that he knew from the eyes of Sir Bedivere that the deed had been done and asked him to relate what he had seen or heard. Sir Bedivere replied that he closed his eyes fearing that the gems should again swerve him from his resolve, for he would never see such a wonderfully carved and costly hilt were he even to live three times the life of a man, and wheeling tlie sword with both arms he threw it into the lake. But he saw an arm rising out of the water, which catching the sword by the hilt, brandished it thrice and drew it under the water of the lake.

      Lines. 330-334: King Arthur, who was now breathing hard, told Bedivere that he was about to die and asked him to carry him to the margin of the lake. He feared that his wound had taken cold and that he would die before reaching the lake.

      Lines, 335-343: So saying, he half rose from the ground, slowly and painfully reclining on one arm, looked mournfully with dark blue eyes as in a picture. Sir Bedivere wept and regarded him mournfully through his tears. He would have spoken to the king but could utter nothing. But he carefully took up the king in his arms and carried him through the churchyard.

      Lines. 344-360: King Arthur breathed hard as Bedivere walked, like a man oppressed by nightmare in a silent house. He muttered in Bedivere's ear to walk quickly as he feared that it was too late and that he would die before reaching the lake. But Bedivere walked swiftly from ridge to ridge, surrounded by his breath as it froze in the cold air round him. He heard the sound of the waters of the lake before him. The remorse he felt for his disobedience and the fear that the king might suddenly be dead, urged him forward as a goad urges the oxen, and the clanging of his armour was echoed and re-echoed among the frozen hills round him. And all on a sudden he came upon the lake bathed in moonlight.

      Lines. 361-371: He saw a black ship draped in mournful hangings in the lake, the decks of which were filled with figures dressed in black clothes. Among these people were three queens with golden crowns, who cried out mournfully from time to time echoing and re-echoing to the stars, like the wind singing through some waste land untrodden by any human being since the beginning of the world.

      Lines. 372-393: Then Arthur softly asked Bedivere to place him on the barge. So they came to the barge, where those three queens took him in with their hands and wept over him. The tallest and fairest of these (three queens) placed his head on her lap, loosed his armour, stroked his head marked with dark blood and wept loudly over him. King Arthur's face was white like the pale moon before the rising sun in the east. His armour was filled with dust or clotted with blood and this combined with his overgrown beard made him look like a broken column as he lay there quite unlike the Arthur, who, dressed in his best armour, happily charged before the assembled lords and ladies in the tournaments at Camelot.

      Lines. 394-406: Now Sir Bedivere loudly cried to King Arthur where he should go alone and companionless, for the old times, when every morning gave a knight a chance to prove his valour or created a noble knight were now gone. Such a golden time had never been witnessed by anybody since the holy sages went with offerings to the new born Christ. But now the Round Table, which was an image of the world, was dissolved and he, the last knight, was left without any companion in a new and unsympathetic world, surrounded by unknown men with different thoughts.

      Lines. 407-432: King Arthur slowly answered from the barge that it is the law of the world that the old order changed giving place to the new, so that people might not cling to old customs. He had lived his life and done his work. If Bedivere should never see him again, he should pray for him for many things were achieved by prayer than men ever thought of and this was what distinguished men from the beasts of the field. This was the link between the earth and God.

      King Arthur now bade farewell to Sir Bedivere, telling him that he was going with the three queens to the island valley of Avilion (in which there was continual summer) where he hoped to get his wound healed.

      Lines. 433-440: The barge now moved away from the shore of the lake, putting forth her oars and sails like some wild swan, which singing her last song Before death, spreads her wings and strikes the water with her black webs. Bedivere stood there thinking over old memories till the ship looked like a black spot a against the morning sky and the sound of lamentation died out on the lake.

      Lines. 441-445: When the sound of wailing and lamentation had died out, the stillness of the winter morning amazed Sir Bedivere who cried out that the king was gone. And then he was reminded of the weird words of the sage Merlin 'from the great deep to the great deep he goes' (The child of the ocean returns to the ocean.

      Lines. 446-456: Sir Bedivere now slowly climbed to the top of the hill and saw the black ship moving away in the distance and cried out that king Arthur was going to be the king among the dead and that he would come back to the earth again after his grievous wound was healed. But if he came no more, the three queens in the black boat, the three who stood near his throne in silence, when he was crowned king, would help him at his need.

      Lines. 457-461: Then in the morning there came a faint cry, borne by the wind from a great distance, as if some fair and beautiful city was with one voice welcoming their king returned from the wars.

      Lines. 462-469: Hearing this faint cry, Sir Bedivere moved once more and reached the highest point of the rock and straining his eyes, saw or seemed to see a black spot (which was the ship carrying away king Arthur) moving away and way finally vanish in to the light, the sun now rose bringing in the new year with it.


      Introduction: The Passing of Arthur has grown out of an old poem of Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur of 1842, with a new beginning and an end. The introductory and the closing additions were necessitated by considerations of conformity with the general design of the whole series. It now takes place as the last idyll of the book and describes the departure of the great king from the world. Formerly, it was Mortd' Arthur or the death of Arthur and now it is his passing. Besides this title is rendered indispensable by the allegorical intentions of the poet. Arthur the pure human soul or the Christ-man comes and is not born, passes and does not die.

      Human life is a narrow isthmus between two eternities wrapped in impenetrable mystery. We come we know not whence and we go we know not whither. Born into the world by a great wave and borne out of it on a great water, Arthur literally as well as symbolically moves from the great deep to the great deep; and death is not the word to be applied to the end of his career on earth. Besides like Christ he is the fulfilment of a prophecy and the large witted Merlin had sworn that Arthur would never die, "but pass again to come."

      Great Pictorial Effects: Tennyson has the unique power of drawing a picture in a few words. The bright golden curls of Arthur are the halo making his forehead like a rising sun. Excalibur makes lightening in the splendour of the moon flashes round and round and looks like the Aurora Borlalis of the Arctic region. 'Tennyson in three lines' says Brimley, strikingly illustrates the fact he has to tell, associates is impressively with one of Nature's grandest phenomena and gives a complete picture of this phenomenon besides. Bedivere's helplessness and snowy hair are pictured in a half sentence, when the man was no more than a voice in the white winter of his age.

      Tennyson's Similes: Tennyson's similes in this poem are highly apt and pictorial. The mystic noises of the hills are made mournful by the introduction of the sacked lonely city where the women and the children pass with wail to new lords. The pithy terseness of his similes may well be illustrated from a passage of thirteen lines (II 381-93) where four successive comparisons are ably presented to emphasise the idea of Arthur's greatness and glory come to naught. The poetic aptness of the simile of the Swan cannot be too highly admired. The white sail of the barge billows unfurls in the wind and the white swan is full-breasted. A plaintive cry issues from the passing vessel and the swan carols wildly before her death. The black oars ply and the swan takes the flood with swarthy webs. As regards the expressiveness of the similes, any illustration would be uncalled for.

      Painter of Nature: In The Passing of Arthur the description of Lyonnesse with its weird desolation, its gaunt mountain chain, its sea beach of ever shifting sand and its phantom circle of the moaning sea is a picture of Nature in her sterility, savageness and gloom. Tennyson places his characters in a landscape which is not merely in harmony but in direct sympathy with the subject of his poem. Confusion has fallen on Arthur and he wages his last battle amidst death-white mist.

      Power of Minute Observation: Tennyson notices the pallor of the king's face like that of the withered moon, the enlargement of Sir Bedivere's stature in the moon-lit mist, Excalibur sparkling keen with frost, the barren cliffs and chasms clanging against the Knight's armour the many-knotted water flags whistling in the merge, the varying aspects of Bedivere's vacillation and the sturdy warrior taking his stand on the mountain top and straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand.

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