Sir Galahad: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary and Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      Sir Galahad was first published in 1842. Along with Sir Galahad should be read St. Simeon Stylites and St. Agnes' Eve. The three poems belong to the "Quasidramatic" group of Tennyson's poems, which aim at presenting a type of character and not a narrative of action. The speaker in each case gives utterance to his or her own thoughts and aspirations, and thus a dramatic vividness is worked into the thoughts and style. Further, these three poems give, from three different points of view, pictures of the monastic ideal of life, of the religious enthusiasm of mediaeval Christianity. St Simeon Stylites paints this from its harsh and repellent side, showing the spiritual pride that apes humility and the self-conscious superiority to the ordinary life of mankind which marked the religious mystic of the Middle Ages. St. Agnes' Eve and Sir Galahad present the beautiful side of Christian mysticism. The former poem puts into the mouth of a woman the raptures and ecstasy of a pure spirit yearning for the Beatific Vision and for closer communion with God. Sir Galahad is the ideal saint-knight of Christian chivalry. He is no mere contemplative mystic: He rides abroad "redressing human wrong," but he is possessed by the spirit of "other-wordliness"; a "maiden knight", he embraces the medieval doctrine of the peculiar sanctity of virginity: and in his solitary rapture, his musings over the vague "pure space clothed in living beams", in his self-conscious recognition of his own saintliness, we see the mysticism which Tennyson has in The Holy Grail so definitely blamed as one the causes of the breaking up of the Round Table. Sir Galahad, the son of Lancelot and Elaine, is the purest of all Arthur's knights. He wandered forth with the rest in quest of the Holy Grail. He alone was successful. He then prayed for death, and "a great multitude of angels" bore his soul up to heaven.

Sir Galahad was first published in 1842. Along with Sir Galahad should be read St. Simeon Stylites and St. Agnes' Eve. The three poems belong to the "Quasidramatic" group of Tennyson's poems, which aim at presenting a type of character and not a narrative of action. The speaker in each case gives utterance to his or her own thoughts and aspirations, and thus a dramatic vividness is worked into the thoughts and style. Further, these three poems give, from three different points of view, pictures of the monastic ideal of life, of the religious enthusiasm of mediaeval Christianity.
Sir Galahad

CRITICAL SUMMARY

      Sir Galahad says that he uses his strong sword so well that it can cut thorough the helmets of his enemies, his sharp spear always runs definitely through the body of the enemy opposite. He is as strong as ten ordinary people and that is due to the reason that he is chaste. When the deafening noise of the drums rises high and the swords of the fighters break into pieces by striking upon the steel-armour of the opposite party and the points of the lances are broken and thrown on to the field, horse and rider tumble down into the field which is resounding with the noise of battle. When the battle stops, sweet-smelling flowers are thrown in plenty and delicately by the ladies (who have been watching the various fights). They look sweetly upon all the people whom they favour. Sir Galahad goes on fighting upto the end of the battle to save the ladies from shame and enslavement. However, his real love is for God and he bends his knees before churches and chapels. He is a pure knight and he has not so far kissed a woman out of passion. He has not held any young woman's hand. He finds more kind and more generous faces shining on him than those of ladies and he is getting better and greater pleasures than the pleasures of love. He has faith in God and he is always praying to Him. That is the reason why he has a pure heart and he can work better.

      When the new moon sets, a beautiful light moves before him, shining between the dark trunks of trees and the whole of the forest begins to shine. He can hear the sound of holy songs. He feels that he is riding near a hidden church. He goes in. He can still hear the singing but he does not find anybody inside. The seats are empty although the door is wide open and the candles are burning brightly. The white cloth on the holy platform also shines brightly. The vessels made of silver shine, the bell rings loudly, the vessel containing incense moves to and fro and holy music can be heard from all sides. At times he goes to a lake upon a mountain and he finds a supernatural ship there. He goes upon the ship which moves along, without the help of a sailor and it moves on till it is night. Then he hears soft sounds and sees holy light and three angels dressed up in white cloaks with their wings noiselessly carrying them. These angels carry the Holy Grail.

      It is really a very happy sight because the cup contains the blood of Christ, the son of God. Then Galahad's soul can get free from the earthly prison of flesh and he sees light moving upon waves of darkness. This light mixes up with the light of the town where the people are sleeping. Early in the morning just before Christmas day, he hears the crowing of cocks and finds the noise of the storm against metal-roofs of the cottage. The streets are so thickly covered with snow that the noise of the hooves of the horses cannot be heard. Sir Galahad's swords striking against his armour produces loud noise and he finds a light moving thorough, darkness three brightening the falling hail-stones. He goes away from the plains to a hill and there does not find any shelter (from the wind). Before him are the beautiful shapes of angels which fly over the barren marshes and the wind-swept fields. The storms are making a noise. He is a pure knight. He has a strong hope of seeing the Holy Grail and therefore he is not afraid of anything. He strongly desires to go to heaven and to find everlasting pleasure there because that holy place bathed in the wonderful light of the glory of God is overgrown with ever-fresh lilies which stand for ever-lasting peace. He finds their perfume coming to him in his dreams. He then feels that an angel has touched him and this prison of flesh, his body; his worldly senses and feelings, all leave him and he is a pure soul. He finds clouds separating in the sky and between the openings of the mountains, a great noise rises up, trembles and then dies away. Trees begin to move their heads and bushes nod. The sound of moving wings can be heard. A clear voice says to him, 'O Galahad, you are a loyal and true knight, carry on your search for the Holy Grail because quite soon you will get your reward'.

      Sir Galahad passes by inns, big buildings, store-houses, bridges, crossings, gardens and enclosures for cattle. He rides on, wearing full armour and without caring for what may happen. He would continue his search till he finds the Holy Grail.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS AND APPRECIATION

Presentation of the Chivalrous Days of England

      The poem Sir Galahad by Alfred Tennyson presents the chivalrous days of England. When Arthur, a fabulous king ruled over that country. He had established an order of distinguished knights known as the Round Table. These knights used to save women from ignominy and redress the wrongs of the weak. They used to take part in tournaments and display their physical powers.

Theme of The Poem

      The Holy Grail, the vessel which contained the blood of Jesus Christ, when he was crucified, was a noble prize for the search of which many of the noble warriors had dedicated their lives. This was the same cup which Christ used at the time of the Last Supper. The knights of King Arthur had a dream about it and they set out in search of it. It was Sir Galahad, the noblest of all of them and the perfectly chaste and most religious of the knights who was able to succeed in this attempt. The poem describes the experiences of Sir Galahad as he goes out to find the Holy Grail.

Sir Galahad — A Representative of The Meritorious Order of Knights

      Sir Galahad is a true representative of the meritorious order of the knights of the Middle Ages. He is an incarnation of chastity, morality and religion. He is the ideal saint-knight of Christian chivalry. He is no mere contemplative mystic. He rides abroad "redressing human wrongs", but he is possessed by the spirit of "other-worldliness". A "maiden-knight", he embraces the mediaeval doctrine of the peculiar sanctity of virginity. In his solitary raptures, his musings over the vague "pure spaces clothed in living beams", in his self-conscious recognition of his own saintliness, we see the mysticism, which Tennyson points out in The Holy Grail to have been one of the causes of the breaking up of the Round Table.

Music of the Poem

      The poem is full of sweet music and can be sung with pleasure. The use of words producing a similar sound adds to the grace of the poem. Note the sweet and rhythmical flow of the following lines:

My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.

And again:

They reel, they roll in clanging lists,
And when the ode of combat stands,
Perfume and flowers fall in showers
That lightly rain from ladies' hands.

Historical Mind of the Poet

      The poet has a historical mind and believes that the present is born and has evolved gradually out of the past. He has therefore taken the topic of the days of knighthood and presented it in a garb, which delights and indicates ideals of high chastity. 

Quest of the Holy Grail

      The quest of the Holy Grail represents the aspiration of every human being on earth for the realization of the aim of his life. On one level, it is wholly religious and reminds us of the crucifixion of Christ in the cause of the suffering and ignorant humanity. On the symbolic level it goes beyond any particular religion on to the sphere of moral values.

      Conclusion: The beauty of the construction of the expressions is marvellous throughout. The imagery is superb and the music is highly enjoyable. The poem is instructive and inspiring.

LINE BY LINE PARAPHRASE

      L. 25-36. When down.....resound between: Sir Galahad makes mention of a vision, which he had, while wandering in search of the Holy Grail. One evening when the new moon, which brings innumerable storms, had set in the west, the halo of light around the Holy Grail moved before his mind's eye. The wood darkened by the night shone brilliantly with this light so that between the dark trunks of the thickly growing trees, he could easily see the light of the Holy Grail. During this spiritual vision, he heard the music of heavenly songs and passed by the side of some unknown church, riding on his horse. In this state of bliss he heard a voice coming from within the church, but he failed to find any worshipper there. The seats were vacant; the candles were burning brightly and the doors of the church were wide open. The snow-white cloth spread over the communion table shone radiantly. The vessels of silver kept in the church to contain holy bread and wine dazzled brightly. The clear, sharp and loud notes of the ringing of the church-bells struck his ears. In this vision, the vessel containing the burning perfumes clearly moved before his mind's eye in a swinging manner, spreading perfume on all sides in the church. In this spiritual ecstasy he heard ceremonial hymns being sung inside the church.

      L. 37-48. Sometimes......the stars: On certain occasions during his adventures in search of the Holy Grail, Sir Galahad relates that on lakes between solitary hills, he experienced the vision of an enchanting boat. He jumped on board the boat, which had no sailor to control its movements and guide it. He moved on the surface of the lake in that charming boat till it was pitch dark and he could see nothing, not even feel his own existence. In this extreme dark all of a sudden was heard a soft sound and a light was beheld. It flooded the expanse of the lake and dispelled all darkness. It was solemn and therefore inspiring. In this light he had the vision of the Holy cup, which was borne by three angels. The angels being in the flying state had their feet joined together. On their persons, they wore long and loose garments of pure white colour, used as an ecclesiastical dress. They came flying on noiseless wings.

      Sir Galahad, while relating those blessed visions of the Holy Grail, always felt the same influence of spiritual joy. The holy cup contained the blood of Jesus Christ and he was always reminded of the crucifixion of the Lord whenever he thought about it. During those moments of realization, the spirit of the gallant warrior struggled hard to leave the confinement of his body and his soul was always longing to feel one with the vision of the Holy Grail. Very soon, however, as the charm of the vision subsided, the rise and fall of the waves could be seen no longer. It grew dark as before.

      Sir Galahad adds that this vision, too, like a star that shines brilliantly for a moment and is lost to view, mixes with the stars that shine occasionally and are inaccessible to common view.

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