A poem such as “Merlin and Vivien,” one of Tennyson’s
Idylls of the King, represents for the restless postmodern all that is wrong with Victorian poetry. The poem’s roughly 1,000 lines feature a huge amount of lengthy discourse, plenty of apparently pointless description, and precious little action. To some degree, the “boringness quotient” for this poem represents its origin in a day of longer attention spans, when reading poetry aloud in the parlor marked a good evening’s entertainment. However, even in an age of on-demand video, one can see the value in Tennyson’s slow-moving narrative.
The story related in this poem is fairly simple. Vivien has left King Mark with the intention of causing some measure of problem for Arthur and his court. Having attempted to sow discontent through palace gossip, she eventually sets her attentions on Merlin, assuming that if she can neutralize his power within Arthur’s circle, she will do significant damage to his rule. Vivien seduces Merlin and extracts from him the knowledge of a particular charm, known only to him. Through this spell, she manages to permanently confine Merlin in a hollow oak tree, where he appears dead to all but her. This final action comprises the last eight lines of the poem:
Then, in one moment, she put forth the charm
Of woven paces and of waving hands,
And in the hollow oak he lay as dead,
And lost to life and use and name and fame.
Then crying “I have made his glory mine,”
And shrieking out “O fool!” the harlot leapt
Adown the forest, and the thicket closed
Behind her, and the forest echoed “fool.”
Nothing in the poem has moved quickly until this climax, and then it ends almost before it begins. Imagine, if you will, a contemporary motion picture dealing with this episode. What might we expect in that final scene. Certainly it last more than a few seconds, yet such is all that Tennyson dedicates to the action.
The bulk of this work lies in the lengthy conversation between the two characters as well as considerable description that seems to do little to advance the plot. Such a conclusion, however, is not entirely fair. Throughout the poem, the reader is shown various elements of description that identify Vivien as an unseemly character. In several passages, serpent imagery reveals her true nature:
She paused, she turned away, she hung her head,
The snake of gold slid from her hair, the braid
Slipt and uncoiled itself, she wept afresh,
And the dark wood grew darker toward the storm
Just as Tennyson presents these details to the reader, the reader can assume the clever and perceptive Merlin to be privy to them. Still, he allows himself to be seduced by the woman. Similarly, the lengthy discussion helps to disclose the true character of Vivien, making Merlin’s eventual surrender less explicable.
Any reader, knowledgeable of the Bible, will see in this account a parallel of the story of Samson and Delilah in Judges 16. Just as Samson might be excused for answering the question of his strength the first time, Merlin might be excused for thinking Vivien a sympathetic character early in this exchange. But after Delilah demonstrates three times her intention to betray Samson, Samson appears far more foolish than Delilah appears dishonest. In the same fashion, Merlin listens to the various slanders Vivien speaks against Arthur’s knights. He has plentiful material from which to fashion a proper understanding of her character, yet he eventually falls for her tactics and gives up his secret.
In Mallory’s telling of this story, the Vivien character is chaste, pursued by the lusts of Merlin. Does Tennyson betray a mistrust of women here? Perhaps, but I believe there is more at work that simple misogyny. Throughout the Idylls, Tennyson paints Arthur in much the same way that the Bible paints David. Both are good but flawed kings, kings who come as close as one can hope to redeeming his people. Yet both of them fail, destroyed by typical human flaws. In this episode, Tennyson demonstrates some of those flaws played out in the people around Arthur. Vivien is driven by hatred to discover a new avenue for harm. Merlin, despite his power, allows himself to be overcome by a desire that he must know is illusory.