Music and Meaning (12): Building to Music in Idylls of the King (1872)

Victorian artists produced many works on Arthurian themes. Edward Burne-Jones's 'The Beguiling of Merlin' is a pertinent one to compare with this section. You can find it in the 'Possession Illustrated' section of this website, and it is easy enough to Google.

Lord, there is no such city anywhere,
But all vision.

According to Cornelia Pearsall in her book Tennyson's Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue, 'Tennyson's cities reflect the airy gorgeousness of towers built to music, in their origin, and therefore lyrical in their insubstantiality'. 'So it is', Pearsall states more specifically, 'with Camelot': in Tennyson's Idylls of the King a knight called Gareth 'doubts the evidence of city walls that appear and disappear before a traveller's eyes. But Tennyson sees these visionary cities everywhere,' Pearson reiterates, 'trusting to the evanescent presence, endorsing Merlin's teasing explanation'. Let's now join Gareth and his cohort as they encounter the mystical city of Camelot in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, considering how this city's connections with music might help us to formulate a few final thoughts on the interrelated matters of meaning and music:

Then those who went with Gareth were amazed,
One crying, 'Let us go no further, lord.
Here is a city of Enchanters, built
By fairy Kings.' The second echoed him,
'Lord, we have heard from our wise man at home
To Northward, that this King is not King,
But only changeling out of Fairyland,
Who the heathen hence by sorcery
And Merlin's .' Then the first again,
'Lord, there is no such city anywhere,
But all vision.'

At this stage Gareth responds to his men 'with laughter,

swearing he had glamour enow
In his blood, his princedom, youth and hopes,
To plunge old Merlin in the Arabian sea;
So pushed them all unwilling to the gate.
And there was no gate like it under the heaven.
For barefoot on the keystone, which was lined
And rippled like an ever-fleeting wave,
The Lady of the Lake stood: all her dress
Wept from her sides as water flowing away...
And in the space to left of her, and right,
Were Arthur's wars in weird devices done,
New things and old co-twisted, as if Time
Were nothing, so inveterately, that men
Were giddy gazing there.

Remember how the medium of Hallam's language was shown to have enabled the poet to reach 'empyreal heights of thought' and catch the sound of 'Aeonian music measuring out / The steps of time.' Here an ability to transcend and observe time's steps and the experience of catching harmonious music are intricately linked once again; just as Gareth is observing these representations of 'Arthur's wars' (in which 'new things and old co-twisted, as if Time/ Were nothing'), a sudden 'blast of music' rings out of the city and Merlin appears:

And Gareth likewise on them [these depictions of the wars] fixt his eyes
So long, that even to him they seemed to move.
Out of the city a blast of music pealed.
Back from the gate started the three [knights], to whom
From out thereunder came an ancient man,
Long-bearded, saying, 'Who be ye, my sons?'
Then Gareth, 'We be tillers of the soil,
Who leaving share in the furrow come to see
The glories of our King: but these, my men,
(Your city moved so weirdly in the mist)
Doubt if the King be King at all, or come
From Fairyland; and whether this be built
By magic, and by fairy Kings and Queens;
Or whether there be any city at all,
Or all a vision: and this music now
Hath scared them both, but tell thou these the truth.'
Then that old Seer made answer playing on him
And saying, Son, I have seen the good ship sail
Keel upward, and mast downward, in the heavens,
And solid turrets topsy-turvey in air:
And here is truth; but ,
Take thou the truth as thou hast told it me.
For truly as thou sayest, a Fairy King
And Fairy Queens have built the city, son;
They came from out a sacred mountain-cleft
Toward the sunrise, each with harp in hand,
And built it to the music of their harps.
And, as thou sayest, it is enchanted, son,
For there is nothing in it as it seems
Saving the King; though some there be that hold
The King a shadow, and the city real:
Yet take thou heed of him, for, so thou pass
Beneath this archway, then wilt thou become
A thrall to his enchantments, for the King
Will bind thee by such vows, as is a shame
A man can keep; but, so thou dread to swear,
Pass not beneath this gateway, but abide
Without, among the cattle of the field.
For an ye heard a music, like enow
They are building still, seeing the city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And therefore built for ever.

'The city is built / To music', says Merlin, 'therefore never built at all,/ And therefore built for ever'. What do you think Merlin (and also Tennyson) might mean by this? Parallel to this suggestion that music is at once that which makes things perpetual, and that which makes them false, Merlin also makes this ambiguous statement about truth: 'here is truth; but an it please thee not, / Take thou the truth as thou hast told it me'. Music and myth appear to offer man access to a transcendent realm - revealing a higher reality - but many men believe this revelation to be false, and this offer to be one that they would be better off without.

Let's now take one last look at another of Tennyson's late poems, the title of which - 'Parnassus' - directly refers to the mythical home of the . Is music ultimately meaningful and is its meaning ultimately accessible or lasting? What - if he offers one - is Tennyson's final word?

[Go on to Music and Meaning (13): 'Other Songs for other worlds!' in 'Parnassus' (1889)]

Relating to the God Apollo in Greek mythology. He is associated with music and poetry, and with order, amongst other things. Here the point is mainly that these cities are artistic and fine. In Greek mythology the city of Troy was built with Apollo's help.
Archaic form of 'drove', i.e. past tense of 'drive'.
This word did not acquire its modern meaning until the 20th century. In Tennyson's time it meant a magic spell.
Here 'an' is another way of saying 'if', so this phrase means, 'if it does not please thee'.
The nine muses in Greek mythology were minor goddesses who represented nine different arts: usually epic poetry, lyric, tragedy, sacred song, choral song, love poetry, history, comedy, and astronomy.

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