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Arthur’s ‘labouring of the lungs’ in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King

Elsa Hammond is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, working on breath and death in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Tennyson and Thomas Hardy. She writes:

In accordance with Arthurian legend, Tennyson’s Arthur does not die absolutely at the end of Idylls of the King, despite the fact that the final idyll is focussed on his dying. He ‘passes’, leaving open the possibility that, Christ-like, he will return again. However, his death is undoubtedly lingered over more than in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (the best known text of the nineteenth-century Arthurian revival, and Tennyson’s main source), in which the final focus moves away from Arthur’s unsatisfactory ‘death’ and is directed instead to Lancelot’s more earthly one. It has been suggested that Tennyson’s preoccupation with Arthur’s death was part of the Victorian zeitgeist (“The death and memorialization of Arthur was one of the most popular aspects of the legend in Victorian Britain”)[1] and that, therefore, Tennyson and other Victorian writers and painters of Authuriana “dwelt, not on the future king, but on his dying, his ‘onceness’.”[2] Tennyson gives prominence to Arthur’s passing and also maintains a level of uncertainty surrounding it. One notable device that he uses is a repeated focus on breath, which draws attention to the fact that Arthur is still living, but is a physical being apparently capable of dying.

‘The Passing of Arthur’ (the final idyll of Idylls of the King) consists of the last battle of the Round Table and its aftermath, in which the severely wounded Arthur and his longest-serving knight, Bedivere, and are the only two left alive. Arthur tasks Bedivere with casting his sword, Excalibur, into a mysterious lake, and Bedivere manages to do this after twice finding himself unable. Bedivere then carries Arthur on his back to the water’s edge, helps him onto a barge, and watches from the shore as the barge disappears into the distance. There is a repeated focus on the physicality of Arthur’s breath in ‘The Passing of Arthur’ – “drawing thicker breath” (316), “breathing hard” (330), “panted hard” (344)  “sighed” (346), “muttering and murmuring” (347) – a focus that is, for the most part, Tennyson’s own addition to his sources. This focus on breath calls attention to Arthur as a living person, implicitly reminding the reader that although we do not know much about his beginning or his end, his body still appears to act in a surprisingly human way when nearing death.

Arthur’s passing is also the end of a way of life entirely. It is Arthur that holds the Round Table together, and his passing therefore also signals the end of Camelot. Arthur himself knows this and wonders if the “dim cries” he can hear at the beginning of ‘The Passing of Arthur’ come from the world itself: “doth all that haunts the waste and wild/ Mourn, knowing it will go along with me?” (47; 48-49).[3] Bedivere is also aware of the change that is to come when he states, near the end of ‘The Passing of Arthur,’ that, “the Round Table is dissolved/ Which was an image of the mighty world” (402-3). His anxiety is confirmed after Arthur’s barge has disappeared into the distance, leaving behind him “the stillness of the dead world’s winter dawn” and the faint suggestion of distant voices welcoming Arthur himself “beyond the limit of the world” (442; 458). ‘The Passing of Arthur’ elegises an era as much as an individual.

Arthur’s dying breaths also permeate the rhythms of the text of ‘The Passing of Arthur.’ Throughout the final idyll there are numerous changes of pace, punctuated by complete pauses. Short moments are lingered over, and the final battle is described with relative speed. As Arthur’s breath ebbs away, the writing mirrors his dying body. A key phase in Arthur’s movement from living to dying is when he asks Bedivere to “take Excalibur,/ And fling him far into the middle mere” (204-5). The completion of this task is withheld for a painfully long time: consumed by enraptured indecision, Bedivere is unable to draw his eyes away from Excalibur, while Arthur waits in anxiety that Bedivere may be taking too long and that he (Arthur) may die before Excalibur is given to the lake. Twice Bedivere goes down to the water’s edge with the sword, only to return without having done Arthur’s bidding. Meanwhile, Arthur grows “faint and pale” (240), and his remonstrations become increasingly angry as he worries that time might be running out. When Bedivere does finally manage to “cast the brand away” (256), his actions are described with almost jarring speed:

Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran, / And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged / Among the bulrush beds, and clutched the sword, / And strongly wheeled and threw it… (301-4)

The enjambment, the repetitions of ‘and,’ as well as the density of physically active verbs interrupt the frozen temporal sequence, and serve to stir the reader, as well as Bedivere, from stupor. Reading the lines out loud can create a sense of breathlessness to mirror that of the running and leaping Bedivere. However, this pace is only kept up for a short time before it lengthens once again to pause at the crucial moment:

…The great brand / Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon, / And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch, / Shot like a streamer of the northern morn, / Seen where the moving isles of winter shock / By night, with noises of the Northern Sea. / So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur (304-10)

Once thrown, the sword seems to hang in the air; almost twice as many lines are given to description of it in the air as were given to Bedivere running all the way to the water’s edge and throwing it. For the last time Excalibur entrances both Bedivere and the reader, seeming to pause in the air before finally disappearing into the lake. This slowing at the highest point is, in fact, technically accurate. An object thrown into the air will follow the line of a parabola, decelerating as it reaches the top, to a point where it appears to be stationary, and then accelerating again on its descent. Its vertical movement is actually motionless for a brief moment, although the object continues its movement along the horizontal axis. Tennyson’s note to line 306 confirms his explicit understanding and use of the shape: “The extra syllable gives the rush of the sword as it is whirled in parabolic curve.”[4] The sequence is concluded by Bedivere returning “lightly…to the King” to relate what he had seen at the water’s edge (315), and is followed by a series of allusions to Arthur’s increasingly laboured breathing.

The temporal irregularity in ‘The Passing of Arthur,’ interspersed with frequent references to Arthur’s dying breaths, is suggestive of Cheyne-Stokes breathing, the typical change in regular breathing pattern that is often reported in a dying person. Cheyne-Stokes breathing, named after the physicians who first described it in the nineteenth century, John Cheyne and William Stokes, is a distinctive pattern of breathing that often occurs in the final days and hours of life: periods of fast, deep breathing give way to shallow, slower breathing, often with a complete temporary cessation of breath (called an apnoea).[5] In 1818, John Cheyne described the breathing of a dying man in detail, whom he diagnosed with ‘apoplexy’:

The only peculiarity in the last period of his illness, which lasted eight or nine days, was in the state of the respiration. For several days, his breathing was irregular; it would cease for a quarter of a minute, then it would become perceptible, though very low, then by degrees it became heaving and quick, and then it would gradually cease again. This revolution in the state of his breathing occupied about a minute, during which there were about thirty acts of respiration.[6]

This common deathbed phenomenon appears especially in patients who, like Arthur, may be dying slowly. The rhythms of Arthur’s dying breaths are echoed in the world that is dying with him and the text that is describing that dying.

The way that the action of the poem imitates Arthur’s dying breaths emphasises the collapse of his human, physical body: in the end the process of his dying is no different from that of any other person. However, it also demonstrates to the reader the transcendence of his human nature; his passing is also the passing of Camelot itself. The importance accorded to the moment of Excalibur’s return reminds the reader that although this is a moment that passes quickly for Bedivere, it marks an irreversible change both in terms of Arthur’s own life, and (therefore) also in the life of the Round Table. Tennyson had already anticipated this in what is really a rehearsal for Arthur’s passing almost two hundred lines earlier in the idyll, at the end of the final battle:

And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights, / Oaths, insult, filth, and monstrous blasphemies, / Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs / In that close mist, and cryings for the light, / Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.

Last, as by some one deathbed after wail / Of suffering, silence follows, or through death / Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore, / Save for some whisper of the seething seas, / A dead hush fell… (113-22)

The action of the battle dies away and is superseded by the long description of the quiet aftermath. The reference to the last breath and following silence in a deathbed scene suggests rhythms of breath both on a great and an intimate scale. Much in ‘The Passing of Arthur’ is about Arthur looking back at his own life now that it is over. That his life is inextricably linked to Camelot and the dissolution of the Round Table makes the changes all the greater, as they form a part of more than just an individual life. This is accentuated by the focus on human voices and breath throughout the battle and the long process of death: “shouts…oaths, insult…monstrous blasphemies…labouring of the lungs…cryings for the light, moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.” The final anthropomorphic “whisper of the seething seas” heightens the otherwise total silence, and is a forewarning of “the stillness of the dead world’s winter dawn” that follows the moment of Arthur’s passing at the end of the idyll (442), lifted from complete silence only by the otherworldly trace of voices welcoming him beyond the eastward horizon:

Then from the dawn it seemed there came, but faint / As from beyond the limit of the world, / Like the last echo born of a great cry, / Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice / Around a king returning from his wars. (457-61)

[1] Inga Bryden, ‘Arthur in Victorian Poetry’, in A Companion to Arthurian Literature, ed. by Helen Fulton (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) pp. 368-80 (p. 375).

[2] Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe, Introduction, in The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition, ed. by Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe (New York: Grand Publishing, 1988) pp. xi-xix (pp. xiv-xv).

[3] All Idylls of the King quotations are from The Poems of Tennyson, ed. by Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Harlow: Longman, 1969; 1987), III.

[4] The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (Harlow: Longman, 1969; 1987), III, p. 556n.

[5] Cheyne-Stokes breathing can happen at times other than near death (for example, at high altitude, or in newborns with underdeveloped respiratory centres), but it is most often associated with dying.

[6] Quoted in J.M.S. Pearce, ‘Cheyne-Stokes Respiration’, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 72:5 (2002).

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting

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