Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Novel Suggestion

Early this year, I got rather absorbed in writing a novel, a novel with a religious theme. I wrote about six or seven chapters, I think. I was very enthusiastic about it at the time, but then I began to doubt anyone would want to publish it or read it.

A friend who kindly read the chapters as I wrote them was also enthusiastic about it. In fact, he's been strongly urging me not to abandon it-- which is very nice of him.

I'd like to know what other people think. If anyone feels like giving the existing chapter a read, just get in touch with me at

And no worries if you don't. I know people are very busy and have lots to read. I won't be bothered in the least if nobody takes me up. It's just a thought.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Dying of the Light

Recently, on the Irish Conservatives Forum, there's been a bit of discussion about the spiritual life of England-- more particularly, how healthy it is, whether it still exists, and whether (assuming it's moribund) it has any hope of revival.

This is an article I wrote for the Catholic Voice some years ago. (I jumped when I re-read the reference to being thirty-six!) It was written for an Irish readership, so there are some Irish cultural references that non-Irish people are unlikely to get. But not many. I'm not sure why I listed I'm Alan Partridge among shows I've never watched, since I've often watched it and know some scenes almost off by heart. A slip, no doubt.

My writing style grows more fastidious with the years-- sometimes I wince when I read something I've written even as recently as this. I would never talk about a "trunkful" of anything now, unless it was actually filling a trunk.

The Light of Faith

“Once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim”. These beautiful words are taken from Lumen Fidei, the last encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI (with some finishing touches from Pope Francis). I believe in their truth with all my heart. I see evidence of it everywhere. And I think it’s a point that Christians should make insistently and forcefully, in our efforts to re-evangelise the Western world.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has often written of the boredom that afflicts modern man when he rejects God, and when he rejects the transcendental dimension of life. (From his Introduction of Christianity: “In the leaden loneliness of a God-forsaken world, in its interior boredom, the search for mysticism, for any sort of contact with the divine, has sprung up anew.”)

‘Boredom’ is a strange word to use, perhaps, in describing a godless society. We tend to reach for words like ‘emptiness’, or ‘meaninglessness’, or ‘alienation’, instead. Perhaps, in envisaging a society that has turned its back on God, we picture neon lights and nightclubs and dancing girls, or similarly heady images. But boredom? Surely not boredom.

And yet, I think that Pope Benedict—profound and original thinker that he is—has got it exactly right, in this instance as in so many others. When a society rejects God, it becomes a boring society. And not only boring, but banal. The banality of post-Christian society is perhaps the worst thing about it. And if not the worst, it’s certainly the most pervasive.

A post-Christian society is boring, and bored, because only the sacred and the otherworldly can satisfy the human capacity for awe and wonder.

I am thirty-six years of age. I grew up in a post-Christian society. I never experienced a world where Christianity was simply assumed to be true. Matthew Arnold had written about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “sea of faith” even before my grandparents were born. (Like King Charles II, God has been “an unconscionable long time dying”.)

So I cannot claim to have witnessed Ireland’s transition from a Catholic to a post-Catholic nation. But I suppose I came in at the end, and caught the last act of the drama. And it seems glaringly obvious to me that even the difference between a residually Christian society (like the Ireland of the nineteen-eighties) and a predominately secular one (like the Ireland of today), is quite substantial.

Take any example. Take the most trivial example you can think of. Take, for instance, the difference between The Late Late Show of Gay Byrne and The Late Late Show of Ryan Tubridy. Or take Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald, as opposed to Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny. Or the comedian Dave Allen as opposed to Tommy Tiernan.

Now, these are all deliberately trivial examples, and I’m certainly not expressing wild enthusiasm for any of the first set. But isn’t there a perceptible decline in class, in depth, in gravitas, even here? Isn’t even a Church-bashing comedian like Dave Allen, coming from a more Christian context, a lot classier than a Church-bashing so-called comedian like Tommy Tiernan? Isn’t even a liberal like Garrett Fitzgerald, reared in a strongly Christian atmosphere, more intellectually serious than a political opportunist like Enda Kenny?

I firmly believe that even this small difference—as well as the much greater difference between the Ireland of W.B. Yeats and John McCormack and Walter Macken and all those other luminaries, and the Ireland of today—comes down to Christianity. “Once the light of faith goes out, all other lights begin to dim.” A Christian culture is saturated with ideas of the sacred, of the sublime, of the eternal, of mystery. Even the village atheist (and Ireland certainly had her share of village atheists) can’t help absorbing these ideas—and reflecting them.

But, though the banality of secularism has entered deeply into the soul of Ireland, I would venture to say that the process is far from complete. The sun may have set but the evening light lingers in the sky. I think we have to look across the Irish Sea—to the country that Matthew Arnold was writing about in his poem ‘Dover Beach’, which I quoted above—to see the banality of secularism in its full glory.

There’ll Always Be an England?

But before I start writing about England, I want to make one thing clear. I have been an anglophile all my life. I can’t remember a time when my imagination was not stirred by the land of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, Lord Tennyson, John Betjeman, Hammer horrors, Carry On movies, Keith Waterhouse and Tom Sharpe. Even the rugged beauty of place-names like Sussex and Brompton and Halifax speak to something deep in my soul.

So I take no pleasure at all in the claim that I am going to make here; that the soul of England has perished, and that this is because it has so completely rejected its Christian heritage.

The Church of England had to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Only about six per cent of the UK’s population go to church. Back in March, The Daily Mail reported that just 800,000 people attend Church of England services on an average Sunday. This in a nation of fifty-six million souls. It’s true that attendance is higher amongst Catholics, and that Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are growing. But these have made very little impact on the surrounding culture.

The idea has even grown up that England is an intrinsically irreligious nation, that the muddle-headedness of Anglican theology is simply the proper spirituality of a people who hate dogma and are embarrassed by anything as earnest and emotive as religion.

A funny notion, really, for a nation whose Civil War, only a few centuries ago, was close to being a war of religion; for the land of St. Thomas More, St. Thomas Beckett, John Milton, Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley and Guy Fawkes, The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

I cherish this refrain from a medieval English drinking song: “Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale, for our blessed Lady’s sake, bring us in good ale.” In those few words are expressed the deeply Christian soul of ‘Merrie England’.

So how can I say that the soul of England is now dead? For one thing, because it’s not just me saying it. In recent times, there has been almost an industry of books lamenting the death of England. The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens is the best I’ve read, while England: an Elegy by Roger Scruton follows close behind. Similar titles (which I haven’t read) include The Death of Britain? by John Redwood and Anyone for England? by Clive Aslett.

If you want to see evidence of the death of England, just turn on your television and tune in to the BBC or any other British channel. There is a deeply depressive, nearly nihilistic undertone to almost every broadcast. I see this in many of the British shows which (I hasten to add) I don’t watch, but snippets of which I’ve seen. Shows like The Inbetweeners, I’m Alan Partridge, Teachers and The Royle Family reflect such a bleak view of human nature and of human life that it’s staggering. Characters are rude to each other as a matter of course. Everybody seems to be miserable all the time. Most of all, nobody seems to believe in anything—not just in God, but in anything.

This is true even of good English TV shows. I watched the comedy series Rev, which follows a Church-of-England vicar who shepherds a vanishingly-small inner-city congregation in London. The show is notable for taking religion seriously, but it’s almost relentlessly downbeat. The reverend Adam Smallbone’s best friend is a down-and-out who smokes cannabis (Adam sometimes joins him) and reads pornographic magazines. The handful of people who turn up to church are eccentric and directionless. The Archdeacon who makes Adam’s life a misery is a snobbish careerist. London is presented in the dingiest and grungiest light possible.

Or take the very successful show The Office, which was a ‘mockumentary’ set in a paper office in Slough, and won a trunkful of awards. I loved it when it came out, but since I’ve become a fan of the later American version, I can’t watch the English version anymore. The American Office is more or less upbeat, warm-hearted and life affirming. The English Office is almost sadistically bleak. I believe that the difference is down to the fact that America is a Christian country and England is not.

Contemporary English entertainments that do take a romantic view of life tend to be either set in the past—the endless proliferation of costume dramas and period detective mysteries—or else in an imaginary world that draws on the past, such as the Harry Potter series, which owes so much to Enid Blyton-style school stories of yesteryear.

No More Beer and Sandwiches

I see the same absence of any kind of deep belief, any source of unabashed idealism, when I read the opinion pieces of English newspapers. Any discussion of religion, or of English national identity, or of any other ‘high-flown’ subject, is inevitably conducted in an infuriatingly flippant manner. Public intellectuals like Terry Eagleton, Will Self and Simon Schama seem to wear a perpetual simper, and to trade in an all-embracing irony.

It was not always thus. I was deeply surprised, not long ago, when I learned that a ‘National Festival of Light’, in protest against the permissive society and the increase of sex and violence in the mass media, had been held in England in 1970. Its leading figures included Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richard. Amazingly, almost half a million people joined its rally in London, and a hundred thousand people took part in smaller rallies around the nation. Four decades later, this is impossible even to imagine.

It isn’t just Christian idealism that seems to have disappeared from English life. Where is the beer-and-sandwiches socialism of the working men’s clubs and the night schools? Where are all the port-drinking, Punch-reading High Tories? What vision of human life animates English souls today? None that I can think of. And, in their absence, the nation seems to have sunk into an atmosphere of all-pervading cynicism at worst, of ironic world-weariness at best.

It’s true that a certain gloom has always been a part of the English psyche. Eeyore, of the Winnie the Pooh stories, is a typically English creation. English culture, from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf to the paintings of L.S. Lowry, has always shown a rather Eeyorish streak.

But the point is that, for a millennia and a half, this was offset by the joy of the Christian Gospel. In every culture it meets, Christianity takes whatever it encounters, purifies it, and ennobles it. The sun of Christianity, shining on the soil of England, gave the world the poetry of William Blake, the paintings of John Constable, the ghost stories of M.R. James, the fussy vicars of Anthony Trollope, and ten thousand other cultural treasures besides. But now—in my opinion, at least—that England is dead and gone. And our own nation seems to be well along the same path.

Truly, when once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Christmas Carol by George Wither

In putting together a library display of Christmas books, I came across this seventeenth century Christmas carol by George Wither. This is the version as I found it, but I see from the internet that the carol itself is much longer (too long, I'd say).

It's full of the spirit of "Merrie England" that I love so much. Also, I'm a fan of lyrics and poems that end with the same line, or a variant thereof, in each stanza.

Here it is. I hope some readers like it.

O, now is come our joyful Feast;
Let ever man be jolly.
Each room, with Ivy leaves is dressed.
And every Post, with Holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine.
Round your foreheads Garlands twine,
Drown sorrow in a Cup of Wine.
And let us all be merry. 

Now, all our Neighbours Chimneys smoke.
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their Ovens, they with baked-meats choke.
And all their Spits are turning.
Without the door, let sorrow lie:
And, if for cold, it hap to die,
We’ll bury ’t in a Christmas Pie.
And evermore be merry. 

Now, every Lad is wondrous trim,
And no man minds his Labour.
Our Lasses have provided them,
A Bag-pipe, and a Tabor.
Young men, and Mayds, and Girles & Boyes,
Give life, to one anothers Joys:
And, you anon shall by their noise
Perceive that they are merry. 

The Client now his suit forbeares,
The Prisoners heart is eased,
The Debtor drinks away his cares.
And, for the time is pleased.
Though others purses be more fat.
Why should we pine or grieve at that ?
Hang sorrow, care will kill a Cat.
And therefore let ’s be merry.'

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Triple Standard

In the past few weeks, my daily reading has been guided by what I call my "triple standard" (the term just popped into my head). This is a resolution to read a bit of Irish language material, a bit of poetry (especially long poetry), and a bit of Scripture every day. It's actually not that hard and I've usually fulfilled this aspiration by noon.

I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea of going against the tide. "Fascinated" isn't even a strong enough word; electrified, transported, captivated, might be better words. There is something about going against the tide, or walking uphill, or fighting against superior odds, that seems to me like a sort of primordial drama. After all-- as I have said in my posts on contrarianism-- every single moment of life is a victory against the inertia of death. Every heartbeat is a sort of contrarianism. (I've sometimes wondered if growing up hearing stories of the 1916 Rising also influenced me in this. Irish people of a certain background grew up thinking that execution by firing squad was the happiest possible ending to a life.)

So, in these three literary pursuits, it's "going against the tide" more than anything else that motivates me.

Catholics are notorious for their reluctance to read the Bible. As is well know, it was a sin punishable by excommunication for a layman to even open the Bible until the Second Vatican Council. The reluctance has lingered. Whereas Baptists and Presbyterians can rattle off chapter and verse from Scripture, Catholics prefer to read Thomas Merton or G.K. Chesterton.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but there's an element of truth to it. The Bible is a difficult book to read. It's repetitive, laden with genealogies and lists of rules, and dense. This is especially true of the Old Testament, and it's mostly the Old Testament I struggle with. I'm fairly familiar with the New Testament, but there are whole tracts of the Old Testament which are more or less terra incognita to me.

And yet, this very denseness and difficulty is part of the appeal. The Bible has always captured my imagination, even when I was non-believer. A line from the Bible seems more potent than any amount of words from most other sources. I recently mentioned my trip to Kingston-upon-Hull in Yorkshire, some ten years ago. I visited an enormous aquarium, which contained a bewildering variety of marine life. And yet the thing that struck me most were the words over the entrance: "And the spirit of the Lord moved over the waters." Even at the time, this struck me as extraordinary. When I used the word "potent" earlier, the association with liquor was entirely appropriate. I think of Scripture as fire water. In fact, I think the same of poetry.

Here's another example of the potency of Scripture: many years ago, I was watching the classic horror film From Beyond the Grave, with my father. One scene, set in a bedroom, shows the framed text: "The wages of sin are death". "But the gift of God is eternal life" said my father. I was impressed at the way the Scriptural quotation gave the scene such gravitas. And it works the other way, too: when I read the Bible, or hear it read, the fact that so many lines and passages are familiar from quotation and allusion gives it an added power, as though it is the cradle of our entire culture.

Another thing that impels me towards the Bible is a sadness and shame at the loss of Scriptural knowledge in our culture. You only have to read a little to notice this. In fact, I think the decline is ongoing. I remember reading this joke in a recently-published kid's joke book when I was a boy: "Jenkins, who knocked down the walls of Jericho?" "I don't know, sir, but it wasn't me".

I suppose I can say that I want to read more Scripture to push against secularisation, I want to read more Irish to push against globalisation, and I want to read more poetry to push against rationalisation.

Of my "personal traditions", poetry is older than everything except horror. I've been an evangelical poetry lover since my teens, and I've resented the tyranny of prose for much of that time. As I return to reading poetry in a disciplined way, this old feeling revives. We should always be somewhat ashamed of prose. Poetry is literature; prose is good enough for instruction and entertainment. Honestly, is a novel much better than a game show as a form of diversion? What annoys me especially is novels (especially detective and thriller novels) that take their titles from poems. That kind of putting on airs is odious.

Admittedly I'm being provocative here, but that doesn't mean I'm kidding. And I could expand my argument to a more general level. My whole traditionalist conservative outlook is really nothing more than the desire to make society less prosaic and more poetic.

As for the Irish language, I wrote a lot about that last year. I want to be able to say legitimately that Irish is a part of my daily life. Every now and again, I feel such a wave of indignation at its decline that I feel like refusing to ever use English again. I realise even as I feel it that I will do no such thing. Irish is one of those causes that can't be given up, no matter how impossible its revival seems. Perhaps the tide of history will change some day.

In any case, my triple standard gives me a pleasant feeling of pushing against the tide, on three fronts, every day.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Craving for Solemnity

On this blog, and in my writing in general, and indeed in my life in general, I keep coming back to one particular theme, from many various angles. It's not my only theme but it's a pretty prominent one, and it runs through all the others.

Out of one thousand, six hundred and twelve posts on this blog, the one that means the most to me (other than my poem to Michelle) is this one, A Short History of my Priggishness.

In that post, I expressed something that has haunted me for as long as I can remember; a life-long craving for the solemn, the elevated, the refined, the special, the poetic. Not just in my life, but in the life of society in general. I'm going to use the phrase "solemnity" even though it's not exactly what I mean. It's only part of it.

Another post where I touched on the same theme was this verse-essay, In Praise of Solemnity, which got quite a good response.

This craving for solemnity is one of the reasons I'm a cultural nationalist, and a romantic nationalist. I elaborate on that in this post.

This craving for solemnity makes me bonkers for tradition, since even fun traditions are satisfyingly solemn. I've written at great length about my love of tradition on this blog, but especially in this series: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Since, in our post-modernist society, solemnity is often dismissed as "kitsch", and tack is often celebrated as ironic, I wrote a blog post on kitsch and tack, defending the former and blasting the latter.

My little purple notebook is full of moments where I glimpsed the kind of world, or the kind of atmosphere, I crave.

My post on the phrase "the dark side of the moon", and everything this evokes for me, explores the same territory.

The post I recently wrote about my teenage hankering for the fantasy city of Amber is, perhaps, my latest expression of this theme. I'm sure there are many more I've missed, though.

A friend once asked me how, given my love of solemnity, I'm not a devotee of the Latin Mass. I've puzzled over this, and come up with the answer: Mass is already the most solemn thing in modern life, even if it's the Ordinary Form. It's the most solemn thing by far. I don't need Mass to be any more solemn. That would be bringing coals to Newcastle (or sand to the beach, as Americans say). I need the rest of life to be more solemn.

This theme has been on my mind recently, as I've been reading long poetry-- Idylls of the King by Tennyson and Night Thoughts by Dr. Edward Young.

When I read poetry, it makes prose seem so flaccid to me. I become somewhat disdainful, not only of prose, but of everything prosaic. I want all writing to strive towards poetry, and all life to strive towards the poetic. The existence of Terry Pratchett novels, hen parties, and TV shows like Top Gear seems almost unbearable.

This craving for solemnity isn't just directed towards the outside world, though. I yearn to embody this in myself, and indeed I do try.

What value has all this? I'm not sure. This craving leads me towards the sacred, so it seems valuable in that regard. Whether the more aesthetic aspect has any value is not something I can really argue impartially. I'd like to think it does. In any case, this craving is so deeply-rooted in me, I imagine it's impossible to quench, even if I wanted to.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

To Hull and Back (Sorry)

Eleven years ago, I went to Hull for five days, on a holiday. Remarkably enough, this visit was recalled to me today for two reasons. One, that I happened to look at a Youtube video about the Martime Museum in Hull, which was the highlight of my visit, and probably the best museum I've ever visited (although I also liked the Jewish museums in Dublin and London); and two, because somebody commenting on a previous post asked if I had ever "written up" my visit. I never have. So here goes. I'm going to make it quick, since it's near my bedtime.

When I tell people I went to Hull on holiday, the reaction is nearly always the same: "Why on earth would you go to Hull?". Well, it was mostly to garner that very reaction. I've always been something of a contrarian. I dislike the idea of travelling to beauty spots or historic centres. I wanted to go somewhere utterly mundane.

People kept pushing me to travel. I was very anti-travel. I regret this now. I wish I had travelled more in my youth.

My choice of Hull wasn't completely random. At this time, my admiration for the poet Philip Larkin was at its peak. He spent his best years as the librarian in the university of Hull (and he died there). Larkin, like me, was a lover of the mundane and the provincial, so Hull suited his temperament. It also kept him a safe distance from admirers and journalists.

At this period of my life, I was posting a lot on the now-defunct Philip Larkin Society Forum. It was a real den of miserabilists and curmudgeons, though I look back on it with some nostalgia and affection. I even wrote an article for the Larkin Society magazine, which you can read here. I wish I had the paper copy for my archives. I also sent them my poetry, but it was rejected. This was a real blow.

The commenter asked my impressions of Hull, so I will be impressionistic.

What I remember most is the amount of pedestrianisation in the city centre, how clean everything was, and a kind of orangey--brick colour that predominated.

I remember how portly many of the people of Hull were. But they seemed to be a jolly kind of fat.

I had breakfast in a café on several occasions, and the big greasy sausages were both delicious and consistent with the amount of portliness in evidence.

I went to a pub called The Admiral of the Humber for dinner. I had spaghetti bolognese. The barman, who looked like Chris Finch from the Office, addressed me as "young man". I was flattered by this even back then. I remember there was considerable joviality in the pub, which I don't remember closely but I do remember was very nice.

I went to the Deep, which is an underground aquarium-- Europe's biggest, or the world's biggest, or something like that. The thing that struck me the most was a caption over the inside entrance, from Genesis-- the one about God's spirit moving on the face of the waters. This surprised me, and stirred my imagination, although I was still an agnostic at this time. Alongside the escalator leading down to the aquarium is (or was) a timeline on which the scale of evolution is pictured. That sticks in my head, as well.

The Deep itself was rather overwhelming-- as I walked around it, I realized I wasn't going to retain even a fraction of the information all around me. This always gives me a sense of futility. I remember seeing a small shark. I remember reading an information panel that told me the weight of plankton in the seas exceeded the weight of all the other creatures on earth-- I think.

I was very struck by the name of a little street in the city centre, which was The Land of Green Ginger. I wondered if this was a dinky, quaint, made-up name. I learned subsequently that it's not. Nobody knows where it comes from, which makes it a real name. The street contains the smallest window in the British Isles-- I think.

I never went to the University of Hull, or saw Larkin's grave, though I did visit a graveyard.

I was stopped by a market researcher on the street and participated in market research for some sports drink. She said she loved my accent. I was also stopped by a radio crew asking me how much I would spend on a first date. I declined to answer.

Simply Red, the blue-eyed soul band from Manchester (who I quite like) were scheduled to play in Hull soon after my visit. A huge screen somewhere in the city centre had a short video on constant loop, advertising it. "Simply Red are coming back to Yorkshire" was how it began.

I remember there was an indoor shopping centre which used nautical terms as the names of its malls. (Hull was a whaling city for a long time.) There was a sign on the bathroom saying: "Be aware a female cleaner may clean this bathroom". The only internet access I could find was an internet café which had just opened in this mall.

I was surprised by the popularity of rugby league (a variety of rugby, distinct from the more popular rugby union). I got the impression, from headlines and radio and so forth, that it was the most popular sport of the city. However, it might simply have been that there was a big rugby league game coming up at the time.

Another thing that struck me was the sense of nostalgia which pervaded the city. The local newspapers all seemed to have columns about Hull in the old days. These obviously weren't aimed at tourists, but at locals. I seem to remember there was a lot of books about Hull and Hull history, as well.

I was disappointed that there were more Yeats books than Larkin books in the local Waterstones. I prefer Yeats to Larkin, but I felt Larkin should have pre-eminence in his hometown.

I saw a book with the title Goodbye Hessel Road, written by a local author. This sticks in my mind as the title is (in my view) incredibly evocative. Hessel Road is a place in Hull, of course.

I can't remember much more. I spent a lot of time tramping the streets. I've written a post about my impressions of the Maritime Museum, which you can find here. It includes a poem I wrote about it.

As I mention in that post, Hull was voted the worst place to live in the UK the very week I visited it. When I got back to Dublin, I wrote a letter to a Hull newspaper defending it, and they published it. This led to a Hull gentleman called Sid contacting me-- he was a man in his eighties, or his nineties, who had lived quite a tragic life. His parents had lost their business in the Blitz. He was in love with a woman in his youth but he had never married her-- I don't remember why. He kept sending me letters and we spoke on the phone once. I found it hard to speak to him on the phone (I hate speaking to anyone on the phone) and I stopped responding to him eventually. I feel very bad about this now. God bless his soul, I imagine he is no longer with us.

I'm glad I went to Hull. It's "my" place in a way that Rome or Venice or New York could never be. People tell me about it when they hear about it on the news, and I (rather casually) follow Hull City in the soccer results. I'm pretty sure I'll never go back, though.

Finished Idllys of the King

Well, I've achieved a personal goal in finally finishing Lord Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a long poem I've intended to read for many, many years. I embarked on it several times in the past but never saw it through. I've read a lot about the poem, as well-- there is quite a wealth of critical writing devoted to it. This pleases me, as I love commentary of every kind.

I wrote a "report" on it for the "Whatcha Reading?" thread on the Irish Conservatives Forum, and I give a slightly amended version of that here.

From at least my early teens Tennyson has been one of my favourite poets. I've always loved "Ulysses", "The Chorus of the Lotos Eaters", "Locksley Hall", and (most relevant here) "The Passing of Arthur". "The Passing of Arthur" is a blank verse account of King Arthur's end which Tennyson wrote quite early in his career. Over many years, he added other stories to this to make Idylls of the King, which is a series of twelve narrative poems, set against the background of King Arthur's foundation of Camelot and its subsequent decline. Each of the Idylls tells a different story, and there is a narrative thread through them all, but it's not written as one continuous tale. The basic narrative thread is this: King Arthur, with the help of Merlin, founds the order of the Round Table and the city of Camelot in order to bring peace to a chaotic Britain, which is torn between the Roman legions (which he finally expels) and pagan tribes. The Idylls describes the Round Table's foundation, flourishing, and ultimate decline and dissolution.

It's hard to believe that the Idylls were an enormous success at the time of their publication (they were published over a period of years). It seems like nobody reads this kind of long poetry now, other than academics. I must confess I made several efforts in the past to read them and gave up. I'm glad I persisted.

The story is a very dark one. It's much more concerned with the fall of Camelot than with its splendour. As most people will know, Arthur's queen Guinevere commits adultery with his foremost knight, Lancelot. This original act of disloyalty spreads moral contagion through Camelot, and one by one almost all the characters are corrupted in one way or another.

The actual delineation of this corruption is very subtle. Here is one example. In one of the later idylls, "The Holy Grail", many of the knights of Camelot take a vow to seek the Grail, the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper, which a nun has seen in a vision. But this, too, is a symptom of degeneration, since King Arthur (who is absent when these vows are made) berates his knights for seeking spiritual excitement rather than following the knightly vows they had already taken. And, indeed, the Grail Quest is a terrible failure-- only a third of the knights return, and most of them never see the Grail.

Throughout the Idylls, King Arthur is blamed by various characters for demanding ideals which are too lofty, and which are even described as impossible to fulfill. Indeed, Arthur himself wonders at times if this is the case. Guinevere tells Lancelot that she falls in love with him, rather than the King, because Arthur is almost inhuman in his idealism; "For who loves me must have a touch of earth". It's interesting that the Idylls were written at the height of the Victorian era, since Victorian England has often been lambasted for its hypocrisy and double standards. This is a debate that seems to recur throughout history, in many different contexts: should we adopt exalted standards which are difficult to attain, and run the risk of hypocrisy, or should we be more realistic? As a romantic I am more on the side of King Arthur than his critics.

The poem dramatises the backlash against idealism when one of the Round Table's most idealistic knights, Pelleas, becomes so horrified at the corruption within Camelot that he embraces nihilism. He reinvents himself as the Red Knight and creates an anti-Camelot whose vows are all the opposite of Camelot, and declares war on King Arthur.

An even more interesting departure from Arthur's idealism is the knight Tristram, who is a proponent of naturalism and realism. I think Tennyson's insight into human nature must have been quite deep, because I've noticed that Tristram-like figures very often come along, in human history, after a period of idealism. The speech in which he admits his lack of belief in King Arthur's ideals is often quoted by critics. It reminds me of the fall from idealism after the winning of Irish independence, when the Irish people essentially gave up on the Irish language and other ideals of cultural renewal, and just concentrated on bread and butter issues:

[Arthur] seemed to me no man,
But Michael trampling Satan; so I sware,
Being amazed: but this went by--The vows!
O ay--the wholesome madness of an hour--
They served their use, their time; for every knight
Believed himself a greater than himself,
And every follower eyed him as a God;
Till he, being lifted up beyond himself,
Did mightier deeds that elsewise he had done,
And so the realm was made; but then their vows--
First mainly through that sullying of our Queen--
Began to gall the knighthood, asking whence
Had Arthur right to bind them to himself?
Dropt down from heaven? washed up from out the deep?
They failed to trace him through the flesh and blood
Of our old kings: whence then? a doubtful lord
To bind them by inviolable vows,
Which flesh and blood perforce would violate:
For feel this arm of mine--the tide within
Red with free chase and heather-scented air,
Pulsing full man; can Arthur make me pure
As any maiden child? lock up my tongue
From uttering freely what I freely hear?
Bind me to one? The wide world laughs at it.

This is reminiscent of Kevin O'Higgins, a very hardheaded Irish politician of the post-independence period, who insisted that the idealistic programme of the first Dáil was "mostly poetry."

In fact, it's reminiscent of the Irish people's attitude to the Irish Revival in general. The unspoken view common amongst the Irish people seems to be that cultural nationalism and Gaelic romanticism was appropriate to the struggle for independence-- "the wholesome madness of an hour"-- but is no longer relevant today, now that we have our own government. I just can't accept that. If Ireland doesn't continue to seek the ideal of Patrick Pearse and Eamon De Valera-- by which I mean a Gaelic, Catholic Ireland, reverencing and reviving its traditions as far as possible-- I don't know what the point of independence was in the first place.

Does it seem silly to apply the poem to twentieth century Irish history, since it was written in the nineteenth century? Just like Tolkien with Lord of the Rings, Tennyson insisted that Idylls was not a straightforward allegory. When asked if critics were right who interpreted the "three fair queens" who appear in one passage as the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, he said: "They are right, and they are not right. They mean that and they do not. They are three of the noblest of women. They are also those three Graces, but they are much more. I hate to be tied down to say: 'This means that', because the thought within the image is much more than any interpretation."

The sheer lyricism of the poem is a great part of its appeal. There are sublime passages throughout, but the best one to quote is probably the most famous, the exchange between the dying King Arthur and Sir Bedivere, the only other surviving knight of the Round Table, after everybody else has been killed in a battle against the traitorous knight Mordred and his supporters. Much in this passage is very relevant to conservatives:

  Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

   And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

I'm very pleased that I've finally read the Idylls-- but I don't intend to simply put them on the shelf now. No, I hope to revisit them in the future, and to get to know them better over time.