chapter  15
17 Pages

Druids, Bards, and Tennyson’s Merlin

WithCATHERINE BARNES STEVENSON

Tennyson began his composition of the Idylls of the King with the tale of the “fall” of the mythic necromancer of Arthur’s court, with an account of the vision, the despair, and the retreat from society of a character who is, as several recent critics have argued, a type of artist.1 The Merlin of the 1856 “Merlin and Vivien,” however, is not only an artist but also a prophet/bard, a member of a family of such figures who appear in Tennyson’s poetry for fifty years. A product of Tennyson’s reading in the 1840’s and 50’s about Druids, bards, and the legendary wizard of Camelot, this 1856 Merlin embodies Tennyson’s reflections on the aesthetic limitations of bardic art on the personal costs of prophetic vision. Moreover, when Merlin reappears in the idylls of 1869 and 1872, his character and the nature of his artistry have been subtly modified in accordance with Tennyson’s reading and his evolving ideas about the function of art and the relationship between the gifted artist and his often unreceptive society.