Illusion and Relation: Merlin as Image of the Artist in Tennyson, Dore, Burne-Jones, and Beardsley
In 1872, late in the course of publishing Idylls of the King (1859-85), Tennyson announced the aesthetic method of his Idylls in “Gareth and Lynette,” and when Tennyson did so, his mouthpiece was Merlin: “‘Know ye not then the Riddling of the Bards? / “Confusion, and illusion, and relation,/Elusion, and occasion, and evasion’”?” (280-82).1 The lines comment on the Idylls’ linking device of intricate but oblique parallels and the poem’s indirect “parabolic drift” (A.Tennyson 3:258). That Merlin pronounces the lines suggests a “relation” between Merlin and the figure of the poet, as has often been noted (see, for example, Kaplan). But in the figure of Merlin Tennyson also provided an “illusion”; that is, Tennyson provided a verbal and also a striking visual image of the mage. His Merlin is venerable and ancient, with white flowing beard, and is not only bard but also scientist, architect, and artist. Merlin’s alignment with the artist figure and his existence as a visual image provide the impetus for this essay, for I propose to trace the interplay (“relation”) between visual (“illusion”) and verbal approaches to Merlin in the work of Tennyson, Gustave Doré, Edward Burne-Jones, and Aubrey Beardsley.