Merlin And Vivien Essay, Research Paper
Tennyson s Merlin and Vivien
The Manipulative Evil
Known as one of Victorian England s finest poets, Lord Alfred Tennyson
epitomized the agony and despondency of the degradation of one s character.
His masterpiece, The Idylls of the King, explicates the grand scheme of
corruption of the Authurian age while simultaneously paralleling Tennyson s own
internal struggles. A most intriguing chapter of The Idylls, Merlin and Vivien
portrays the manipulative Vivien, identified as pure evil and hatred, as her
corruptive beauty leads to Merlin s self-destruction.
The Victorian era, from the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 until
her death in 1901, was an era of several unsettling social developments that
forced writers more than ever before to take positions on the immediate issues
animating the rest of society. Thus, although romantic forms of expression in
poetry and prose continued to dominate English literature throughout much of
the century, the attention of many writers was directed, sometimes
passionately, to such issues as the growth of English democracy, the
education of the masses, the progress of industrial enterprise and the
consequent rise of a materialistic philosophy, and the plight of the newly
industrialized worker. In addition, the unsettling of religious belief by new
advances in science, particularly the theory of evolution and the historical
study of the Bible, drew other writers away from the immemorial subjects of
literature into considerations of problems of faith and truth. Tennyson s writing
displays evidence of doubt and concern towards England s government, both
present and past. His distinctive style can be differentiated from many
Victorian poets by diction and syntax alone. Also, Tennyson can be identified
by his free-verse prose (Ricks, 89)
Tennyson s writing encompasses many poetic styles and includes some
of the finest idyllic poetry in the language. Growing up in Lincolnshire,
Somersby, Tennyson faced a troubled childhood plagued by insufficiency and
neglect. The severe physical and moral degradation of his father and brothers
left Tennyson a disgusted disposition with the world. These factors contributed
significantly to Tennyson s desolate attitude which was later displayed in his
works. Later in life, while attending college, Tennyson experienced a great
tragedy- the death of his best and beloved friend, Arthur Hallam. This travesty
produced in Tennyson profound spiritual depression, and he vowed to refrain
from issuing any more of his verse for a period of ten years. During these ten
years, he continued writing though without publishing his works. After his
depression, Tennyson returned to Authurian style and wrote his master piece,
The Idylls of the King, which attacked the corruption of Camelot (Ricks 92).
One of the most intriguing chapter of the Idylls is Merlin and Vivien, a
narrative poem with both allegorical and moral points (Reed 48).
Merlin and Vivien was written to demonstrate how comic expectations
are foiled by ironic actuality (Kincaid 177). Merlin and Vivien is said by many
to be one of the most ill-tasted chapters of The Idylls. Jerome Buckley
comments that Merlin s yielding to the seductive wiles of Vivien is… the
grossest example of the abject surrender of the intellect to the flesh (Hellstrom
117). This is a very representative opinion of Merlin and Vivien. Although
the literal interpretation of the poem suggests it is a narrative concerning the
inevitable doom of Camelot and the degradation of Authur, it centralizes on
Vivien and her manipulative ways. Until now, The Idylls has focused on the
effects of gossip, but Merlin and Vivien, the slanderer herself, now become the
central characters (Hain 148). In Merlin and Vivien, Tennyson describes how
the failure of the mind to make its first step in the progress of salvation, thereby
endangers the salvation of the soul itself (Reed 58).
She [Vivien] is about the most base and repulsive person ever set forth
in serious literature. Vivien causes complete destruction, misery, and agony
wherever she goes. Being the agent of death itself- born from death was I/
Among the dead and sown upon the wind (ll. 44-45), she malevolently
destroys hope and innocent love. Similarly, she is viewed as the cause of
Merlin s destruction (Kincaid 183). Love if love be perfect/ casts out fear./So
hate, if hate be perfect/ casts out fear (ll. 140-41) Thus she is described as the
element of pure hatred and deceit and can be paralleled to Delilah and Eve
(Hellstrom 117). Some critics, however, find it inexcusable of Tennyson to
portray a character with no dignity of any kind (Marshall, 140). Many believe,
though, that the effect of Vivien s character is meant to show the character of
a thoroughly evil woman in contrast to that of a good one (Enid, of the
previous idyll, being true, and Vivien being false) (Marshall 141). In fact, the
idyll was originally titled as Enid and Nimue, translating as The True and the
False (Marshall, 143). Vivien is quite true to herself though- she wishes to be
manipulative and enjoys the heartache of those she hurts. She is portrayed as
crude and malicious towards genial things and in her relationship with Merlin,
fame as opposed to love is the basis of their relationship. To Vivien, love is
pure sexual passion. Yea! Love, though Love were of the grossest carves/ A
portion from the solid present (Culler 232). This is the object of her desires
and she will go to any distance to obtain it. Before now, though, Vivien s men
were mere pawns in her game- they were of no value, just gewgaws to occupy
ones time. However, Merlin has something that Vivien doesn t- his magic
powers. As a great wizard, he is envied and praised throughout Camelot and
Vivien truly believes that, like all other instances, she can use her manipulative
ways to entice and persuade Merlin into confiding in her his secret, and it
works (Kincaid 183). Sadly, however, she succeeds.
A wise man can be seduced by persistent sexual appeal and, to
Merlin s lamentable destruction, Vivien triumphs in her seduction ( Marshall
140). The mind, however, unbuttressed by hope makes an unsteady ally, too
easily inclined to treason. The Merlin s melancholy, written through
Tennyson s own despair, allows Vivien to be falsely recognized as a blessing
of hope and happiness (Reed 58). Merlin s collapse of will is the result of the
struggle between faith, doubt, and the temptation to retire from battle. This
conflict breeds a conflict between pride and humility is what jeopardizes
Merlin s stability. A storm was coming , but the winds were still/ And in the
wild woods of Broceliande/ Before and oak so hollow, huge and old/ It looked a
tower of ivied masonwork/ At Merlin s feet the wily Vivien lay. (ll. 1-5)
Foreshadowing Merlin s fall, Tennyson uses the huge oak, the national symbol
of stability and endurance, now hollow and old, to characterize Merlin s present
state. Tennyson s presentation of Vivien s words and wiles is so elaborately
unsubtle that anyone would see beyond her facade. This reinstates the point
that Merlin is never truly fooled. Rather, he lets himself be taken- stirred this
vice in you which ruined man/ Through woman the finest hour (ll.360-61).
These allusions to the fall of Adam and Eve as well as to Paradise Lost only
highlight the malicious irony. Merlin never chooses love though- he merely
gives in without making any choice. His values, morals, and conflicts of loyalty
are not in question of being broken because they are overthrown (Kincaid
185). Merlin s fall is more accurately deduced as being caused by triviality.
Merlin is taken by Vivien s beauty first and is later entrapped in her seduction .
The theme beauty surmises corruption is applied here where Merlin is
described as art with poisonous honey stole from France (Culler 239). In
such a world, calamities are natural and, for the most part, the Idylls agrees
with Vivien in that all of nature is on her side (Kincaid 183). Moreover, in
Merlin, Tennyson creates the dream of one man coming into practical life and
ruined by one sin (Reed 48).
Merlin and Vivien can also be paralleled to the sirens of Homer s The
Odyssey. Vivien, like the sirens, lures Merlin into certain doom. In the myth,
the sirens were beautiful temptresses that entrapped sailors wills with their
seducing song. Once the sailor heard the song, he would immediately steer
toward the island where he would crash to his death. No sailor was said to
have ever passed by the island without being trapped. This is also true with
Vivien. Every knight that she has ever enticed has fallen to her temptations
and Merlin is no different. Vivien attracted him with her whim and audacity and
her beauty and seductiveness. Merlin s fall, which was by choice, is also
similar to the myth of the sirens. The sailors were certain of doom when
approaching the island yet they pushed onward, wanting to experience the
infamous temptation. Unlike Odysseus, though, Merlin does not survive the
powers of the temptress. Merlin falls to her power and this defeat signals the
end of hope for Camelot.
Few poets have produced acknowledged masterpieces in so many
different poetic genres as Tennyson; he furnished perhaps the most notable
example in English letters of the catholic style. His consummately crafted verse
expresses in readily comprehensible terms the Victorian feeling for order and
harmony. His poem Merlin and Vivien of The Idylls of the King displays
Merlin s self-chosen downfall in exchange for the temptations of Vivien, the
manipulative evil. For Merlin, overtalked and overworn,/ Had yielded, told her
all the charm, and slept. (ll.963-964)
Culler, Dwight. The Poerty of Tennyson. London: Yale UP, 1997. 238-239.
Hain, Donald. Tennyson s Language. Toronto: Toronto UP, 1991. 144-148.
Hellstrom, Ward. On the Poems of Tennyson. Gainsville: University of Florida
Press, 1972. 117-118.
Kincaid, James. The Major Poems of Tennyson: The Comic and Ironic Patterns.
London: Yale UP, 1975. 177-182.
Marshall, George. A Tennyson Handbook. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963.
Reed, John. Perception and Design in Tennyson s Idylls of the King. Athens:
Ohio UP, 1969. 48-58.