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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.

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