Sir Galahad (poem)
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Sir Galahad is a poem written by Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson and published in his 1842 collection of poetry. It is one of his many poems that deal with the legend of King Arthur, and the poem describes Galahad experiencing a vision of the Holy Grail. The subject of the poem was later included in "The Holy Grail" section of Tennyson's Idylls of the King, but the latter version depicts Galahad as a pious individual that is grimly determined to fulfill his destiny. Contrarily, Sir Galahad depicts Galahad as prideful and has almost cheerful undertones.
In 1833, Tennyson's close friend Arthur Hallam died. The death greatly affected both Tennyson and his sister Emily greatly and he kept away from society as he slowly dealt with the pain. By mid-summer 1834, they slowly began to participate together in social events once again. At one occasion, Tennyson, his sister, and his other sister Mary were invited to visit friends at Dorking and then travel onwards to see Hallam family. However, Tennyson set out on his own and spent time alone at Leith Hill, Dorking. It was during this time that he working on a version of Sir Galahad along with an early version of The Blackbird and a version of "The Sleeping Beauty".
The poem was completed in September 1834. It was published in the second volume of Tennyson's 1842 collection of poems, along with other poems discussing the Arthurian legend. These included "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" and "Morte d'Arthur". The Galahad story was picked up again by Tennyson in the section "The Holy Grail" of Idylls of the King. The later work was first published in 1869.
The poem begins with a description of Galahad that, in terms of rhythm and rhyme, are almost cheerful even though the language is not:
- My good blade carves the casques of men,
- My tough lance thrusteth sure,
- My strength is as the strength of ten
- Because my heart is pure. (lines 1–4)
As the poem continues, Galahad is able to experience a vision that is preceded by a sound:
- When down the stormy crescent goes,
- A light before me swims,
- Between dark stems the forest glows,
- I hear a noise of hymns:
- Then by some secret shrine I ride;
- I hear a voice but none are there; (lines 25–30)
This vision includes three angels with the Holy Grail:
- Three angels bear the holy Grail:
- With folded feet, in stoles of white,
- On sleeping wings they sail.
- Ah, blessed vision! blood of God!
- My spirit beats her mortal bars,
- As down dark tides the glory slides,
- And star-like mingles with the stars. (lines 42–48)
Galahad continues by comparing the vision to light clothed in drapery:
- A maiden knight-to me is given
- Such hope, I know not fear;
- I yearn to breathe the airs of heaven
- That often meet me here.
- I muse on joy that will not cease,
- Pure spaces clothed in living beams,
- Pure lilies of eternal peace,
- Whose odours haunt my dreams; (lines 61–68)
Within Tennyson's In Memoriam, Tennyson reveals that the supernatural has to be partly known and partly unknown. In order to incorporate this idea into his poetry, Tennyson relies on a series of different characters that serve as filters to visions of truth. These characters appear in many of Tennyson's poems with the figure of Galahad serving as one who is most capable of understanding the visions. In Galahad's case, his vision is of the Holy Grail, which contains similar images to Tennyson's "The Holy Grail" in Idylls of the King. In "The Holy Grail", Galahad is among Bors and Lancelot in receiving visions. Of the three, Galahad is the one that best understands his abilities and his sins, and his strength allows him to complete his quest.
In terms of differences between "Sir Galahad" and "The Holy Grail", "Sir Galahad" depicts Galahad as prideful in regards to his abilities and to his purity whereas "The Holy Grail" emphasizes that Galahad is both pious and grimly determined. Furthermore, "Sir Galahad" contains an almost cheerful rhythm whereas "The Holy Grail" is melancholic. "The Holy Grail" incorporates the context of King Arthur begging for his knights not to quest because Arthur knows that most of the knights will not return. As such, the quest marks the end of the Round Table. In the end, only Galahad is capable of completing the Grail Quest while many of the knights are killed.
As with "The Lady of Shalott", "Morte d'Arthur", and other poems, Tennyson incorporates technical aspects of "Sir Galahad" into Idylls of the King. The aspects that are drawn from "Sir Galahad" are the same as those taken from "Morte d'Arthur": the use of ritual. This addition allows Tennyson to create a long poem that relies on a variety of styles while containing artistic value. However, Idylls of the King varies in terms of meter and tone from "Sir Galahad", as the former is blank verse and the latter is a mixture of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
- Thorn 1975 pp. 122–134
- Shaw 1976 p. 202
- Martin 1979 p. 263
- Epperly 1992 p. 105
- Epperly 1992 p. 106
- Shaw 1976 p. 203
- Shaw 1976 pp. 202–204
- Epperly 1992 pp. 105–106
- Shaw 1976 pp. 222, 274
- Epperly, Elizabeth. The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
- Martin, Robert. Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.
- Shaw, W. David. Tennyson's Style. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976.
- Thorn, Michael. Tennyson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.