One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.
Last night, embroiled in the Great Throwing-Away, I made surprising discoveries. I found
*The senior will, which I read at the junior-senior banquet (1969)
*The judge’s comments on ten pages of a novel I submitted to the Writers’ League of Texas (2007), not as bad as I remembered
*The essay, with judge’s comments, that I wrote for the state Ready Writing contest (1969), during which I was imprisoned in a classroom with other students from all over Texas for two hours or until I’d written a 1000-word essay, whichever came first. It was torture.
*Several pages–or maybe all–of a story I wrote in the early ’80s for my fellow teachers to read in the teachers’ lounge or (surreptitiously) in meetings. In chapter one, the principal expires while eating poisoned chocolate mousse prepared by home economics students.
*But the big, really big, surprise was the discovery of a paper I wrote in grad school for a Tennyson/Browning class and presented at the Conference of College Teachers of English back in 1984, my first year as a college teacher of English. I’d thought it was gone forever.
The paper is titled, “Sickness and Death in Tennyson’s ‘Lancelot and Elaine,‘” from Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King. I wrote it six months after my father died unexpectedly. If that year had been happy, I might have seen something happier in the poem, but it was a miserable year, so I saw sickness and death.
It was a miserable year for Lancelot, Elaine, and Guinevere, too. Guinevere, Queen of Camelot, is sick and can’t go to the fair jousts King Arthur has arranged. When she tells Arthur she can’t go, Sir Lancelot, his closest friend, says “‘Sir King, mine ancient wound is hardly whole, / And lets me from the saddle.'”
I’ve forgotten how he got his ancient wound, but it’s healed; he could sit in that saddle if he wanted to. When he claims to be ailing, he’s lying through his teeth. He doesn’t want to go to the joust. He wants to stay with Guinevere. Although Tennyson doesn’t come out and say it, he makes it clear that Arthur knows–or at least suspects–it’s not a wound that’s keeping him at home.
Then there’s Elaine, the Lily Maid. Lancelot dreams about her and then meets her, and she immediately falls in love with him. She’s young, lovable, sweet, and pure. After Lancelot is wounded in a joust–he went to the fair joust after all, but in disguise–Elaine cares for him. Her company has a healthful effect on him. But his spirit is also sick–carrying on with your dearest friend’s wife and fibbing about it and then becoming semi-involved with another woman will do that to you–and Elaine can’t restore his spirit. And, unfortunately, although he’s attentive, he’s not in love with her.
Elaine isn’t in good health either. She lives in sterile, self-imposed isolation, refusing to express emotion. She wants Lancelot, but he can’t live in her fantasy world, and when she realizes he doesn’t love her, the mirror cracks from side to side and the curse comes upon her. Infected by reality, she decides to die.
(The mirror and the curse are in “The Lady of Shalott,” not the Idylls, but Tennyson wrote both, and he wouldn’t mind my combining them).
Well. If this weren’t enough, Guinevere is behaving badly. She starts out by rebuking Lancelot for lying to Arthur. When she sees he’s become fond of Elaine, jealousy overtakes her–spiritual sickness runs rampant in this Idyll–and carps at Lancelot unmercifully. She doesn’t have one good word for the man. Granted, she’s been sick, but I don’t think that excuses the carping.
When Lancelot brings her a gift of diamonds he’s won in a series of jousts, a gesture most women would appreciate, she throw a hissy fit and tells him to give them to Elaine, then changes her mind and says, “She shall not have them,” and throws them out the window into the river. Then, while Lancelot is leaning on the window sill, watching his diamonds hit the water, here comes a lifeless Elaine, floating down the river on a barge.
Not a good day. A triangle with two sides sick and the other dead.
And it doesn’t stop there. The last line of the poem predicts that Lancelot will “die a holy man.”
“Lancelot and Elaine” tells a sad story. It could be a downer, especially for someone not in the best state of mind. Looking back, I can see that focusing on sickness and death for several weeks while I studied the text and wrote the paper was depressing.
But now when I think of the the Idyll, I remember not sickness and death but a beautiful image. Ironically, it grows out of Guinevere’s rage, when she exclaims that Elaine shall not have the diamonds.
Saying which she seized,
And, through the casement standing wide for heat,
Flung them, and down they flashed, and smote the stream.
Then from the smitten surface flashed, as it were,
Diamonds to meet them, and they past away.
When the diamonds, flashing in the sun, hit the surface of the stream, water splashes up, droplets flashing in the sun like diamonds.
More than thirty years after first reading the Idylls, I retain that image: diamonds meeting diamonds.
Those are some of the loveliest lines I’ve ever read.
Coming across the paper on “Lancelot and Elaine,” was true serendipity. A delightful surprise, because it reminds of me of a time when I was smart. When I was a scholar. When I engaged in literary criticism. When I could write formal prose. When I would never have inserted an incomplete sentence into a formal composition. Or in an informal composition. When I had a personal lexicon of more than a dozen words. When I could spell.
And when I would have floated down the river on a barge before I’d let anyone read what I’ve written in this irreverent little post.