An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 30, 2015

Seki: The Rhetoric of Retelling Old Romances

Yoshiko Seki. The Rhetoric of Retelling Old Romances: Medievalist Poetry by Alfred Tennyson and William Morris.  Japan: EIHŌSHA, 2015.

Reviewed by Nicole Lobdell (

Yoshiko Seki’s The Rhetoric of Retelling Old Romances: Medievalist Poetry by Alfred Tennyson and William Morris offers readers a focused consideration of the rhetoric that canonical Victorian poets Tennyson and Morris developed in their later medievalist poetry. In her introduction, Seki introduces two concepts, medievalism and Victorianism, that underpin her study, and argues that Victorianists cannot “simply [assume] that the mid-nineteenth century was congenial for the medievalists even if it is also true that medievalism and the Arthurian revival were a genuine cultural phenomenon” (10). To complicate her initial premise further, Seki also points to Victorian complaints that the age was “unpoetical,” implicating the Victorian age’s perceived affinity for prose over poetry. So, why in an age that is both anti-medievalist and unpoetical would two major poets such as Tennyson and Morris turn to medievalist themes and Arthurian legends for inspiration, and how did these poets retell such legends in the nineteenth century? These questions drive Seki’s work, and at the initial outset of her study, they are compelling questions to ask.

The structure of Seki’s monograph retains markers of a dissertation project completed before 2010, namely the choice of authors, division of chapters, and the lack of recent research criticism and secondary sources from the last five years. In the acknowledgements, Seki owns that the project has taken eight years to complete; in reading the study, however, it becomes apparent that most of her critical research ends in approximately 2008, with little to no discussion of research published after 2010. There were surges of scholarly interest in Victorian medievalism in the 1960s-70s and again in the 1990s, and it is from these decades that Seki draws the bulk of her secondary sources. Although the premise of her study is compelling, its lack of engagement with current research is disappointing, and one senses there are missed opportunities to expand the argument in new and interesting directions. Her study would make a useful overview of secondary materials and how medievalism and Victorianism came together at two different periods of the twentieth century, and perhaps her work indicates that we are fast approaching a renewal of such interests.

Four of the chapters were published previously in 2005, 2007, and 2008, respectively, as articles in journals such as the Osaka Literary Review. Three of the Morris chapters are comprised of these articles, and, incidentally, it is these chapters that are the more tightly constructed, more tenacious, and more daring in their assertions. The chapters devoted to Tennyson are less evolved and less exacting; the writing is less demanding and less precise than that of the Morris chapters. Perhaps this stems from the sheer volume of Tennyson materials that Seki endeavors to cover in those devoted chapters.

The Tennyson portion of the study is divided into three compositional moments of the idylls: 1859, 1869, and 1885. The author’s purpose is to examine how the idylls “took on different ‘glancing colours’ in every iteration through successive publication” and in what ways the poet changed his plans for composition as the result of outside influences including reviewers’ and readers’ responses and his nomination as Poet Laureate (46-8). This observation, however, is not new. In 1872, Swinburne sneeringly, and famously, renamed “The Morte d’Arthur” (1833), Tennyson’s poem on the death of Arthur, as “The Morte d’Albert, or Idylls of the Prince Consort,” a comment on Tennyson’s position as Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria. Seki further divides the chapters devoted to Tennyson into three smaller sections: “the cultural climate in which Victorian poets wrote their works … their process of composition, and the reception of their works by contemporary critics and the reading public” (13).

Seki’s plan is ambitious, and her choice of Tennyson’s Idylls is a compelling one. Generally, the Idylls are not the preferred choice of scholars interested in Tennyson’s medievalist poetry; they are frequently passed over for the more popular poems such as “The Lady of Shalott.” Additionally, the complicated composition and publication history of the Idylls contributes to their overall incoherence as a unified set of poems. In 1855-56, for example, Tennyson composed “Enid,” which he published privately in 1857 and then published publicly in 1859 as “Enid.” In 1869, he expanded it and retitled it “Geraint and Enid”; in 1873, he divided it into two poems, which received their final titles as “The Marriage of Geraint” and “Geraint and Enid” in 1888. To help readers maneuver this history, Seki includes a detailed set of date charts in the appendix, which demonstrate Tennyson returning and revising works he composed decades earlier. The chronological, linear argument, which Seki relies upon, is enticing but ultimately a false one that goes against the point she attempts to argue – namely, Tennyson’s construction of a plural present. Not interested in the past or the future of Camelot, Tennyson is concerned solely with iterating it in the present moment. Unlike Malory, Tennyson returns to the Arthurian romances in order to project moments of great social and cultural change in Victorian England. In effect, Tennyson produces a world of Camelots that exist simultaneously together in the present moment – a plural present.

For Seki, these moments of great change included the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and the changing roles of women in society. “In the first four Idylls [1859],” she writes, “[Tennyson] focused on the heroines of the romance so as to deal with the question of women’s roles in society. He handled the conflict between science and religion in the next Holy Grail and Other Poems” (91). Seki contrasts the female characters in Tennyson’s earlier poems with those of the later Idylls: “While the ladies in the early poems are isolated from their society and are found in a melancholic condition, the four heroines in the Idylls are actively involved in the world around them by the use of their own voice” (61). Seki bases some of her reasoning on the fact that in 1850, Tennyson had succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate, and that perhaps this shift in portrayals of women was due to his new role. This interpretation is certainly a possibility, and Seki suggests that Tennyson, compelled by his reviewers, was attempting to respond to the cultural moment regarding women’s rights. She argues that Guenevere’s “self-defensive monologue shows us her mentality, where she struggles to build a medieval world by recounting an allegorical story and by recalling her cherished memories of earlier days” (119). So, even though Guenevere’s dramatic monologue does not follow the traditional rules of Victorian dramatic monologues, it creates an alternate, independent world within the Arthurian legend for Guenevere.

The argument over gender and poetic form is one of the strengths of Seki’s volume. One wishes, however, that Seki had engaged more fully the feminist reading at which she hints. A fuller discussion of Tennyson’s female-centric medievalist poetry alongside other Victorian poets, namely female Victorian poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning who composed at the same cultural moments as Tennyson and Morris and incorporated similar medieval and Arthurian imagery, themes, and characters into her poetry, would be a welcome addition to the study. The choice to focus on Tennyson and Morris, two prolific and canonical Victorian poets, is never justified beyond the facts that they both wrote long narrative poems, had widespread readerships, were interested in the Arthurian romances, attempted grand epics, and had similar dates for composition. One feels that Seki is constantly scratching at the surface, attempting to cover an expansive argument rather than delving into specific depths, a fact reflected in the brevity of the volume.

In the second half of the volume, Seki turns to William Morris’s poetry and aesthetics. She argues that Morris’s early poems on Arthurian motifs, ranging from lyric, narrative, soliloquy, and verse drama, are his etude pieces that reflect the influences of Tennyson and Browning on Morris’s evolution as a poet. To support her claim, she offers a comparative reading of Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad” (1842), Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855), and Morris’s Galahad poems from The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), arguing that Morris blends the secular version of Galahad from Browning’s poem with the “iconographical figure” from Tennyson’s portrayal (125). Her research demonstrates that Morris “created a new Galahad … by blending medieval romance with the medieval drama cycle” (125).

The final two chapters examine Morris’s poetics as laid out in his epic poem The Earthly Paradise, which appeared a decade following The Defence of Guenevere and offered retellings of popular myths and legends. Modern critics including F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot criticized Morris’s romanticism and influenced Morris scholarship for decades, downplaying Morris’s poetry as escapism. Following Jerome McGann’s lead, Seki argues for a reevaluation of Morris’s poetics within the “original context of Victorian poetics” (139). Seki reconstructs that context by considering Morris’s original plans for an illustrated edition of The Earthly Paradise, with the physical housing of the poem mirroring its poetic scaffolding. Although such an edition never came to fruition, Morris’s aesthetics influenced other writers including Walter Pater.

The concluding chapters of The Rhetoric of Retelling Old Romances position William Morris as a lynch pin connecting Tennyson’s medievalist poetry to Pater’s aesthetics. One of Seki’s strengths is her ability to generate promising, new connections through big claims, such as those proposed in the chapters devoted to Morris’s poetry. One of the weaknesses, however, is the lack of specific and thorough follow through that takes the established criticism in new and unexpected directions. At times, the author’s heavy reliance on summaries of earlier criticisms can make her distinct, original contributions to the field difficult to discern. The volume has problems with organization and cohesion of the different critical threads, but these may stem from the fragmented nature of the material (as Seki demonstrates in her discussion of composition and publication histories) compounded by the critical disagreements between scholars over the past century. Readers of this volume will find it a useful distillation of the complex and nuanced critical arguments that surround Tennyson’s and Morris’s medievalist poetry.

Nicole Lobdell

Georgia Institute of Technology