Politicians love the idea of being the ‘Last Man Standing’, the great survivor from the maelstrom of chaos and chance. However, in many cases, it’s actually a ‘Last Woman Standing’ as we men are more than adept at weeding ourselves out through drinking, smoking, and perishing through madcap misadventure.
But how does it feel to be truly the last, the one who remembers what nobody else has ever seen? This is the tragedy of Sir Bedivere in Tennyson’s poem Morte d’Arthur.
Camelot is fallen, the Round Table deserted, its knights slain in battle against the treacherous Mordred. Only the King remains, mortally wounded, along with Bedivere, his last surviving knight,
As his energy fades, the King orders Bedivere to throw his sword Excalibur into the waters, to return it to the Lady of the Lake. A final command from his liege is one that must not be disobeyed, and yet Bedivere cannot bring himself to do the deed:
The King is sick, and knows not what he does.
What record, or what relic of my lord
Should be to aftertime, but empty breath
And rumours of a doubt? but were this kept,
Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,
Some one might show it at a joust of arms,
Saying “King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur,
Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake.
Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps
Upon the hidden bases of the hills.
The poem is heartwrenching, as Bedivere resists the urge to destroy the last remnant of those glorious times, even as the King still draws breath, dying before his eyes. Three times he goes to cast the sword into the depths, and though each time he tells Arthur that he has followed his lord’s bidding, the King knows that he lies.
Poor Bedivere’s travail is both epic and familiar. We all face moments when an old world is passing. Suddenly, all the objects and memories, books and photos of the past take on a new purpose and a heavy weight of responsibility. Suddenly, we can’t throw anything anyway, as every object takes on some new importance, represents some memory of past times.
As the last of Camelot, Bedivere has nobody to guide or advise him. In this end of days, even the prophecies of Merlin can be doubted by the King.
Tho’ Merlin sware that I should come again
To rule once more—but let what will be, be,
I am so deeply smitten thro’ the helm
That without help I cannot last till morn.
Morte d’Arthur belongs to a cycle of poems written by Tennyson over more than twenty years, usually published together as the Idylls of the King.
One of the great poets of the Victorian era, Tennyson (1809-1892) was born in Lincolnshire, though he lived much of his life on the Isle of Wight. There he was a familiar figure, stalking the chalk cliffs in his wide-brimmed hat with his cloak and superb beard blowing in the wind. Those cliffs are now known as the Tennyson Down in his honour.
The poet lived in a fine house called Farringford nearby, where a neighbour was the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (check out her fantastic photo of the grand old man online). One other nice detail is that he had a desk draw in his office, full of little packets of different tobaccos from around the world, which he could use to fill his pipe while seeking inspiration.
Today, many of Tennyson’s poems are, frankly, unreadable, but others are true masterpieces. His fantasy work is particularly fine, and well worth revisiting, including The Kraken, written in 1830:
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth; faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millenial growth and height …
I can’t be alone in thinking that H.P.Lovercraft pinched that wholesale in creating dread Cthulhu.