Mixing Memory and Desire: Three III. The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution is undoubtedly one of the most important time periods in human history. We are arguably in the last stages of it; if not, we are still feeling the effects and the benefits in our advances of science and unfortunate advances in pollution and the exploitation of the working class. For the working class of the nineteenth century, the conditions were horrendous; for instance, here is Engle's description of Manchester in 1844ii:
Now, important to understanding the Grail's re-emergence at this time is the theme of Pastoralism. Originally a revival of the Greco-Roman poetry which pitted the idealized life of shepherds against the corrupting elements of city life, pastoral literature is often a type of social commentary, using the rustic world of forests and fields as a sharp contrast to and sanctuary against the corruption of the court. It first gained popularity in the Renaissance, particularly in England, where Spencer, Sidney, and Shakespeare used its themes in the late sixteenth century. For instance, Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It is not only about lovers escaping into the forest-that would be A Midsummer Night's Dream. Instead, it is more about social hierarchy, primogeniture, and the curious androgyny of Elizabethan theatre in the figure of Rosalind/Ganymede. This androgyny and bisexuality is prominent in pastoral literature, and indeed, one can see certain elements of Perceval the Fool, who Jean Markale, in his book The Grail writes of as being "the shaman who attempts to recreate the primordial times, the Golden Age... the Edenic universe before the fault of Adam... Perceval was while isolated in the woods in an unborn state... having a bisexual aspect" (Markale 6-7). No less then is the Grail a critique of society to the Industrial revolution, a way to expose the corruption seen in the world of robberbarons, a starving working class, and rampant pollution.
Pastoralism survived the cultural barbarism of Cromwell's Puritanism, returning with the Industrial Revolution which began in 1760. Coinciding with this age was the birth of a poet who would have a radical influence on the following generations. William Blake's best-known work, the preface to Milton, also called "Jerusalem," sometimes called England's second national anthem, is an early example of art using myth and religion as a protest against the emerging Industrial Revolution:
And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England's mountains green?
* * *
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
The poem refers to the legend of Jesus visiting Cornwall and Somerset as a child, in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, thought to be a tin merchant.iii The poem attacks the blight of industrialization ("dark Satanic Mills"), in favor of building a New Jerusalem "In England's green and pleasant land." What's interesting to note is that this legend of Christ coming to England is tied to the later legends of the Grail. In both examples, Joseph of Arimathea transports that which is holy-Christ, or Christ-by-synecdoche, i.e. the Holy Grail--to Britain.
Following Blake were the Romantics, who took up his hatred of the Industrial Revolution and sense of individualism. They also used myth in their art: "'In opposition to the Enlightenment view, the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries regarded myths as an expression of the deepest creative potentialities of man. Myths were a constant course of inspiration to dramatists, poets and painters; they expressed profound truths about human existence...' (Rogerson 65)." Though they didn't delve often into the Grail legend-perhaps because of "the weight of tradition... the inclination toward originality ... would have to yield at least a little to the powerful and well-known traditions of the legend," and this wouldn't have sat too well with the highly individualistic Romantics (Lupack 11), still, Wordsworth's "The Egyptian Maid" does deal with Arthurian subjects. The Romantics were committed to the idea of pastoralism, and wrote against the inhumanity of the Industrial Revolutions effects-for instance, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's writings on the plight of children working in the factories, "The Cry of the Children" (Browning 1174). Following and influenced by the Romantics were the Victorians (Stanford xxiii). This was the age when Lady Charlotte Guest produced the first English translation of The Mabinogion, Tennyson wrote his Idylls of the King, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed. The 1849 translation of The Mabinogion, a name given by Guest to the eleven Welsh tales in the Red Book of Hergest, was monumental in the re-emergence of the Grail legend, and it can be traced to the growing nationalism of the Celtic nations during the Industrial Revolution. The Mabinogion collects some of the few remaining examples of Welsh mythology and early Arthurian literature, including a Welsh version of Percevaliv.
One of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution was the rise of the middle class, who could then be educated. This included the education of the Welsh and Irish, who then pursued an active role in the leading and liberation of their countries from the English monarchy. One of the ways that the people pursued this was by celebrating and reinforcing their native culture, which had been outlawed by the British government (such as the speaking of Irish and Welsh). Guest's translation of the Mabinogion into English helped advance this sense of nationalism in the Celtic nations; later, W.B. Yeats would do the same with his "Celtic Twilight" poetry. At the same time--1848--the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed by young artists dissatisfied with the rigid structure of the Royal Academy and its neo-Classism, which they felt was devoid of all the advancements made by the Romantics (Stanford xv-xvi). Their art combined extreme realism in attention to detail with extreme emotionalism, focusing on themes of love, death, and religion with an intensity later fulfilled by the Impressionists. However, unlike the Romantics before them, they did not feel constrained by the sense of history and tradition that comes with the Arthurian legends, particularly that of the Holy Grail. For them, it was fertile ground for creation.
So it is little surprise that they would leap upon the Grail legend. Here was a Britain ruled by her greatest king, attempting Eden--a Golden Age between the fall of Roman and the rise of the Dark Ages. The most prominent Grail-inspired art was created by Edward Burne-Jones and his partner William Morris, a prominent socialist of the day as well as a graphic artist, who often wrote on the need for society to turn away from the bleak industrial capitalism which he saw ruining the country (Stanford xxviii-xxix). The two artists produced an illustrated edition of Le Morte d'Arthur, as well as a famous series of tapestries depicting the quest for the Grail.
At the same time, Alfred Lord Tennyson, poet laureate of England, was working on his Idylls of the King. "'I tried in my "Idylls" to teach men the need of the ideal.' Tennyson meant an idea as well as a legend: man's continuing effort to create a better society" (Eggers 21). The poem deals with the passing of Utopia--'Arthur's obliviousness to the errors and evils in his realm near to him while striving continuously to maintain a perfect Order demonstrates the inability of human beings ...to live up to the standards of a millennial vision. This utopianism, wiser than that of most Victorians, overestimates human goodness" (207). In "The Holy Grail," which is entirely a monologue by Perceval, we find that Galahad and the Grail have disappeared from the world--"For the Victorian readers to regard Galahad as the Victorian champion was to commit the very act of hubris Tennyson was cautioning against. ...Galahad's perfection is gained only at great cost to the Order" (93). "The Idylls nearly denies the notion of progress. Tennyson conceives of modern man as a child with a dangerous instrument... King Arthur learns the lesson that Tennyson hopes his own era will learn without the need for tragedy" (212). Unfortunately, that tragedy would come in the form of World War I.
Mixing Memory and Desire: Four