Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


The Plot (continued)

1.2 - Tennyson's Princess

Steve Sullivan: I found that reading Tennyson's poem helped me better understand Princess Ida.

Henry A. Stephens: Out of curiosity, I surfed into a Toronto-based web page of Lord Tennyson poems and read a few from the collection Princess: A Medley.

They were touching, yes, but didn't have anything to do with Ida or Hilarion or Gama, etc.

Sam L. Clapp: You probably only saw the songs, like "Tears, Idle Tears," which is the most famous and is often anthologized. The rest of the blank verse tells the story.

Bill McCann: I guess that they didn't have the whole thing up there because:

And in the imperial palace found the king.
His name was Gama; crack'd and small his voice
but bland the smile that like a wrinkling wind
On glassy water drove his cheek in lines;


At break of day the college Portress came:
She brought us Academic silks, in hue
The lilac, with a silken hood to each,
And zoned with gold; and now when these were on,
And we as rich as moths from dusk cocoons,
She curtseying her obeisance, let us know
The Princess Ida waited:

. . . etc. etc.

Harriet Meyer: Tennyson's The Princess opens with the narrator's contemporary (1847) account of a gathering at the estate of Sir Walter Vivian. The host shows his guests his forefathers' arms and armor:

'And that was old Sir Ralph's at Ascalon,
A good knight he! we keep a chronicle
With all about him,' - which he brought, and I
Dived in a hoard of tales that dealt with knights
Half-legend, half-historic . . .
And mixt with these a lady, one that arm'd
Her own fair head, and sallying thro' the gate
Had beat her foes with slaughter from her walls.

'O miracle of women," said the book,
'O noble heart who, being strait-besieged
By this wild king to force her to his wish,
Nor bent, nor broke, nor shunn'd a soldier's death,
But now when all was lost or seem'd as lost- . . .
Brake with a blast of trumpets from the gate,
And, falling on them like a thunderbolt,
She trampled some beneath her horses' heels, . . .
O miracle of noble womanhood!'

At the request of Lilia, fiancee of Sir Walter's son Walter, the post-guest then spins the yarn about Ida.

So, if the gathering at Sir Walter's was actual, or based on something actual [anyone know?] , then Ida was based on an actual legend (actual legend not as oxymoronic as it sounds).

Point? A medieval warrior princess may have been a miracle, or an inevitability. Ie, it may have been inevitable that even in oppressive times, a woman of supreme intelligence, strength, bravery, and drive should have emerged to lead - for internal and external reasons - and triumph in battle.

Marc Shepherd: Two other points, besides those already mentioned:

1) In the Tennyson poem, Hilarion is the story-teller, and you never learn his name. The word "Hilarion" is Gilbert's invention.

2) It is a very long poem, and you have to read a while before it gets into the part of the story we know from the opera.

Henry A. Stephens: I would've thought that, by now, all the great works of literature would be posted on the web by some college or other.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As a result of the above exchange, Tennyson's complete The Princess is now on-line.

Bill McCann Explains: Steve Sullivan thought that it would be a good idea to put The Princess on-line but could not find an out-of-copyright version. I have two in my collection dating from 1881 and 1903. I photocopied these and sent them to Steve. We decided to use the 1881 copy as our basic standard as it was printed in Tennyson's lifetime and would have had his approval. The 1903 version has some evidence of editorial tinkerings. Steve scanned the standard and we set about a line-by-line proof-reading and comparing with the 1903 version. Harriet Meyer offered to help in the proofing and produced another version which belonged to her mother and which had substantial notes on the text etc.. We also used this version to help arrive at our final on-line Princess.

Gilbert's play The Princess may be found here.

Updated 10 7 May 1998