Mighty through thy meats and drinks am I: the gendered politics of feast and fast in Tennyson's Idylls of the King

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Abstract

In the penultimate book of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a novice at the convent to which Guinevere has flown following the discovery of her adultery recalls the festivities that accompanied the founding of Arthur’s court:

And in the hall itself was such a feast
As never man had dreamed; for every knight
Had whatsoever meat he longed for served
By hands unseen; and …
Down in the cellars merry bloated things
Shouldered the spigot, straddling on the butts
While the wine ran: so glad were spirits and men.1

This evocation of fantastic plenitude is countered, four hundred lines later, by Guinevere’s pledge to confine herself within Almesbury convent’s “narrowing nunnery-walls” and “fast with [the] fasts” of its inhabitants in penance for her sins (ll. 665, 672). Whereas Arthur’s knights celebrated the founding of the Round Table with copious food and drink and unbridled displays of appetite, Guinevere, following the dissolution of this brotherhood, severely restricts her diet in order to signal Christian submission and the renunciation of her secular, bodily desires. Such contrasting patterns of consumption emerge repeatedly in Idylls and indicate one of the contemporary ideological concerns running through Tennyson’s Arthurian epic: in its representations of male feasting and female food refusal, the poem appears to reproduce the gendered ordering of appetite implicit in Victorian culture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)225-249
Number of pages25
JournalVictorian Poetry
Volume52
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2014

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