Tennyson and Kate Bush

The second part of Kate Bush’s ‘The Hounds of Love’ album takes its title from the first poem of Tennyson’s ‘The Idylls of the King’,

‘Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame’ – ‘The Coming of Arthur’

The second part of Kate Bush’s ‘The Hounds of Love’ album takes its title from the first poem of Tennyson’s ‘The Idylls of the King’, ‘the ninth wave’.

Kate Bush uses ‘the ninth wave’, inspired by ‘The Coming of Arthur’, as well Aivazovsky's iconic 1850 painting ‘The ninth wave’ which shows a group of people shipwrecked at sea, as a metaphor for the final wave before drowning, a moment which becomes the anchor of the album and provides its framing narrative. Bush’s referencing to ‘the ninth wave’ doesn’t stop there, during her most recent tour ‘Before the Dawn’ she dropped confetti inscribed with this quotation from ‘The Coming of Arthur’ in Tennyson’s handwriting. Bush’s use of ‘The Coming of Arthur’ has gone on to influence pop generally, such as in ‘Waves’ by the Dutch singer Mr Probz, as ‘wave after wave’ became an iconic phrase. 

‘Drifting away
Wave after wave, wave after wave
I'm slowly drifting (drifting away)
And it feels like I'm drowning
Pulling against the stream
Pulling against the wave’ – ‘Waves’

However, what if it’s possible to read ‘The Idylls of the King’ as having more than a passing influence on Bush’s album? The promotional photography for both the tour, ‘Before the Dawn’, and the original album ‘Hounds of Love’, both feature Bush floating amongst flowers wearing a life jacket, in what fans have noted, is a pose that self-consciously echoes that of Shakespeare’s ‘Ophelia’, but perhaps it also echoes that of Tennyson’s ‘Elaine’ in ‘Lancelot and Elaine’ from ‘The Idylls of the King’.

‘And Lancelot answered nothing, but he went,
And at the inrunning of a little brook
Sat by the river in a cove, and watched
The high reed wave, and lifted up his eyes
And saw the barge that brought her moving down,
Far-off, a blot upon the stream, and said
Low in himself, "Ah simple heart and sweet,
Ye loved me, damsel, surely with a love
Far tenderer than my Queen's. Pray for thy soul?
Ay, that will I. Farewell too--now at last--
Farewell, fair lily.’ – ‘Lancelot and Elaine’

If Bush’s songs do reference the fates of Elaine and Ophelia, both popular figures during the Tennysonian or Pre-Raphelite period, then it also sees the water that envelopes them as a feminine space, containing possibilities for power (a power on display in the song ‘Waking the Witch’, for example), and rebirth, as in ‘Morning Fog’. In ‘The Idylls of the King’ water is also a realm that is guarded by and controlled by the feminine.

And there was no gate like it under heaven.
For barefoot on the keystone, which was lined
And rippled like an ever-fleeting wave,
The Lady of the Lake stood: all her dress
Wept from her sides as water flowing away’ – ‘Gareth and Lynette’

Bush’s command in the title track ‘Hounds of Love’ to ‘Take your shoes off and throw them in a lake!’ therefore becomes a command that links the first part of the album to the second part, a command that demands the acceptance of the power of the feminine, which both the listener and the subject must give themselves up to in the album’s second part. Throwing the accoutrements of life into a ‘lake’ is, of course, an act taken directly from the death of King Arthur, where he asks Sir Bevidere to throw his sword ‘Excalibur’ into the lake, an indication that he is letting go of his own grip on life.

‘Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,
And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged
Among the bulrush beds, and clutched the sword,
And strongly wheeled and threw it. The great brand
Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
By night, with noises of the Northern Sea.
So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur:
But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
And lightly went the other to the King.’ – ‘The Passing of Arthur’ 

That the final and twelfth track of the album, ‘Morning Fog’ references the last and twelfth poem of the ‘The Idylls of the King’, ‘The Passing of Arthur’, will therefore come as no surprise. The song’s lyrics read:

‘The light
Begin to bleed
Begin to breathe
Begin to speak
D'you know what?
I love you better now

I am falling
Like a stone
Like a storm
Being born again
Into the sweet morning fog’ – ‘Morning Fog’

The Death of Arthur is described by Tennyson: 

‘Last, as by some one deathbed after wail
Of suffering, silence follows, or through death
Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore,
Save for some whisper of the seething seas,
A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day
Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came
A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle: but no man was moving there;
Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave
Brake in among dead faces, to and fro
Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down
Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,
And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome,
And rolling far along the gloomy shores
The voice of days of old and days to be. 

   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere,
And whiter than the mist that all day long
Had held the field of battle was the King’ – ‘The Passing of Arthur

The morning fog and the last ‘wan wave’ are described as arriving whilst Arthur dies, and at the end of the poem, he, like Elaine, is pushed out on a boat into the middle of the lake, and the ‘new year’ is born.

‘he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year.’ – ‘The Passing of Arthur’

Also see:
Skyfall: Tennyson and James Bond
Crossing The Bar
To Strive to Seek and Not to Yield
Tennyson Poems

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