9

From Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur by Alfred Tennyson:

To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere:
'It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus,
Aidless, alone, and smitten through the helm—
A little thing may harm a wounded man;
Yet I thy hest will all perform at full,
Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word.'

What does "it is not meet" mean in the context of leaving someone ill?

2 Answers 2

19

"It is not meet" basically means "it is not appropriate" or even "it is not right" (probably a better interpretation in this context). He's saying, more or less, that they shouldn't just leave Arthur in the state he's in, but someone should stay with him.

Meet, as defined in Lexico:

[archaic]
Suitable; fit; proper.

It doesn't pop up as a definition if you just search for "meet meaning", mind! You have to be sure to search for "meet meaning adjective", or some combination thereof.

0
0

I don't find @TMary's answer insufficient but there is more that won't fit into a comment.

Anglo Saxon Etymology

If you look up the word "meet" in a sufficiently old dictionary, the etymology reveals the Anglo Saxon words "gemeet" ("fit") and "metan" ("measure").

You then need to refer to an alternative (possibly older) spelling: "mete", and can find other sources; "messan" (German), "mitan" (Gothic), "metior" (Latin) and "ma" (Sanskrit). All of these mean "to measure".

Historical Objective Meaning

What's striking about this is no matter how far back you go, all the way to before the Ark, the meaning doesn't get more complex than objective, scientific measurement. At no time was there any additional esoteric or metaphysical meaning attached. The word is about objectively measuring reactions against situations. Your response measures up 12 inches to the foot or it doesn't.

Those that use this word don't appeal to any justification or reasoning to why there is a fit or lack of fit, because (to them) it's not negotiable: you can measure it. "I measured it, and it didn't fit" is what the character is saying.

They state the facts coldly, without emotion. These are not feelings.

Ancient Objectivity Compared to Modern Subjectivity

They don't say "well, you measure it and see if it comes up differently", or "I don't know what you think but I don't feel like this is correct". They are saying "it's not right" but that rightness is itself an objective measurement.

This reveals the way morality, values and judgement evidently operated in past times, as taken from these literary sources, at least in the Germanic world. You didn't get to decide for yourself what was right and what was wrong; everyone knew because everyone could measure.

Independence From Emotion Or Morality

But I think another distinction becomes evident here: there is no implicit sanction or emotion associated with these measurements.

It's almost as if there is no obligation to do "right", at least not as we commonly caricature modern "christian" morality as carrying, and not this kind of "right". Because this is not exactly about right and wrong, it's simply a good or a bad fit.

I don't think there's an obligation to do what is fitting. It's not a crime if you don't. You won't be hung for walking away. Others may form an opinion, of course. "He is one that does not do what is fitting". You may get a reputation as a churl (rude, surly, ill-bred). But you are not accused of committing a "sin", you won't get punished, but you may be throwing away any chance of support from the community in future.

2
  • 1
    This answer would be improved if you could relate your analysis to the passage from Tennyson—to what extent does the meaning in Tennyson draw on this etymological background? Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 11:15
  • I'm not sure what you mean, @GarethRees. I take it that anyone reading the answer has already read the question. Short of repeating or explaining the actual quote, references to it are scattered throughout the duration of my answer, including such as "walking away". I don't really want to start explaining my perceived morality of the protagonists dilemma, especially when I'm attempting to reveal what the bares bones of the words don't replicate from our modern assumptions. Since Tennyson lived the 17th century I'm not sure to him any of those meanings were even etymological.
    – NeilG
    Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 7:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.