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I am re-reading Tennyson's Idylls of the King after many years. His idyll "Merlin and Vivien" is a rather in-depth look at how Vivien learns Merlin's magic through some impressive feats of flattery.

Toward the end, we read thus (my emphasis):

"O Merlin, though you do not love me, save,
Yet save me!" clung to him and hugged him close;
[...] she called him lord and liege,
Her seer, her bard, her silver star of eve,
Her God, her Merlin, the one passionate love
Of her whole life; and ever overhead
Bellowed the tempest, and the rotten branch
Snapt in the rushing of the river-rain
Above them; and in change of glare and gloom
Her eyes and neck glittering went and came;
Till now the storm, its burst of passion spent,
Moaning and calling out of other lands,
Had left the ravaged woodland yet once more
To peace; and what should not have been had been,
For Merlin, overtalked and overworn,
Had yielded, told her all the charm, and slept.

This passage feels like there is much more happening than a simple social engineering attempt in a rainstorm. Rather, the imagery seems consistent with Vivien bringing Merlin to sexual climax - the imagery of rushing, coming, and sleeping afterwards.

Is this a reasonable interpretation of the passage, or am I missing something?

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  • I don't believe Merlin and Viviene have sex. He 'yields', yes, but not in that way. Mar 16 at 22:21

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Your interpretation is a common way to understand this passage. Mid-Victorian literary conventions required some delicacy in alluding to sexual activity, so this kind of suggestive imagery is all we would normally expect to find. Here are a couple of other readers taking it this way:

Tennyson makes it clear that they indulged their passions during this “storm”

Kristina Pérez (2014). The Myth of Morgan La Fey, p. 165. Palgrave Macmillan.

The storm here is obviously a metaphor for sex, “its burst of passion” is “spent,” it is “moaning and calling out” and the forest is “ravaged” by the storm’s passions.

Sarah Curtis (2015). Revealing Influence: Exploring British Identity, Sexual Power, and Lyric Ambiguity in Spenser, Keats, And Tennyson, p. 67. Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The literary device is “pathetic fallacy”, that is, the displacement of the characters’ emotions to the weather.

In using a storm in “Merlin and Vivien”, Tennyson may have been thinking of the episode in book IV of the Aeneid, in which the goddess Juno summons a storm to force Dido and Aeneas to take refuge in a cave, and Virgil writes, “the flash of lightnings on the conscious air were torches to the bridal; from the hills the wailing wood-nymphs sobbed a wedding song.”

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    Thanks! It's really helpful to know that my literature analysis skills have gotten better. When I first read this as a teen, I envisioned Vivien just standing there soaked while begging to be taught magic. Mar 19 at 10:15

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